One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Song of the Day: Pachka Sigaret by Kino

I do not know how many of you have heard of Leonid F. Illyiehev – the Soviet propaganda boss. But in January of 1963, he gave a rather plaintive loaded speech to the young writers of Moscow. Please, he said, in effect, there are other subjects besides ‘the camps’ to write about.

It seemed then that suddenly, in Moscow, everyone wanted to write about the life in the Stalin concentration camps. ‘So what?’ you might ask. Well, it was no coincidence that this speech was made after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a rather short, sparsely told, eloquent work. I. (a very good friend and my sailing buddy) gave me a copy of this book for my birthday (in 2006 – wow! How time flies!) and I read it all in one sitting. 

images (1)---ivan

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn never knew life before the Soviet Union, as he was born one year after the triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1918,  and lived a life of such hardship. He, however, managed to make it to Rostov University and studied Mathematics and Physics. He claims that he chose these fields of study as they would ensure financial security, but even then, Literature was his greatest love, a fact that was recognised by his teachers.

Following his marriage in 1940 and his graduation in 1941, he joined the Red Army immediately after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia and became an artillery officer. He was promoted to captain in the Battle for Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) but was arrested for veiled but unmistakeable criticism of Stalin in some letters to a friend, in which he alluded to Stalin as ‘Whiskers’.

The then twenty-seven year old, Solzhenitsyn was thrown into prison because of ‘counter-revolutionary activity’ and was sentenced to eight years of forced labour and exile by one of Stalin’s infamous troikas, courts consisting of three military judges. After first serving in a correctional labour camp and then in a prison research institute near Moscow, the author was finally sent to a special camp in the mining region of Kazakhstan, because, as he claims, he would not make moral compromises with the secret police, and finally to Siberia. It was there, in Siberia, that he conceived of the idea of writing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

After serving out his complete eight-year sentence, plus one month, and having had a cancer operation, which he miraculously survived, Solzhenitsyn was released but was forced to live in Siberia, where he found a position as a high school mathematics teacher.

In 1957, Solzhenitsyn was permitted to return to European Russia in connection with a decree of the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party. He settled down in Ryazan, some 100 miles southeast of Moscow, and continued to teach physics and mathematics until the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the November 1962 issue of the literary magazine Novy Mir. The novel catapulted him to national and international fame.

The reason for the Soviet regime’s acquiescence to the publication was a result of Nikita Khrushchev’s efforts to expose some of the horrors of Stalin’s reign of terror in order to assert himself in the power struggle following the dictator’s death. It was during this brief period of the so-called Khrushchev ‘thaw’ that Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish his works in the Soviet Union. The end of 1964 marked the end of the de-Stalinisation efforts of Khrushchev, and it also signalled the end of Solzhenitsyn being officially tolerated. The praise for One Day and for his other popular short prose piece, Matryona’s Home soon turned to criticism and to threats. His candidacy for the Lenin Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the USSR, was defeated, and after he had managed to smuggle a manuscript of his novel The First Circle out of the country, his private papers were confiscated in 1965 by the secret police. Subsequently, after much controversy and many debates inside the Soviet Union and in the West, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers — thus, in practice, withdrawing all publication privileges from him and forcing him to publish his work abroad by smuggling the manuscripts out of the country. The First Circle, Cancer Ward, August 1914, and The Gulag Archipelago were published in this fashion.

images-1In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he decided not to go to the award ceremony in Stockholm for fear of not being allowed back into the Soviet Union. While the international fame of having won the Nobel Prize probably saved him from being arrested and imprisoned again, his continued refusal to compromise with the political system, and his steady criticism of his own and some fellow dissidents’ treatment, finally led to his forcible deportation to West Germany on February 13, 1974. He returned to Russia in 1994.

And now after that tiny glimpse into the man’s extraordinary life, let me get to the topic of today’s discussion – the wonderfully written One Life in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

onedayinthelifeThe novel’s protagonist is one Ivan Denisovich Shukhov – prisoner S 854 in the 104th work team –sentenced for high treason in1943. He has already served eight years in ‘general’ and ‘special’ camps. It certainly does not get more autobiographical than this.

It is a very short novel (only 143 pages in my translation by Ralph Parker) without any chapters or divisions (like his sentence) describing a single January day in 1951 when the temperature is ‘officially’ -27.5°C, all the way from the freezing reveille at 5 a.m. through to work at a bleak building site to sleep around 10 p.m. It is a compelling read that chills the soul as well as the body. Yet Shukhov regards it as ‘almost a happy day’ and the last paragraph notes that it was just one of his 3,653 such days. All I can speculate is that much of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s experiences in the labour camp must have been modelled after the author’s own.

