One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1962
The publication of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in 1962 in the leading Soviet intellectual magazine Novy Mir (New World), was a significant victory for dissident artists in the Soviet Union. This short story about a single day in the life of a “zek” (a political prisoner) in the Soviet “Gulag” (work camps) brought its author, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, almost immediate notoriety in the Soviet Union and throughout the world.
Unfortunately, with the fall of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 and a resumption of hard-line attitudes, Solzhenitsyn’s outspoken writings were banished and much of his writing circulated in Samisdat (self-published format). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and most critics still regard “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” as the most realistic and evocative depiction of life in a Stalinist prison camp. In fact, Solzhenitzyn drew from his own personal experience as a prisoner in the camps under Stalin.
Today “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is still admired for its succinct and stark depiction of the cruelty and degradation of prison life during that time. Its publication opened the door for further revelations and explorations of Gulag life by other authors. The major themes of the story are human survival and human dignity in the face of human cruelty and absurdity.
Alexandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia, on December 11, 1918. His father died in a hunting accident before his birth, and his mother, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, struggled to support the family on her meager wages as a typist.
Between 1939 and 1941 Solzhenitsyn studied philosophy, literature, mathematics, and language; in 1941 he received a degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Rostov. During World War II he served as commander of a Soviet Army artillery unit and was twice decorated for bravery.
In 1945 he wrote a letter criticizing Stalin, which fell into the hands of authorities; as a result, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years for anti-Soviet activities. In 1946 he went to Butyrki Prison and worked in construction; from 1947 to 1950 he worked at Marfino Prison as a mathematician on technological projects; from 1950 to 1953 he was sent to the Ekibastuz labor camp, Kazakhstan, where he worked as a mason and carpenter.
In 1953 he was released from prison—but still in internal exile, which limited his movement and activities—and became a mathematics teacher in Kok-Terek, Kazakhstan. During this period he began work on his poetry, plays, and novels.
Freed from internal exile, he moved to Riazan, Russia. He taught physics and astronomy and continued to write. With the thaw in Soviet censorship during Khrushchev’s regime, friends encouraged Solzhenitsyn to submit his novel concerning the struggles of a political prisoner to the Russian literary journal Novy Mir.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (“Odin den iz zhizni Ivana Denis-ovicha”) was published in 1962 and resulted in almost immediate success. When Khrushchev was ousted by radical hard-liners, Solzhenitsyn fell from favor. His struggles with the Soviet establishment escalated with the banning of his writing and with personal and public harassment.
He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Between 1964 and 1968, he wrote The Gulag Archipelago, a massive chronicle of Soviet slave labor camps. While he was smuggling it to Paris for publication in 1973 the Soviets arrested him, stripped him of citizenship, and exiled him to the West in 1974.
He settled in Cavendish, Vermont, and resumed his writing career—although not before first offending liberal American intellectuals by making widely publicized remarks about the decay of spiritual life in the United States, remarks which earned him such labels as “authoritarian” from some quarters.
Solzhenitsyn has been married three times and has three children and one stepchild. With the advent of glasnost in the mid-1980s and the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn had his citizenship restored in 1990. His return from exile in 1994 was marked by a nationwide train ride. He has continued his writing and has been active in Russian politics.
An inmate in a Siberian prison camp, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov awakes in the dark and cold of early morning. Feeling sick, he lingers too long in his bunk. He is caught by a guard and is ordered to wash the guardroom floor; this is a light sentence, considering he could have received ten days in solitary confinement. He finds a way of washing the floor with minimal effort, which is the only way a “zek”— a political prisoner—survives in the Soviet labor camps.
When finished, he rushes to the mess hall—a prisoner never misses food if he can help it. Then he runs to the infirmary, but he is too late: they already have filled their daily quota of two sick people.
The day begins in earnest for Shukhov. The prisoners are lined up in fives by the guards and are counted and recounted. They are forced to march through the subzero cold to their work camps where, with inadequate tools and mismanaged work planning, they are given their day’s assignments.
Things look up for Shukhov when his work squad is sent to the unfinished power station. If they had been sent to the ironically named “Socialist Way of Life Village” they would have had unbearable work. Tiurin, Shukov’s squad leader, has managed a good assignment.
Pavlo, Tiurin’s able assistant, works to keep the men moving. Some other members of Shukov’s team include: Fetiukov, a lazy, uncouth, unlikable man; Alyosha, the pious Baptist; Buinovsky, a
former naval officer; the old Senka; and Kilgas, the joking Lett, who works with Shukhov as a mason.
The morning is occupied with organizing the area for the afternoon’s labor. Some zeks try to get an old, broken-down stove operational; others haul work materials. Having scrounged some felt from another sector of the work site, they tack up the windows, giving them some protection from the freezing temperatures. Guardrails on the stairways are ripped down in order to build mortar troughs. Shukhov procures his hidden trowel—a zek learns that he must hide things to make his work easier.
At lunch, Shukhov manages to steal an extra bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoon, the masonry work on the wall finally begins. Shukhov and Kilgas work with efficient speed. The whole team works hauling bricks and mortar. Only the unpopular Fetiukov is slacking. They work to the last minute, and then the labor is done for the day.
The guards notice that a zek is missing. The lines are counted and recounted. Finally they find the man, a Moravian, who had fallen asleep near a stove. He is beaten and cursed. The column begins its journey back to camp.
Halfway back, they discover that another column is also returning late to camp. In spite of the
cold and their exhausted bodies, they begin a race to see who will get to camp first. First back will be first to the food. Shukhov’s column wins. He even smuggles in a bit of hacksaw blade that might make a nice little tool for mending shoes.
Always thinking of ways to survive, Shukhov does a number of favors for Tsezar, one of the intellectual prisoners, who receives many parcels of food from the outside. Shukhov is rewarded for his efforts with some extra food. Every bite counts.
Lying in bed, Shukhov, mutters a prayer of thanks. The pious Alyosha overhears him and uses the opportunity to discuss religion. Shukhov’s religion is that of the common man—a believer in God’s existence but cynical about life. He does not have Alyosha’s fervent faith and patience. Alyosha bears his suffering as the will of God; Shukhov believes he suffers for his own nation’s failure in time of war.
Shukhov reflects on his day:
[He] went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d gotten over it. 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. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days. The three extra days were for leap years. (Excerpt from “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” translated by Ralph Parker)
In perspective, it was for Ivan Denisovich “an almost happy day.”
Alyosha is a prisoner noted for his strong religious faith. His is able to endure the camp experience because of his faith in Christ. He begins each day with prayer and reads aloud from the New Testament, two-thirds of which he has transcribed into a little notebook that he keeps hidden in his bunk area. The other men view the arctic Gulag camp as a frozen hell—Alyosha, conversely, sees the creation of God, and is therefore always willing to work hard.
