The X in the Russian name of absurdist writer Dаниил Хармс is a bit more ambiguous than the transliterated Kh suggests. Kharms studied English and German at his prestigious high school, and it is believed that he adopted his pen-name not only for its similarity to “harms” and “charms,” but also because it sounded like the name of a certain famous English detective.
Indeed, Kharms always dressed like Sherlock Holmes—pipe, top hat, and silly pants—at a time in Soviet history when standing out was a risky move. Kharms also stood out for his writings, ranging from absurdist dramas and poems to children’s stories that strayed from approved socialist values and storylines.
For his unwillingness to conform, Kharms was first arrested in 1931 and briefly exiled. But Kharms continued his absurdist writing, falling afoul of those in the Stalinist system charged with maintaining uniformity and order.
The strange writer, living in poverty, was arrested again in 1941 (shortly after the German invasion of the USSR) on charges of being a German spy, and imprisoned in Leningrad.
What is known with certainty is that Kharms died soon after, in 1942. What is unknown is how. Some say he was executed. Other that he starved during the siege of Leningrad, or died when prisoners were packed into train cars without food or water and sent west ahead of the invading Nazis. Still others say he was tortured until he died.
We’re reading a few of Kharms’ stories in our literature class. The stories are unthreatening—Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein have written works far stranger. But neither of them lived in a society where being different could be a death sentence.
Since reading Kharms’ work and seeing the memorial plaque, I’ve visisted two sites that deal explicitly with Soviet history: Sergei Kirov’s apartment and the Museum of the Political History of Russia. And although the museums were interesting, I’m left feeling that in some way, Daniil Kharms’ memorial plaque is just as revealing as glass display cases filled with historical documents and faded images.