To preserve the narrative thread, which captures one day in an average prisoner’s life in the camp, the book as I’ve mentioned is not divided into chapters. This lack of division made it difficult to stop reading, making for an captivating one-sitting read. I would imagine a few more of my more politically-charged friends might also find the book interesting, just as they all like Siddharta or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (two books I would highly recommend).

There is hardly a detail in Solzhenitsyn’s story that, in itself is new. The cruelty, the falseness of the charges, the animal fight for survival, the debasement, the cynical grafting, the brutalizing, the sentences stretching into infinity (or death), the hunger, the suffering, the cold–all this is familiar. Actually, the same might have been said of condition in Russian prisons before Dostoyevsky wrote Notes from the Underground and House of the Dead. The study of political prisoners in Siberia was even well-known long before George Kennan wrote his famous Siberia and the Exile System in 1891.

Yet, each of these works changed our perceptions of the known facts. So it is with Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable tale. In the Soviet Union, of course, it became a sensation then. Until that November 1962 issue of the literary journal, Novy Mir, appeared with Solzhenitsyn’s story, no Soviet writer had tackled this most terrible and characteristic feature of the Stalin era. It took Premier Krushchev’s public relaxing of the publishing restrictions to get the story published. Small wonder that all 95000 copies of Novy Mir vanished almost before they hit the newsstands.

Solzhenitsyn had written no mere propagandistic exposé. He has created a small, almost flawless classic employing the eloquence of reticence and understatement in a manner which even the fumbling of hurried translation cannot obscure.

Ivan Denisovich Shukov, his central figure, is a simple peasant. His ‘crime’ was to escape from the Germans who took him prisoner in 1943 and return to his own lines. Had he not said he had been in German hands he would have been honoured with a medal. By telling the truth he was sentenced to a concentration camp as a ‘spy’. Had he not confessed being a ‘spy’ he would have been shot. Neither he nor his NKVD interrogator had ingenuity enough to figure out what kind of ‘spying’ he was supposed to have done.

Now in a prison camp resembling one of the Karanga camps where Solzhenitsyn himself was confined, Ivan strives to keep alive in a milieu-ruled, as an old inmate says, ‘by the law of the taiga’, or as we would put it, the law of the jungle.

Who are the other prisoners? One is a Soviet Navy captain. His misfortune was that a British admiral sent him a Christmas present. One man is a Baptist. His crime? Being a Baptist. A youngster took a pail of milk to some Ukrainian outlaws – and drew a 25-year sentence. In every labour gang of 20 to 30 men there are at least five or six ‘spies’. There is even one ‘genuine spy’ in the camp, a Moldavian who actually worked for the Germans. One man was drummed out of the Red Army as the son of a kulak or rich peasant. Later, the officers who drummed him out were shot in the purge.

Everyone cheats. Everyone steals. But there are rules to the game. Only by observing the rules with skill can a man hope to survive. If he fights back like the Naval captain he’ll be thrown into the sub-zero guardhouse for 10 days. If he survives his health is ruined. Not more than a year or two of life will remain.

It is not an easy world for non-Soviets (or anyone who hasn’t lived under oppressive regimes) to comprehend. As Ivan muses: ‘How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?’ It is a world in which to live through one more day is an achievement. When Shukov has gone through his day he falls asleep in a glow of contentment. It has been a lucky day. He has not been put into the punishment cells. He has not been sent to the open steppe to work in the 20-below-zero wind. He’s gotten an extra bowl of mush for supper. He’s worked at building a wall and gotten pleasure from it. He has gotten a hacksaw blade into camp without being caught. He has bought some good tobacco. And he hasn’t gotten sick.

And the book closes:

A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch….

Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.

The three extra days were for leap years.

This quiet tale has struck a powerful blow against the return of the horrors of the Stalin system. For Solzhenitsyn’s words burn like acid.

This small book is one of those books that change the perceptions of those who read it. It is well written. Solzhenitsyn’s writing style is unadorned (even crude) but powerful. It is as if no clever and colourful word is going to distract you from the power of the story itself.

Far from being a dreary tale of the down-trodden, this story is a series of minor triumphs. Ivan, the title character, barters for an extra piece of bread. The camp trouble-maker and stool-pidgeon gets punished. And best of all, Ivan survives the day, to certainly triumph again on other days.

Pick it up next time you’re in a bookstore.

Till Next Post!

PS: I also like Cancer Ward and August 1941 by him too.


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