Buinovsky is an ex-naval man. He is not yet used to the camps and still maintains the pride and dignity of an officer. He barks orders at the others as if he was in command, and quotes the legal code to the guards. As a result, he spends much time in the confinement cells. The system appears to be slowly breaking his will.
See Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Fetiukov is considered the bottom man in group 104; also, he represents what the system can do to a man. Shukhov describes him as the kind of man “who would steal potatoes from your stew.” He is the kind who would stare at men smoking, hoping for a cigarette butt, and fish tobacco out of spittoons. Lazy, he would dump out mortar from the wheelbarrow in order to make it less heavy.
Kilgas is an easy-going Latvian who works well with Shukhov. The pudgy-faced Kilgas is always good for a joke.
Tsesar Markovich is considered the intellectual of group 104. He manages to get regular parcels from home and wrangles the “cushion job” of working in the heated camp office while the rest of the group work outside in sub-zero temperatures. A man of Greek, Jewish, and possibly Gypsy background, he is oblivious to the suffering around him as he discusses Russian cinema in the confines of a warm office.
Pavlo is Tiurin’s assistant squad leader. A pleasant, plump-faced Ukrainian and former military man, he oversees the squad during Tiurin’s absence.
Senka is an old zek. An unfortunate fellow, he endured the torture and floggings in Buchenwald only to be sent to Stalin’s prison camp system. His
- “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was adapted into a film directed by Casper Wrede (1971). The film stars Tom Courtenay, Alfred Burke, James Maxwell, and Espen Skjonberg. It is distributed in VHS and videodisc formats from Sony Video Software and Image Entertainment.
- There is a three-cassette (300 minutes) unabridged recording of “One Day” read by Frank Miller, from Recorded Books of Charlotte, Maryland.
- http://www.almaz.com/nobel/literature/Solzhenitsyn.html This site, the Nobel Prize Archive page, gives information and link sites to Solzhenitsyn.
deafness makes him oblivious to his surroundings, thereby buffering some of the misery of camp life.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner in the Gulag Archipelago serving a ten-year sentence for political crimes. Camp life has not destroyed him— he has never taken a bribe or allowed himself to sink to the low levels of morality.
A married man with children, Shukhov comes from the modest village of Temgenova and still retains a peasant’s sense of moral order: God exists, but men and the Church are corrupt.
The character of Shukhov is one of an honest survivor. Hardened by the camps, he has not lost his dignity. He may steal food, but he would never steal another man’s food. When he borrows tobacco from other zeks, he always returns it when his supply comes in. Survival requires a quick eye and some risk taking—a stolen plate, a hidden trowel, a bit of smuggled metal, a favor here, a simple task there. For a guard, he will do as much as he has to, but no more. For his squad leader, Tiurin, and for himself, however, he will work hard.
Andrei Prokofievich Tiurin
Andrei Prokofievich Tiurin is the squad leader of Ivan Denisovich’s group. Not only does he organize the work parties, but he is also responsible for relating to camp officials—sometimes inaccurately—the amount of work done by his group. A seemingly decent man, he does what he needs to do in order to survive.
Tiurin is a Kulak, a member of the wealthy peasant class persecuted by Stalin. Once a decorated “Red Army Man,” he was discharged when it was discovered that his family’s social status made him “an enemy of the people.” As Shukhov says of squad leaders: “A good one will give you a second life, a bad one will put you in the coffin.” He considers Tiurin to be a good one.
Kolya Vdovushkin is a medical assistant who knows little about medicine. Instead, he writes poetry during work hours. Kolya is an example of how a class system emerged within the camp itself, a system that protects some of the prisoners so that they may develop their talents.
Lieutenant Volkovoi is the security chief in the gulag. Unpopular with the prisoners as well as the guards, he is even hated and feared by the commandant.
From the moment Shukhov wakes up until the moment he goes to sleep, only one thing is foremost on his mind: survival. The theme of surviving the deprivations of a Soviet work camp is the driving force of the story. Some survive by wit; some by luck. Some survive by sinking into inhumanity— becoming thieves, scavengers, and stool-pigeons. Several men will not survive the camps, but Shukhov is determined to not be one of them.
The men that will survive will become acquainted with the unwritten laws of the camp: do as much for the guards as you need, no more; always share your parcels with the right people—like your squad leader; watch out for your tools and hide them if you need to; obey—do not fight the authorities; don’t hurry.
Survival and Food
Because survival is one of the most important issues of camp life, food takes on a special importance throughout the story. Every bit of bread and piece of meat becomes a cherished symbol of life. Every meal of oatmeal, thin stew, or bread ration is the vehicle one needs to reach the end of the day. If you get a bit of sausage in a parcel eat it slowly and chew it thoroughly—get every last drop of fat out of it. If you can swipe an extra bowl of oatmeal from the mess room orderlies, do so. Food (and tobacco) act as a means of exchange. Men trade with it, steal it, and will even kill for it.
Survival and God
Surviving the camps is not only a physical ordeal, it is also a spiritual trial. Solzhenitsyn would agree with the biblical quotation, “Men do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Just as men need bread to physically survive, so also they need a sustaining spiritual vision.
This theme can is illustrated at the morning meal—when the Ukrainian prisoners cross themselves—as well as the theological discussions of Shukhov and Alyosha. Alyosha represents a strict religious nature: reading scripture, praying, seeing not sorrow but God’s joy, aiding others in their work. Even though there is plenty of cynicism, as in Shukhov’s recounting of the sins of his local Orthodox priest, it is faith that keeps the men going.
The Human Condition: Suffering
Suffering has always been a theme of Russian literature—one only need think of Dostoyevsky’s works. “One Day” depicts a life of beatings, food deprivation, and wet and cold weather.
Suffering is related to the spiritual theme: Alyosha quotes the Bible in the beginning of the tale, “If you suffer, it must not be for murder, theft, ... but as a Christian ... to the honor of God,” and ends the tale by quoting the Apostle Paul’s prison epistles.
The Human Condition: Cruelty
Camp life is very cruel. The pressures of the camp and the lack of any human restraint on cruelty make the prison a hothouse of violence and abuse. For instance, the character Volkovoi is especially illustrative of human sin and cruelty. His power
Topics for Further Study
- Life in a work camp has a way of bringing out the essential character of human beings. How was this true in relation to Shukhov, Alyosha, Fetiukov, Tsezar, and Tiurin?
- Investigate “prison writings” from different cultures. Do they differ from era to era, culture to culture? Determine their impact on literature and history.
- The concentration camp is an invention of the twentieth century and has been used by the Soviets, the Chinese, the Nazis, and to a degree by the Americans in the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Investigate the concept of the concentration camp. Compare and contrast the various purposes and severity of such camps.
- Since “One Day” is almost devoid of political statements, how was Solzhenitsyn able to convey his political opinions in the story?
