In my continuing effort to educate myself by reading classic literature, I recently read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It was a quick and fascinating read but I am almost at a loss of how to capture it or review it. Being a good blogger, however, I will soldier on.
Perhaps a quick summary would be beneficial and possible. The book, as obvious from the title, relates the day of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov a prisoner in a Soviet slave labor camp. This Ivan Denisovich is a prisoner, or “zek”, in a Soviet slave labor camp. Shukhov has been sentenced to ten years simply because he was captured by the Germans in WW I. He escaped and rejoined the Red Army but was immediately suspected of being a spy. His denial only led to brutal beatings to the point where he signed a “confession” to save his life. In the story Shukhov has nearly served his entire sentence. The story follows him through his day – from reveille at five AM until he falls asleep that night.
What is remarkable about the story is that Shukhov remains relatively upbeat throughout despite being a prisoner in a slave labor camp as a result of a false accusation agreed to only under threat of death. The prisoners eke out a living on watery broth and bread weighed out in ounces. They face horrific weather and treachery from every angle. And yet some of the manage to survive and carry on. The force of the story comes from the “normalcy” that Shukhov manages to create in a place of living hell. He manages to retain his humanity in a place designed to dehumanize. The second to the last paragraph sums up Shukhov’s perspective:
Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok [a exposed and shelter-less work site]. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinnertime. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’s enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the search point. He?d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco. The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.
Solzhenitsyn doesn’t end on this semi-upbeat note, however. Instead he hits you with the immensity of it all one last time:
Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.
The extra three days were for leap years
What Solzhenitsyn captures here is organized absurdity, a sort of organic yet cruel randomness. There is no justice or freedom or intelligence involved in the Gulag but there is a culture of sorts. There are traditions and expectations that can be used, or stretched, to navigate your way through the torturous days. There is no guarantee, you might bump into that random cruelness and find yourself in the hole. If you have the bad luck of a weak body and a severe sentence, bad luck can mean death. Obviously, if you manage to avoid this cruel fate you react with gratitude despite your surroundings. It parallels the odd sensation of joy when the soldier next to you is killed; you have survived!
So what is it about this work that allows it to speak to generations of readers? Why is this a classic now that the Soviet Union, and its prison camps, is no more? I won’t attempt a literary analysis but there are a few points worth noting. The first is the directness of the writing. Solzhenitsyn writes with an immediacy and directness that is impressive. There is no sophistry or attempted artistry to get in the way of the events. The force of the events are left to speak for themselves. But the story is not dry or emotionless but rather crisp and paced. The author manages to pull you into the character’s lives from the beginning. Weaving together simple story telling with colloquialisms and unique slang terms of prison life, Solzhenitsyn allows you to get a glimpse of the reality these poor souls experienced. It is an engrossing and transformative experience.
Obviously, the story had an immediate impact when it was published in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev era. Most Soviet citizens were aware of the Gulags and of the horrors that took place there; many had relatives imprisoned within the vast system. But censorship and the threat of terror enforced by the Soviet State kept the truth hidden and, when known, unspoken. Solzhenitsyn, with clarity and brevity, directed a blinding spotlight on this hidden cancer of Soviet society. His genius earned him a Nobel Prize but also exile.
Amazingly, Solzhenitsyn also infuses his story with faith in human beings. In the midst of this horrible existence, men can still find and celebrate their individuality and practice virtue. Shukhov enjoys his work and works at doing it well. There is a camaraderie within the camp, a sense of loyalty to others trapped in the same hellish existence. Obviously, Shukhov looks out for himself but he looks out for his fellow prisoners as well. It is a tribute to the depth of Solzhenitsyn’s faith that he could retain hope in the face of such evil, almost absurd, brutality. It is a tribute to his literary skill that he could capture the experience of the Gulag and yet avoid despair. Instead of despair, what comes through in this work is the amazing resilience and strength of the human spirit. It reflects the unique “Russian Soul” – a blend of idealism and cynicism; a paradoxical combination of acquiescence and stubbornness.
If it is not clear yet, I heartily recommend One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is rare to be rewarded with such a captivating and insightful story – a story that can change the way you see the world – having only sacrificed the time to read less than 160 pages. If Russian writers intimidate you, start with this book. You will be glad you did.