Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Prison Poems

Prison Poems
Yuli Markovich Daniel
Mordovian labor camp

PLOT SUMMARY: The poems within this collection were written during the period after Daniel’s arrest and shortly before his deportation to a labor camp. Throughout, Daniel writes in the first-person point of view. The poems are straightforward and contain themes of guilt, god, love, and hope. Fluctuating between hopeful, bargaining, and cynical, these poems show daily changes in a prisoner’s mood and outlook towards captivity.

     Over the course of this period, the poems describe a range of situations within the camp. Certain poems refer to particular events, including “My Fortieth Birthday,” “A March for the New Year: A Declaration,” “The Indictment,” and “The Sentence.” For these poems, Daniel focuses inward to reflect on his life and his relation to the events that are taking place. Early in the collection, Daniel indicates that he is only now inspired to write about love since his arrest. Numerous poems in the collection are written about love and memories of his friends, and once about love for his country. Poems such as “February,” “In the Ring,” and “About These Poems,” are defiant and hopeful in tone, and refer to hope for the future spirit to fight the carceral system, and the use of poetry as resistance.

ANALYSIS: In terms of the genre of Russian prison literature, Prison Poems is more hopeful in its tone than other pieces, but shares similar perspectives on captivity. Daniel grapples with guilt for various mistakes in life unrelated to the crime he was arrested for. This disconnect between how the state understands the sentence and how the prisoner understands it is a prevalent theme in prison literature. Rather than feeling ashamed for his crime of publishing satirical literature, Daniel feels ashamed for “failing to spare another’s heart” as those near to him were hurt by his choices. Daniel understands there to be multiple layers of power over him, including God, country, and the court system. The distinction between country and court system is common in Russian prison literature, and Daniel takes a more positive attitude towards Russia, while viewing the court system as disconnected from the country as a whole. 

     The hopefulness of many of the poems in the collection are indicated to be grown out of the narrator’s boredom and discontent within the prison. Early poems indicate longing for the outside world, as “A House” romanticizes a list of everyday objects within a house, in comparison to the dreary imagery of the prison. This evokes Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House as it describes prison as being a warped sort of house. Gradually, the poems shift away from referencing boredom and turn to addressing God and religious concepts as they relate to incarceration. The themes of love, hope, and resilience, continually appear, marking a clear distinction between Prison Poems and other examples of Russian prison literature.


“Be on the look-out, cheerful and ferocious,
And you’ll manage to stand up, yes, stand up
Under your many-layered load of misery,
Under the burden of your being right.”
— “The New Year March: A Declaration (51)

“Judges in consultation will condemn me
Not for speaking out too loud,
But for tearing bandages for my sorrows
Out of other people’s lives.”
— “Raindrops, raindrops touched my cheeks…” (59)

“Your water will be brine
Your bread will be bitter and you will have no dreams
As long as you see these faces about you,
As long as prisoners in black suffer in wretchedness.”
— “The Sentence” (73)

BIOGRAPHY: Yuli Markovich Daniel (November 15, 1925-December 30, 1988) was Soviet dissident, writer, poet, translator, political prisoner, and gulag survivor. Born in Moscow, his father was a Yiddish playwright. Both of his parents had been active during the Civil War and had grown disturbed by the state of the revolution in the 1930s. In 1942, Daniel lied about his age so that he could serve in the military during World War II. He was heavily wounded in his legs and left disabled in 1944. After his military service, he received an education at Moscow Pedagogical Institute and began teaching literature in Kaluga. He wrote lyrical verse and worked prolifically as a poetry translator. Daniel was a political dissident, who was deeply affected by state censorship of his father’s writings. Together with his friend Andrei Sinyavsky, Daniel wrote satirical novels and published them abroad, under pseudonyms, as they could not be published in the Soviet Union. They were convicted for their works during the infamous Sinyavsky-Daniel trial in 1966. This trial signaled the end of the Khrushchev Thaw, but also the start of the modern Soviet dissident movement. 

     In Prison Poems, Daniel reflects on his experiences within the prison system, including themes of love, hope, God, guilt, and depression. The self-referential poems grow from his feelings of dissatisfaction and boredom, and are brightened by his daydreaming of life outside the prison. Daniel was sentenced to five years of hard labor for anti-Soviet activity. During his incarceration, he rejected privileges and did the same manual labor as the rest of the prisoners, and went on multiple prolonged hunger strikes. After his release, he returned to Kaluga and continued writing poetry until his death.



Daniel, Yuli. Prison Poems. J. Philip O’Hara, Inc. 1971.


"Yuli Daniel." New World Encyclopedia, 25 Jul 2013. Accessed 8 Apr 2019.



Alekseeva, Lyudmila, and Paul Goldberg. The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.
This book discusses the historical literary context of Daniel’s Prison Poems and other works. Its analysis of censorship is important to understanding the atmosphere that writers faced.

Labedz, Leopold and Max Hayward. On Trial. Collins and Harvill Press, 1967.
This collection contains transcripts from the Sinyavsky-Daniel Trial and relevant documents. 

Rapoport, Natalie. "Notes on Julia Daniele." Whether it was True, or Non-Fiction. Almanac of Jewish Antiquity, vol. 25, no. 1, 2005, pp. 12.
This article analyzes Daniel’s life and includes his perspective on his imprisonment and other personal accounts.

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