- Unlike the devout Alyosha, Shukhov is portrayed as a man of limited religious faith. Faith in God is an important theme in Solzhenitsyn’s writings. What techniques does he use in “One Day” to communicate his ideas about Christian faith?
allows him to whip and torment prisoners with impunity. Volkovoi can make irrational demands— like stripping men down to their shirts in subfreezing cold—and the men must obey.
The Human Condition: Government and Absurdity
There is a strange absurdity to camp life. Ridiculous rules are put in place by the government. For example, men must take off their hats in subfreezing cold when passing guards. Limitations are made on the number of sick people allowed in any given day. Work is declared to be a form of medicine. Bribery is commonplace. Paperwork is full of lies. Men are expected to work without tools. Cold ground is to be drilled without thawing it first with fire. This is not the same as human cruelty— it’s human stupidity. Ironically, the worst work site in the camp is the “Socialist Way of Life Village.”
The Human Condition: Dignity
In spite of the horrid nature of camp life, human dignity is never lost. Though starving, Shukhov still balks at eating fisheyes and men still clean the fishbones from their table as an act of politeness. Men like Kilgas continue to make jokes and
Buinovsky reprimands men for their lack of dignity. Shukhov still finds joy in a job well done. Men share with those who have less. Alyosha still prays. Though you can treat men like dogs, you cannot take away their human dignity.
Point of View
The point of view is that of an omniscient, third-person narrator. The story is told in a linear manner: from task to task, place to place, and from conversation to conversation. The author utilizes the speeches of various characters to make his point, but because the narrator is indicating which speeches are important, the reader is forced to listen carefully to the characters in order to understand their perspectives.
Narration and Language
Written in Russian, with a number of Ukrainian words thrown in, the story is easily comprehensible because of its direct, clear style. The conversations are simple and generally colloquial. The use of prison camp words like “zek,” “Gulag,” and “article 58,” lend historical accuracy. The street language used by guards and prisoners realistically depicts the rough atmosphere of a prison. The humor is often ironic and understated.
The location is a Siberian prison camp during the post-World War II Stalinist era. As the title suggests, all the action of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” takes place in a single day, from early morning to lights out. It follows a somewhat classical Aristotelian “unity of time, place, and action” in that the entire story remains focused on the central characters, in a specific location, and in a fixed time period.
Solzhenitsyn is writing in the tradition of Christian Realism—a prophetic expression of truth in a redeeming spiritual framework. It is important to note that this it is not Socialist Realism, which was the ideologically acceptable method of writing in Russia at that time: full of happy endings and socially well-adjusted workers. Socialist Realism used literature as a form of propaganda.
Solzhenitsyn’s narrative style was influenced by the American writer John Dos Passos and the Russian classics of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolay Gogol, and Aleksandr Pushkin. Also it is informed by his prophetic vision of the author as truth-giver: his is a tragic vision with a gleam of religious hope. Through the chronicling of events, the reader is drawn to see the message of the author. The events of Shukhov’s day make the reader understand the life of a “zek.”
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” takes place in the context of the post-World War II Soviet Union. The Communist Revolution of 1917 had resulted in the overthrow of the Czar. The communist system that replaced Czarist Russia was even more totalitarian in nature than its predecessor. The planning and misplanning of the centrally organized economy resulted in constant shortages and production problems. Lenin gave great power to the internal security forces and began the use of work camp labor as a means of augmenting production.
After the death of Lenin, Stalin solidified his power and dominated the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1953. His government engaged in ethnic and religious purges, persecutions and harassment, and planned catastrophes like the famine in the Ukraine. Millions of people died during his violent and tyrannical regime.
The Gulag Archipelago was a system of prison camps spread throughout the Soviet Union. Gulag is an acronym for Glanoe upravlenie ispravigtelnotrudovykh lagerei, the administrative title for the work camps. A paranoid and cruel man, Stalin sent millions to the camps—some for ludicrous and meaningless reasons.
Stalin trusted no one except one man: Adolf Hitler. Ironically, Hitler betrayed him when the German leader attacked the Soviet Union in September 1941. Unfortunately Stalin’s war with Germany allowed him to establish an alliance with the West as well as garner the support of intellectuals worldwide. With Stalin’s death in 1953, and the subsequent de-Stalinization during the Khrushchev years, writers like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn were more able to express themselves.
The Cold War represented an intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. The race to explore space was generated by the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, while tensions were raised worldwide by the advancement and spread of communism. The Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 generated real fears of Soviet power and expansionism.
In spite of this, the era of Khrushchev reflected a general thawing of the Stalinist attitudes. At the Twentieth Congress of the Party in 1956, Khrushchev delivered his “secret speech” that acknowledged some of the immense crimes of Stalin—a significant moment in Soviet history. Solzhenitsyn was later to remark about this speech: “I knew that my enemy Stalin had fallen, and I was on the way up.”
The thaw began to impact the Soviet literary intelligentsia. Novy Mir, a literary magazine, was influenced by “liberal” ideas and in 1962 published “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The story met with immediate success.
As Solzhenitsyn points out in the Gulag Archipelago, the forced labor camps were not an exception
Compare & Contrast
- 1960s: The Soviet Union and the United States are in the midst of the Cold War, a period of arms escalation and suspicion between the two superpowers. With the Soviet aid to Fidel Castro in Cuba, the United States fears communist forces and nuclear weapons stationed close to American soil. This tension resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962; in the end, the Soviets were forced to remove missiles from Cuba.
Today: Relations between the United States and a democratic Russia are friendly, despite some disagreement over recent actions in Serbia and Kosovo. Since the 1960s the two nuclear powers have signed several treaties regulating the proliferation of nuclear weapons and testing. Although Cuba remains a communist country, there are signs that it is adopting capitalist values.
- 1960s: Under the leadership of Nikita Khruschev, censorship laws relax and writers are less hesitant to write and publish in the Soviet Union. After Khruschev’s ouster in 1964, hard-liners assumed power and put into place harsh censorship laws.
Today: Under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, Russia became a free society with censorship laws similar to those of the United States. Authors such as Solzhenitsyn can publish with little or no fear of reprisal from the Russian government.
- 1960s: The system of Soviet prison camps, known as the Gulag Archipelago, is filled with political dissidents, enemies of the State, criminals, and others that had somehow fallen into disfavor. These prisoners provide vital services: building infrastructure such as roads, bridges, factories, and dams. Conditions are harsh, and many prisoners die.
Today: The Gulag system is no longer used in Russia. With the open policy, media is better able to monitor the criminal justice system, thereby stemming abuses; moreover, citizens can protest and publicize unfair sentences and treatment.
to the Soviet system, but an integral mechanism of the Soviet society. Without forced labor, much of the road building, dikes, canals, and public works could not have been built. In some ways, the era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the dismantling of the Soviet Union into its representative states, the acceptance of democratic principles, and even the acceptance of a market economy, reflect an admission that the Soviet Socialist experiment was a failure.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” garnered immediate critical and popular success. It was even reported that the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, read and personally advanced its publication. Breaking the taboo subject of Stalin’s crimes in the heavily censored Soviet Union, however, was like cutting the rope on a catapult. It propelled Solzhenitsyn into the limelight of a whole generation of readers and writers who had been waiting for someone to broach the topic of Stalinism.
