I was born somewhere between the Berlin Wall coming down and the Soviet Union completely disintegrating so I have no memory of the Cold War divide that dominated the world for nearly half of the twentieth century, but even I realise that the publication of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1962 in both the Soviet Union itself and Western countries was pretty significant to say the least. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience of the gulag system, this short novella tells the story of a Soviet prisoner or zek, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who is in his eighth year of a ten year sentence for espionage for the Germans (a false accusation). This shattering depiction of life in the Stalinist-era labour camps won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 – and got Solzhenitsyn permanently expelled from the Soviet Union a few years later.
The story follows Shukhov and his team (the 104th) as they set to work on their main task of the day of building a power station. Unsurprisingly, the book itself is sparsely written. Given that ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is set in an desolate Soviet labour camp in the 1950s where temperatures can reach below -40, how could it be anything but sparse? Solzhenitsyn’s writing is equally effective in conveying both the everyday survival of prisoners as well as the cruel barbarity of the labour camps. The supposed promise that Shukhov will be released in less than two years alongside the constant threat of having his sentence extended for making any sort of mistake must be an agonising uncertainty to live with. Even though we only witness one particular day of events, I still thought that the monotony of life on a labour camp as well as the fear amongst the prisoners were very convincingly written. It is a very short work but I didn’t feel it needed to be any longer.
At the end of the book, we are told that this particular day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov was a relatively good one for him as he celebrates the little victories in life like not being ill and getting extra porridge. Chillingly, the reader is left to wonder what a bad day for Shukhov would constitute.