Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Sometimes, one's best weapon of criticism is a concise, unemotional attack on one's opposition. For one: you don't lose anyone in the screed; also, if you're mundane, no one will think you're making things up.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's (going forward referred to as "the author") One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (going forward referred to "One Day") brutalizes the treatment of prisoners in Soviet work camps during the Stalin era. Sometimes even so bitter as to cut cold and sharp, the novel fulfills both of the criteria above. It weighs in at just over 150 pages; not quite what you expect when you think of Russian literature. Also, there is no manufactured drama in this book. One Day is exactly that: a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet work camp. There are no prisoner revolts, rescue missions, or other exhibits of high adventure. Just one man's attempts to maintain even the slightest shred of humanity and dignity in a a setting that does not allow for either.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, referred to as Shukhov through the novel, is in his eighth year of a ten year work camp term for "spying". In this case, "spying" refers to his crime of being captured by the German military during WWII, escaping, and returning to Soviet lines. By this time, Shukhov has become a respected member of the 104th work squad and has learned what it takes to stay alive and well (all is relative when it comes to "well" in a Soviet work camp), yet maintain a bare minimum of humanity. This means bundling up in multiple layers for the sub-zero cold, working hard for one's squad leader, doing small favors in return for small favors, and not debasing one's self by doing things like licking other prisoners' bowls after supper.

The one day chronicled goes like this: Shukhov wakes up to reveille, leaves the barracks for breakfast, eats breakfast, reports for work where he and his squad begin to build a stone building (without the use of a lift or any mechanical tools), break for lunch, continue working, turns in for dinner, and then turns in for bed until the next day.

The day itself is not the main focus of this story. It is implied that it is completely ordinary and reflects most of those before it and will reflect most of those after it. The focus here is on the little things: the teamwork of his work squad, the joke told by one of his squad member, the extra bread ration he receives, the cigarette he smokes (savoring every inhalation).

Also of particular interest are the interactions between the prisoners themselves. Some of them, by currying favors or weaseling to the guards and officials, are able to avoid hard labor, instead working in the mess or the guard house. These prisoners are generally despised by those more common prisoners, for obvious reasons. Even within the labor squads, there is a clear hierarchy. The squad leaders, who are deeply respected and obeyed, are responsible for the well-being of their workers. A good squad leader will save your life and keep you out of the guardhouse. Then there is the squad leader's deputy, who is responsible for all of the little things that are below the leader himself. Finally, there comes the squad, who maintains an informal power structure based on the length of time served, how hard he works, and what he does for others.

The most striking aspect of this book, though, are the prisoners' attempts to remain human. While some have abandoned any attempts at this and will lie, cheat, and steal to get by, most retain some semblance of dignity through the smallest practices or gestures. A Soviet work camp, as one would imagine, is not a setting conducive to dignity. All prisoners are numbered and are never referred to as anything else by guards or other camp officials. In these camps, survival is the first concern. All else is secondary. Despite this, our protagonist and other prisoners finds ways to elevate themselves above the animal level. Shukhov wakes before reveille to enjoy the few minutes he has to himself before the day begins. Two of his squad mates share cups of "real" tea, which was received in a parcel sent to one of them. The prisoners even escape in the work itself, working so hard and so fast that they think about nothing other than the work itself. It is in ways like these that the prisoners find solace. Not freedom, but solace. Most of these men will never see freedom, but each can find at least brief moments of solace every day.

This is a hugely important piece of literature. It details a mythical concept (the gulags) using actual personal experience. It does so in a readable manner, without the hysterics which usually accompany such terrible personal tragedies. I found myself bored at times because of the lack of action and the understated method the author uses to describe the conditions the prisoners exist in. It is a monumentally important book and it is a good book, but is it a great book? I don't think so. I'd put it somewhere between good and great. It isn't one of the best one-hundred books ever written (or that I've read), but it merits every bit of praise it receives. It is the antithesis of a Schindler's List; the heroics are not in any specific act. They are found in the process of surviving, which does not happen in just one day.

It should be added that the veracity of the details in this novel is unquestionable. Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself spent eight years in a Soviet work camp for writing letters to friends which insulted Stalin's handling of WWII. After being released, he began work on One Day, which was submitted for publication and was ultimately approved personally by Nikita Khrushchev.

I give One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn three and a half out of five stars.


Next up is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson. I read this long, long ago and remember next to nothing about it. I'm not really looking forward to it, but we'll see.


  1. I'd like to believe that I'd maintain my honor under any circumstances, but that's just something that would need testing.

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