As Leopold Labedz described it: “the novel was a literary as well as a political bombshell; it received an enthusiastic reception on the part of liberal writers, a cautious one from the fence sitters, and it infuriated the die-hards.” Yet in a sense, the hard-liners were right: Solzhenitsyn meant trouble for them. By opening the door for anti-Stalinism, writers began to openly publish and publicly discuss anti-communist ideas.
The critical acclaim “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” garnered was not only for its content, but also for what Solzhenitsyn’s story said about Socialist Realism—a literary style that propagated
communist ideals. The publication of “One Day” meant freedom in regard to literary style as well as content.
As the political direction of Solzhenitsyn’s writings became clear, the controversies concerning his writings intensified. He polarized both sides: in one sense, he was the radical upsetting the “conservative” communist nomenklatura (the people of power and knowledge). On the other side, the liberal Russians—modernists and avant-garde writers— found his traditionalist philosophy troublesome in its defense of non-westernized Russian culture, Orthodox religion, and patriotism.
Having attained almost immediate popular success, he gained even more moral advantage from the persecutions that followed. He found it impossible to publish anything in the Soviet Union. His writings were banned, and he was forced to publish in Samisdat (underground publication). He smuggled out his novels First Circle, Cancer Ward, and the Gulag Archipelago for publication abroad.
In the West, Solzhenitsyn was initially lauded by the media, readers, and political figures. While he was still a persecuted figure in the Soviet Union, his novels were popular in the West and received generally favorable reviews.
After his exile and especially after his lecture at a Harvard commencement, it became clear that he was not in any sense a Western liberal. In fact, his views were considered almost authoritarian.
His acceptance in the United States became increasingly polarized by national politics. American liberals castigated him for his anti-democratic values, rigorous orthodoxy, authoritarianism, and for his condemnation of what he saw as the excesses of American legalism, as well as sexual depravity and moral bankruptcy. Conservatives tended to view him as a prophetic ally in the battle against communism and Western moral decline.
At first hailed as a successor to the traditions of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn’s stature has since dimmed slightly. However, he is still viewed as a writer of the first rank and his position is considered important as a “writer-prophet”—the artist who challenges the moral failures of a society.
In spite of the controversies regarding Solzhenitsyn’s politics and controversial opinions, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” has had almost continual positive critical acceptance in Western educational circles. Its dark themes of suffering and human perseverance in the face of evil have made it a popular text for high school and college English courses.
Sauer has taught poetry and drama at Eastern College in Pennsylvania. In the following essay, he examines Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and asserts that it is an “essentially Christian picture.”
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” presents a stark and concise indictment of the communist Soviet system. Unlike Solzhenitsyn’s sprawling novels First Circle, Cancer Ward, or August 1914, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” presents the essential human story of survival in a hostile government-sponsored hell. It is the fictional preface to the non-fictional Gulag Archipelago.
In “One Day” we have a stylized rendition of single day in the life of a “zek”—a political prisoner in Stalin’s work camps. In the Gulag we have an edited anecdotal history of hundreds of political prisoners, what one critic called “fictionalized history,” meaning it is not absolute history in a scientific sense, but the artistic portrayal of historical human life.
After a while, it ceases to matter whether it was twenty-five million, thirty-five million, or forty-five million that died during Stalin’s regime. Whatever the number, it was evil—and Solzhenitsyn presented a vision against it. Both texts are witnesses to the tragic suffering of the Russian people. Both have been literary weapons in a war against human tyranny.
There is no escaping that “One Day” represents a biographical testament to Solzhenitsyn’s life. Writers tend to write what they know; Solzhenitsyn used his life in the camps as the grist for his writing. But we engage in what C. S. Lewis called the “personal heresy”—the tendency to read literature as merely regurgitated autobiography—if we think that his art is just the reworking of his own memories. Solzhenitsyn’s story was not about the traumatic psychology of one man. “One Day” embodies the collective autobiography of an entire generation of men and women swept up in the Soviet police state.
Marxist-Leninism was pathological and inefficient. Stalinism was applied Marxism-Leninism— applied unrelentingly to the backs of the Russian people. Tiurin, Shukhov’s squad leader, tells the story of how he was stripped of his freedom because of his economic class and the his ancestry.
Many men were sent to the camps for having escaped from the Germans, like the “luckless” Senka—as if returning to one’s fatherland was a crime. Solzhenitsyn himself was arrested for a thought crime expressed in a letter. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is a memorial to a point in history when the absurdity of George Orwell’s 1984 took on flesh and dwelt among us.
Solzhenitsyn can easily be classified: he is an anti-communist. His is not a scholarly dissection of economic theory, but a living witness against a system that put men to death through Five-Year Plans. He is a prophet: like a man bearing witness to a sleeping generation while fires rage around, he awakens them to the memories of an incendiary holocaust.
He is also an artist: his vocation gives him a sense of calling, as he described it in his Nobel Lecture, “to save the world with beauty.” And yet the beauty he presented is the sad beauty of human struggle.
He is a traditionalist: he loves the common sense of the common people, their ways, their lives, and their proverbs. He is a Russian: his is an old value system and he loves his country. He is learned, but simple. He is civilized, but coarse. He is a representative of the paradoxes that are Russia.
At the same time, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” has a surprisingly modern voice. It is not a novel of refined Victorian sensibility. Its language is the language of the street. It also has the rough vices and virtues of human life about it. There are ambiguities in the workcamp. During periods of survival, issues of rectitude are sometimes stretched.
The State would not understand truth. If you tell it the truth you will be punished. When you are cold, you steal the cloth needed to cover the open windows. Honest men become honest thieves. But this is not the moral relativism of the West, full of decadence and unsure of absolutes. It is the history of men having a nightmare only to wake up and find it real. Solzhenitsyn’s modern ambiguities are the recognition of what men can do to other men when they have “forgotten God.”
What Do I Read Next?
- In Darkness at Noon (1940), Arthur Koestler chronicles the story of an innocent man purged by the Communist Party who, nevertheless, continues to believe in the Revolution. Koestler presents a fictionalized indictment of the Stalinist methods of forced confessions, show trials, and legal murder.
- The novel 1984 was written in 1948 and represented George Orwell’s insightful analysis of the trend in ideological governmental control of our lives and thought through the beneficent image of “Big Brother. “Life under totalitarian control is one large work camp.
- George Orwell’s other totalitarian tale, Animal Farm (1945), is especially noteworthy for its satiric attack on Stalin. A socialist himself, Orwell uses the parable of farm animals revolting against the oppressing farmer only to be put under the tyranny of their fellow animals, the pigs, who proclaim that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
- Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume Gulag Archipelago is a magnum opus of anecdotal history of the Soviet Gulag work camps. His treatment spans the camps from the time of Lenin to Brezhnev. Published: Volume I (1973), Volume II (1974), Volume HI (1976).
