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.
4 responses to “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn”
Fantastic book, I think if I had to put up with such a monotonous time for x amount of years I’d go crazy.
I read it long ago, in the thick of the Cold War, for a high school class, and parts of it still linger in my head. Laying bricks in the bitter cold, with little to keep the hands warm, for instance. Your review makes me want to go back and reread it. Thanks!
Don’t stop at A Day in the Life … there’s the Gulag Archipelago and dozens of other really effective novels that present the Siberian experience.
Having been born before the formal division of Germany and having experienced the creation of the Berlin wall, I have a tad more personal experience with the totalitarian rule that came out of World War II under the Russian and later Chinese influence. But we should all remember that the United States has spun a fictitious narrative that made the Communists into a modern-day monster hiding under the bed.
It continues today with less of a focus on Communism and more attention to modern-day evil-doers like Moslems and Undocumented Aliens.
This is not to say that some really evil things were not done in the USSR, or China, or Iran, or the United States. Here I’m with Ted Nugent: we should be required to eat what we kill, even on the battlefield.
About making a big event out of simple parts of life: a piece of bread, a brick, etc.: If anyone experiences an extended illness where they are confined to bed or a hospital room, it is natural to change mental focus to better coincide with the scope of events during a day, week, or even a year. You measure your life by which day of the week they serve French Toast or the interval between visits by the pill lady or the number of times Rachael Ray is on the television each week.
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