One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – the Novel that Shook the Soviet Union
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn starts in a prison’s dark, crowded sleeping quarters. Its inhabitants – Zeks (Russian for prisoners) - are huddling for warmth to protect themselves from Siberia’s merciless cold.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a convict, wakes up feeling unwell. This plot device quickly introduces the reader to harsh existence of the protagonist. Shukhov and his fellow prisoners exist in a camp where their bodies, labor, and even language are controlled by the watchful authorities. No longer citizens of the Soviet Union, they cannot refer to guards by the standard “comrade,” but as “citizen.” In this environment, “the law of the taiga” (survival of the fittest) is the rule, and in the Gulag, even the mildest illness can quickly spell death.
Solzhenitsyn’s novel is surprisingly sparse and compact, but its minimalist style only reinforces the brutality of its subject matter. And the author was no stranger to the cruel logic of Stalin’s regime.
Solzhenitsyn was quickly drafted into the Red Army at the beginning of World War II and served as an artillery officer in East Prussia. One minute, he was a decorated war hero, and the next, he was sentenced to ten years of hard labor. His offense? Referring to Stalin as “old man whiskers” in a private letter to a friend.
This is hinted at in the novel when an enraged prisoners screams: “You think that old bastard in Moscow with the mustache is going to have mercy on you? He wouldn’t give a damn about his own brother, never mind slobs like you!”
The scene highlights one of Gulag’s primary paradoxes for the author – political freedom. In the Gulag, nobody challenged his subversive political thought, this was a peculiarity reserved for life outside the penal system.
Throughout the novel, Solzhenitsyn uses his character Shukhov as a not-so-subtle allusion to his own experience. Shukhov’s “crime” was “spying” – a very common accusation after the Second World War. He escaped from the Germans who took him prisoner in 1943 and returned to his own lines. Had he not said he had been in German hands he would have gotten a medal. But by telling the truth – that he had surrendered to the enemy - he was sentenced to a concentration camp as a "spy." Neither he nor his NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) interrogator had ingenuity enough to figure out what kind of "spying" he was supposed to have done.
The other prisoners suffer similarly absurd fates. One is a Soviet Navy captain who served alongside British admirals in the Arctic Fleet. After the war his old allies sent him a Christmas present – the gift was enough for the authorities to accuse him of being a British spy and so he was promptly shipped off to Siberia. Another man is a Baptist. His crime? Being a Baptist. There’s also a young boy who offered milk to Ukrainian nationalists who fought on the side of Nazi Germany for Ukrainian independence – he was accused of collaborating with the enemy and given a 25-year sentence.
It is not an easy world for modern readers in the West to comprehend. As Shukhov later muses in the novel:
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.
A theme Solzhenitsyn often returns to is the idea that the Soviet state was opposed to Russian identity. Even during the most dramatic period of the country’s history, the Second World War, Stalin’s paranoid regime was shipping trainloads of men and even soldiers to the Gulag for alleged crimes against the state. “What kind of country subjects its own heroes to such a cruel fate?” the author would later ask in his later, historical work “The Gulag Archipelago.”
Solzhenitsyn’s novel wasn’t a revelation when it came out, in fact the majority of Soviet citizens had experienced the Gulag either directly or indirectly in their lives. Its power lay in its intention to act as a mirror, creating genuine introspection for the first time in the state’s history. For the author, the Gulag was not a place, but a metaphor for all of Soviet life. Indeed, his description of the Gulag as an “archipelago” echoes the work of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who characterized life in the Soviet Union as little more than “a useless appendage, dangling from its prisons.”
Despite the horrors of the reality Solzhenitsyn carves out onto every page, the Gulag ultimately failed to destroy the human soul. In a controversial conclusion, the author famously argues that the inflicted stoicism and harsh labor provided its inmates with a deep sense of spiritual fulfilment. Far from being ground down, Shukhov ends the novel very much alive and - in his own way - happy.
For Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet Communism was an unimaginable cruelty inflicted upon the Russian people. But he was more than a counter-propagandist. Taking up the Tolstoian tradition, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich attempts to create a new moral framework, a philosophy of surviving not just the Gulag, but the everyday perversity of life under Stalin, of which the Gulag is just a particularly nasty component.
Featured image via Mundo Estranho.