- Against All Hope (1986) by Armando Valladares offers an ugly picture of humiliation, torture, and murder in Fidel Castro’s Gulag system a little over a hundred miles from the American coast.
The opening pages of Michael Scammel’s biography of Solzhenitsyn contains a quote from the author Octavio Paz that summarizes Solzhenitsyn’s paradoxical voice:
“Solzhenitsyn speaks from another tradition and this, for me, is impressive; his voice is not modern, but ancient. It is an ancientness tempered in the modern world. His ancientness is that of the old Russian Christianity, but it is a Christianity that has passed through the central experience of our century—the de-humanization of the totalitarian concentration camps—and has emerged intact and strengthened. If history is the testing ground, Solzhenitsyn has passed the test. His example is not intellectual or political or even, in the current sense of the word, moral. We have to use an even older word, a word that still retains a religious overtone—a hint of death and sacrifice: witness. In a century of false testimonies, a writer becomes the witness to man.”
The constrictions of Soviet society made it difficult for authors to write openly against it. This created a problem for the artists. Subconsciously, the artist must not say too much for fear of reprisal; but not say too little, for fear of having no art. This self-imposed censorship of the author created a form that allowed facts to speak for themselves.
Even the minor editing required to make “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” politically correct for publication in Novy Mir may have contributed to its literary power. Solzhenitsyn was forced not to tell, but to show. His natural tendency to pontificate was channeled into framing a story that would communicate in and of itself.
The pictures he created in “One Day” were like those of his prose poems. The picture was the picture of man oppressed, but not broken; of a man suffering, but not in despair; a man crucified, but rising again. It was an essentially Christian picture, transformed into the dimensions of a Russian icon: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.
Source: James Sauer, “Overview of ’One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.
Pohl has published many science fiction books and has edited several collections of short science fiction. In the following excerpt, he contends that instead of being censored and kept away fromyoung people, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” should be read by them as an important account of life in the Soviet Union.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is the first and most famous novel written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who is not only a Nobel laureate but very possibly—there are no more than a handful who could challenge him—the 20th Century’s greatest and most courageous writer.
It is the business of literature to tell us truths about ourselves and the world we live in, and in that way to give us understanding about what life is really like. This is an accomplishment of great value, because without it we can never really mature as human beings.
That is what “Ivan Denisovich” does for us. It tells us the story of one man—a single human being, whose story nevertheless is the story of many millions of other human beings—who has committed no fault, but through the evil caprice of a tyrant has been condemned to the terrible ordeal of life in a Soviet prison camp. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been stripped of everything. He has lost his wife, his children and his freedom. He owns nothing but the ragged clothes he wears and the crust of bread he has hidden in his mattress, and he is condemned to labor long hours in the deadly cold of a Russian winter, at the mercy of sadistic guards and “trusties” among his fellow prisoners ... and yet he still remains human, and even decent. The novel is not a cheerful story, because the truth is not always cheerful. But it is a noble one.
And yet “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” has an unexpected distinction, for it is also one of the thirty-three books that those who would sanitize America’s school libraries are most avid to suppress.
To learn that fact is to look into the naked face of madness.
What can the censors be thinking of? What child could be harmed, in what improbable way, by reading this splendid novel? Is it, for example, obscene?
But of course it is not; there is not a salacious passage, or even the hint of one, anywhere in the book. It does, to be sure, contain a few individual words—I have been able to count less than a dozen of them in the whole novel—which most of us
“The constrictions of Soviet society made it difficult for authors to write openly against it. This created a problem for the artists. Subconsciously, the artist must not say too much for fear of reprisal; but not say too little, for fear of having no art. This self-imposed censorship of the author created a form that allowed facts to speak for themselves.”
would prefer not to hear from the lips of our children. Most of us also realize, though, however much we may regret it, that none of our children will grow up without having encountered those words many times, in many places, perhaps even starting with the casual conversation of their littlest schoolmates. I do not believe that there is even one child, anywhere in the world, who will have learned any of those words through the reading of Solzhenitsyn’s novel—but what a child may well learn from this book is the extent to which even decent people may be driven to crudeness in both speech and actions when they are being systematically dehumanized by brutes, and that is a lesson well worth having.
There are those, too, who do not wish to “spoil childhood” by acquainting the young with the more distasteful facts of human life. That’s understandable. We would like to see our children happy and untroubled, because we love them. But children must grow, and to grow they must learn the bad things as well as the good: If we don’t allow that, if in some unimaginable way we were possibly able to prevent that, all we could achieve would be to keep them childish forever. It is, I think, far better for children to learn what evil is from books than to put them in the position of learning it in some far more damaging way from real life later on.
“It is, I think, far better for children to learn what evil is from books than to put them in the position of learning it in some far more damaging way from real life later on.”
When Solzhenitsyn wrote “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” the very process of writing it was an act of conscience. His reason for writing the novel was simply that he could not live with himself if he didn’t. Solzhenitsyn could not have seen any real possibility of getting the book published before the world, so that others could know the truth he had to tell; books containing far less hurtful truths had been suppressed in his country for forty years. More than that, he certainly knew that the mere act of writing it, if discovered, would mean his immediate arrest. That would at least send him back to those same degrading prison camps, if indeed it didn’t cost him his life.
That “Ivan Denisovich” was published at all was almost an accident. It happened because Nikita Khrushchev, then the ruler of the Soviet Union, had his own political reasons for wanting at least some of the truths about the Stalin regime made public at last. It took courage for Solzhenitsyn to write it. It took courage for his first editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, to attempt to get it past the censors so that he could publish it in his magazine. It even took courage for Nikita Khrushchev to order that it be permitted, since Khrushchev himself had been a part of Stalin’s bureaucracy and thus was not without guilt of his own for some of its evils.
It does not take nearly as much courage for any of us to allow the book to be read by our children— and I hope that we will find at least that much courage, all over this country of ours that has made dedication to freedom of speech and writing a part of its most sacred and fundamental law.
Source: Frederik Pohl, ’“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’” in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, John M. Kean, eds., The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, pp. 395-97.
In the following excerpt, Cismaru discusses Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of food and scenes of eating in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
The year 1983 marks the twentieth anniversary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Although this important work has benefited from numerous critical comments abroad, in this country there have been only cursory exegeses. With the hindsight of two decades it may be profitable to look at it again. Because the theme of physical survival is at the core of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and because, so far, its importance has been eclipsed by critics in favor of that of spiritual victory, this essay will emphasize Solzhenitsyn’s concern with food collection, ingestion, digestion, and with body preservation in general.
Those who know Solzhenitsyn are aware of the fact that he is a hearty eater, a gourmet and perhaps even a gourmand. But this is not the main reason for his preoccupation with food as a requirement for survival. Men who have experienced the gulag, or indeed any imposed confinement, know that more than the rigors of climate, more than the forced marches and forced labor and the beatings and the spiritual deprivations, the incarcerated notes first and foremost the quasi-absence of food and the poor quality of that which is available. One need not go so far as Freud and proclaim that the mouth is the sexual organ par excellence, that eating is essentially a sexual act, in order to acquiesce in the centrality of food ingestion in man’s daily routine. Moreover, no sort of spiritual well-being or preservation is possible for long on a starvation diet. It is this truism, more than Solzhenitsyn’s own culinary concerns, that made him devote many a passage in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” to the art of eating in prison.
Kuzyomin, the brigade foreman in the camp, a person with a twelve-year experience in the modus vivendi required by the gulag, has a formula for survival, one which he shares liberally with the others: “Here, fellows, taiga is the law.” A Russian word meaning “virgin Siberian forest,” taiga implies the law of the beasts of the jungle, the law that recognizes that only the fittest survive, and that fitness is the result of adequate food intake. No wonder, then, that the problems of hunger and diet are introduced as soon as the novel begins, in the description of the so-called breakfast shoved in front of the prisoners.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, with the accumulated tact of eight years of incarceration, looks upon eating as an artful endeavor whose gestures are meticulously performed, as befits the discipline of the artist:
The only good thing about camp gruel was it was usually hot, but what Shukhov had was now quite cold. Even so, he ate it slow and careful like he always did. Mustn’t hurry now, even if the roof caught fire....
The fish was mostly bones. The flesh was boiled off except for bits on the tails and the heads. Not leaving a single scale or speck of flesh on the skeleton, Shukhov crunched and sucked the bones and spit them out on the table. He didn’t leave anything—not even the gills or the tail. He ate the eyes too when they were still in place.
Though Shukhov must be a beast, Solzhenitsyn adds, “But when they’d [the eyes] come off and were floating around in the bowl on their own he didn’t eat them.” This line asserts not so much a minimal awareness of the fact that even in the jungle there are traces of morality and ethics, as it points to the necessity that ingestion must maintain certain standards which would not conflict with proper digestion. Should nausea and vomiting result from certain unappetizing foods, or from their unappetizing presentation, the calories taken in would be lost, at least partially. In his careful survival scheme Shukhov realizes that he cannot afford this risk.
Eating, then, is no longer an elemental activity, deriving from instinct and being pursued casually. It is a strategy replete with well-formulated tactics designed to afford the undernourished the best chances of retaining a viable body. More importantly, it becomes, without the here’s knowledge, a religious ritual which is approached with respect and quasi-reverence. Thus, during lunch, the process of chewing every mouthful is described minutely. Shukhov’s hands, lips, tongue, taste buds and facial muscles participate in unison, slowly and deliberately, for the ultimate enjoyment of swallowing and digesting. Every single trace of food is scraped from the bowl with a piece of bread saved until last for this purpose. When Shukhov has finished, the bowl looks as if it has been washed and dried by the most thorough of hands.
Prior to lunch on the same day, Shukhov has been able, through astute maneuvering and well-planned tactics, to secure from the kitchen staff a few extra bowls of food for his brigade. He thus becomes entitled to a second helping. Therefore he eats his first portion even more slowly, trying not to feel as partially full as he does normally. Having conditioned his stomach to the proper introduction
“Shukhov’s spirit, then, reduced by imprisonment to instinct, acts in order to attain measurable and immediate results: the maximum caloric intake to maintain physical viability, which allows him to work and avoid the ire of the other prisoners and the camp authorities.”
of the second ration, he proceeds to eat his mush with the acute pleasure of one who becomes sexually aroused again soon after experiencing climax. All his senses are now at play and extreme concentration is required in order for him to reach yet another gourmet’s orgasm.
There is nothing mechanical in his approach. He is quite unlike prisoner K-123 at whom he looks from time to time, and about whom he concludes to himself: “He ate his mush, but there was no taste in his mouth. It was wasted on him.” On the contrary, Shukhov knows that to be content requires intent, and to reach perfect satisfaction requires the most elaborate premeditation. Since the body is a whole, it must participate wholly in the process of ingestion. Above all the brain must be engaged in picking up the food, introducing it into the mouth, chewing and swallowing it. No distractions are possible. Shukhov cannot understand why prisoner K-123 talks with another prisoner about a film he had seen a long time ago while eating his gruel. Activities extraneous to eating, while eating, can only diminish the benefits derived from food. Since it is a sexual sacrament, ingestion demands total bodily and spiritual involvement, without which the inadequate quantity and the poor quality of the food fail to contribute to the orgasmic satisfaction sought. And, significantly, such satisfaction, once gained, gives rise to a general feeling of well-being and to an optimistic view of life and the future, not unlike post-coital euphoria. On one occasion, after eating, Shukhov is described as not having “a grudge in the world now—about how long his sentence was, about how long their day was, about that Sunday they would not get off. All he thought now was: ’We’ll get through! We’ll get through it all! And God grant, it’ll all come to an end.’”
Post-meal euphoria is, however, like post-coital fulfillment, short-lived. Soon reality sneaks back, and at times, in order to avoid it, the hero’s thoughts revert to the past, before his incarceration. But even recollections of family and friends pale before those having to do with food:
In the camp he often remembered how he used to eat in the village—potatoes by the panful and pots of kasha, and in the early days before that, great hunks of meat. And they swilled enough milk to make their bellies burst. But he understood in the camps this was all wrong. You had to eat with all your thoughts on the food, like he was nibbling off these little bits now, and turn them over on your tongue, and roll them over in your mouth—and then it tasted so good, this soggy black bread.
When it is come by easily, affluence provides less pleasure than scarcity which is well managed and calculatingly appropriated. Of course, Shukhov does not see the sour-grapes attitude involved in such reasoning. His need to think that he is making a go of camp life is so great that he has succeeded in conditioning himself psychologically to feelings and thoughts that make survival possible. Yet, at the same time, it may be concluded that this is all the more to his credit because the gulag affords no other means of overcoming starvation and death.
In fact, starvation in the gulag is not merely punishment for sins committed against the State; it is above all a way of having the prisoners compensate the State, a way of controlling and rendering more efficient their labor which enhances the economic well-being of the State. That is why the slave-labor force of the camp is divided into brigades and why the collective work of the brigade is considered rather than that of an individual prisoner. Each has to do his share of work, or else all members of the brigade have their rations cut or diminished:
In the camp they had these [brigades] to make the prisoners keep each other on their toes.... It was like this—either you all get something extra or you all starved. (“You’re not pulling your weight, you swine, and I’ve got to go hungry because of you. So work, you bastard!”)
Each beast in the camp must contribute, then, to the maintenance of survival based on food allotments, which in turn are based on the amount of daily work.
Not meeting a work quota even for one day involves a cut in rations. If the beast is not properly fed one day, the work quota cannot be met the next, which means that a vicious circle is created, leading to slow death by starvation. Hence beast pushes beast to do his best, the collective survival of all depending on the efforts of each. The gulag strips the person of even his most individualistic traits, and at the end of the tunnel, if ever one gets there, is a spoonful of mush.
The camp’s currency is, of course, food. The State gets the work it wants done for the food it gives the prisoners; the authorities are bribed with food in parcels sent by relatives to the gulag; when a theft is committed food is always involved directly or indirectly. The emperor of the camp is the chief cook. He disposes of the food as he sees fit and puts on the airs of a French chef at a fancy resort. He controls innumerable assistants, acts pompously and authoritatively, yet all he actually does is boil water and groats, preparing a meal that any Boy Scout could fix over a campfire.
The importance of nourishment is presented with most vigor however in the oft-repeated or alluded to question of whether those who clear off the tables should lick the other prisoners’ bowls thereby providing themselves with extra food. Kuzyomin’s code forbids this, for it makes one dependent on scraps, and the humiliation of the act of licking is bound to strip one of any vestige of human dignity. Self-respect, though required for spiritual preservation, may be at odds with the caloric intake necessitated by the body. Shukhov is unable to choose easily: “And the worst thing was that if there was something left in the bowls you started to lick them. You couldn’t help it.” His concern for moral and esthetic standards conflicts with his appetite which is spurred by the continuous hunger within. But there is no transcendental reality in the gulag; there is no hereafter with its notions of reward and punishment. There is only the stark presence of starvation, the pain in the stomach emanating in the limbs and in the throat, the need to fill the void with something solid, with anything that will ease the hurt and make for life, or the semblance of life. There is nothing beyond the natural limits of the physical world here and now, and, within the confines of the camp, life is its own reward.
In addition, Kuzyomin’s code may be wrong with reference to licking the bowls, reasons Shukhov, because it is wrong when it forbids a prisoner to spy on another prisoner. The code maintains that a stool pigeon cannot survive, but Shukhov’s observation proves otherwise. He remarks: “About the secret spying he [Kuzyomin], of course, exaggerated. Exactly those [the stool pigeons] do survive.” In the jungle there is no room for the niceties of principle, and those who live by the laws of the outside die inside. If Shukhov ultimately resists the temptation to lick the bowls, it is for the same practical reason that he would not eat the eyes of a fish floating in a soup: fear that physical repulsion would induce nausea and vomiting. The law of the taiga cannot be mellowed or modified, and Shukhov can only accept that part of it which helps physical survival. Kuzyomin cannot have it both ways; Shukhov will not even try, for the risk is personal annihilation.
In fact, the more one is confined in the gulag, the more animalistic his reaction to food becomes. For example, sniffing turns out to be the most efficient sensory mode for detecting the presence and the sort of food. When one of the prisoners, Caesar Markovich, receives a parcel from home, he need not unpack the contents in order for Shukhov to know exactly what they are:
Like all the others he had the eyes of a hawk, and in a flash they ran over the things Caesar had laid out on the bed and on the locker. But though he still hadn’t taken the paper off them or opened the bags, Shukhov couldn’t help telling by ... a sniff of the nose that Caesar had gotten sausage, canned milk, a large smoked fish, fatback, crackers with one kind of smell and cookies with another, and about four pounds of lump sugar. And then there was butter, cigarettes, and pipe tobacco.
Shukhov’s sense of smell is so precise that he can distinguish “crackers with one kind of smell” from cookies with another. In the gulag, the human being-become-beast develops the instincts of the latter, and, in time, uses them with the same degree of accuracy.
Finally, the sacramental quality that food has for the incarcerated is shown poignantly in a discussion the hero has with the prisoner Alyoshka. The latter, a devout believer in the Baptist Church and a practitioner of its codes, talks to Shukhov in an attempt to convert him to Christianity. His speech, replete with vocabulary that might be effective outside, is powerless in the confines of the camp. Where physical survival is paramount, it is useless to invoke the might of the spirit, the immortality of the soul, and the purity of Paradise. Evangelical metaphors, likewise, are ill-placed in the atmosphere of the gulag, and the miracle of moving mountains means little to someone whose every moment of continued existence is in itself a miracle. And so Alyoskha fails; but, significantly, when he refers to the daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer, Shukhov properly asks: “You mean that ration [the daily one hundred gram bread allotment per man] we get?” Obviously, if that is all a person can hope for, or is permitted to ask of God, then, Shukhov reasons, there is not much point in prayer.
Shukhov’s spirit, then, reduced by imprisonment to instinct, acts in order to attain measurable and immediate results: the maximum caloric intake to maintain physical viability, which allows him to work and avoid the ire of the other prisoners and the camp authorities. One can stay alive this way, and one can count the days that pass and those that remain in one’s sentence. We meet Shukhov for only one day. We do not know if he will survive until he is released, or indeed if he will be released—the Soviet courts can renew a sentence if they so seem advisable. Still, we may conclude that his chances of self-preservation are good. After all, the law of the taiga may have its shortcomings (Shukhov recognizes these himself), but it is a natural law, one that ought to work. Man’s responsibility to his body may be secondary under normal conditions; within the narrow limitations of the gulag it becomes primordial.
Source: Alfred Cismaru, “The Importance of Food in ’One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’” in San Jose Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 99-105.
Robert L. Yarup
When this article was published, Yarup was affiliated with Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In the following excerpt, he examines Solzhenitsyn’s use of sensory imagery —particularly that of sound and taste —in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
Much in the manner of Macbeth’s offstage murder of his kinsman, sound or the lack of it in the opening section of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” forces attention on the meaning of the hammering and the significance it has for Denisovich as it beckons his consciousness to awaken to the fact of Soviet domination and oppression. In fact the five basic sense perceptions play a distinct part in the opening section to dramatize the novel’s underlying theme and to underscore the omnipresent conflict between body and spirit that manifests itself at every turn of Denisovich’s day. The parallel is clear: primitive sense perception dramatizes man’s instinct for freedom. Indeed, the agonizing cry of man’s unquenchable need for freedom is antithetically heard in the emblematic and “ringing” Soviet hammer.
The Soviet dissection of the human personality, however, is the dominant motif as each sense registers a negative sensation. Sound or the lack of it is reiterated in all three paragraphs. In the first it becomes fused with feeling, both physical and mental. The sound of repression, “The ringing noise” of “a hammer pounding on a rail,” comes “through the windowpanes covered with ice” and thus is immediately associated with the “cold,” a burden from which Denisovich is never released. Contrari-ly, while the effect has infinitesimal ramifications for Shukhov, the anonymous bellman of oppression, who “didn’t feel like going on banging,” can nonchalantly rid himself of the “seventeen and a half below” temperature.
In the second paragraph, “the sound stopped and it was pitch black.” The effect of the blackness increases the awareness of bondage. The ears strain without accompanying sight. The intensity of the shrill sound of “ringing” in an atmosphere of ice is replaced with a psychological chain. The idea pervades. Nothing breaks its terrifying grip. Within this vacuum, the blackness is given analogous meaning: “just like in the middle of the night when Shukhov had to get up to go to the latrine.” Shukhov is compelled biologically to relieve himself, and, as if to reinforce this meaning of compulsion, Solzhenitsyn then focuses on the “three yellow beams [which] fell on the window” from the compound lights. The image of prison bars, Shukhov’s biological compulsion, and the blackness thus fills the vacuum with realization which the hammering sounds.
In the final paragraph silence continues as consciousness beyond awareness of bondage has not yet awakened: “He didn’t know”; “nobody’d come”; “And you couldn’t hear the orderlies hoisting the latrine tank.” As the sound, sight, and feeling of enslavement is absorbed into the body, its stench is likewise registered by the residue of man’s biological waste. The odor must be all encompassing, for there are two hundred men in the barracks, and the “twenty-gallon” tank is filled to capacity. The stench becomes as much a part of Denisovich as the air he breathes.
Of the five senses, taste is omitted. Does the absence of that sense which accompanies man’s most essential physical need demand explication, or is it sufficient to note that “You couldn’t help” licking the bowls in the morning?
Thus in the opening three paragraphs, Solzhenitsyn dramatizes how the most primitive, physical aspects of man are subjugated to Soviet domination. His body is dissected into parts, and there seems less than little difference between the labor camp inmate and his counterpart emerging from the Ice Age. And yet he does emerge with an instinct towards freedom. The “stars” are obscured by the compound lights, the words of Peter and Paul are hidden away in Alyoshka’s notebook; “It’s the law of the jungle here,... But even here [man] can live.” And if the reader steps back and sees the panoramic view of man emerging from darkness into the light of the “red sunrise” and understands the spiritual message of Peter and Paul which frames Denisovich’s day, he will also perceive Solzhenitsyn hammering out his theme of man’s irrepressible instinct for freedom.
Source: Robert L. Yarup, “Solzhenitsyn’s ’One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1982, pp. 61-3.
When this article was published, Zekulin was affiliated with McGill University. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of the plot, style, and themes of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
It is little over a year since A. Solzhenitsyn’s first story ’One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ was published in the Soviet Union. It made history there and, for a time, became the most discussed book in the west as well. This interest, both in the USSR and the west, was mainly ’sensational’ and due to the exposure of what Tvardovski in his foreword calls euphemistically ’the unhealthy symptoms in our development which are linked with the period of the personality cult’. The literary value of the story was discussed very little....
[The story] is a mine of information, much more so than the well-known ’Notes from the House of the Dead’ by Dostoyevski which treats in a not dissimilar artistic manner the same theme—life in a prison camp—and to which it has often been compared. Firstly, we find an almost minute-by-minute time-table of a camp inmate’s long day. We are given detailed descriptions of what he wears and eats, what tricks he uses to protect himself against cold, hunger and the senseless cruelty of his fellow-prisoners and, especially, of his guards. Further, we are acquainted with the organization of the camp, the layout of the compound and of the building-site where the prisoners work, the system of guarding them inside the camp, during their daily march to work and back, and while they work. Then, the work itself is described thoroughly. In brief: having read the story, we know how the prisoner lives, what he does and thinks, we know what punishment he can receive and for what, and even what would happen to him if he escaped.
A comparatively large proportion of space is devoted to the portrayal of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov and his fellow-inmates. The mass of the prisoners are divided into ’good ones’, i.e. all those whom the author calls ’donkey-workers’ (rabotyagy), and ’bad ones’, i.e. those who managed to find for themselves by hook, but largely by crook, a ’cushy job’ as an orderly, cook or minor clerk, to avoid manual work and increase their chances of survival. A whole range of means is reported by which such a position of relative security can be obtained: from morally unimpeachable ones, like possession of a specific skill or smartness or just sheer luck, to the morally bad ones, like exaggerated servility or bribes, or—worst of all—denunciation of fellow-prisoners to the camp authorities. Thus, the ’bad ones’ who collaborate with the camp authorities are subdivided into two groups on the simple criterion of whether they do this under duress or of their own free will.
The ’good ones’ are also subdivided into the group of the ’better’ and the ’not-so-good’. This subdivision is much more subtle and reflects, to some extent, those values which enter into the Soviet code of ethics: thus, the man who helps his fellow-prisoners in any way (e.g. the brigade leader Tyurin) or who pulls his weight conscientiously in the work (e.g. the brigade member Klyovshin) belongs to the first group. (A curious and rather unexpected detail which, in all probability, also reflects an attitude common in the Soviet Union outside the camps but, this time, is opposed to the ’official line’, is the possibly unconscious unwillingness on the part of the author to put the non-Russians into the group of the ’better ones’; for instance, the two Estonians who help others and work conscientiously, etc., etc., and possess in addition other moral and civic virtues, are nevertheless
“Thus in the opening three paragraphs, Solzhenitsyn dramatizes how the most primitive, physical aspects of man are subjugated to Soviet domination.”
classified as ’not-so-good ones’. Is it that Solzhenitsyn, like his nineteenth century predecessors, still views non-Russians as incapable of entirely pure, unselfish and noble motivations? This explanation seems to be fortified by Solzhenitsyn’s other nineteenth century traits, as will be shown later.)
The guards and warders in the camp and the soldiers who escort the prisoners to outside work and guard them there are shown in much less detail. Both groups are clearly enough the prisoners’ enemies. But the soldiers of the escort are hated only as representatives of the authorities, of ’them,’ while the camp guards are hated with a frightening intensity (e.g. the secret police officer Volkovoi who, not long before, carried a whip which he used freely on prisoners, mainly those incarcerated in single cells of the BUR, this ’prison within the prison’ and the only solid stone building on the camp site).
’One Day ...’ provides the reader with direct information on other matters, less detailed but no less revealing. For example, the few remarks about the ’free men’ (volniye) living near the construction site and for whom the prisoners have built houses and a cinema, show that their life is not so very much easier than that of the prisoners: their food is bad, very inadequate and rationed (the year in which the action takes place is 1951); they are apt to steal at the site not only the materials and the tools which belong to the government (therefore, perhaps, in their minds, to nobody or even to ’themselves’) and which, for this reason, have to be guarded day and night, but even, incomprehensibly, the bowls from which the prisoners eat.
From incidental references to kolkhoz life we learn (in addition to more familiar matters) of a farm on which no able-bodied men remain; instead, with the connivance of the farm’s authorities, they travel
“Probably the most striking feature of the stories is the calm and detachment of presentation. The emotional stress which the subject-matter itself created must have been tremendous, but it never appears on the surface.”
across the country, sometimes even by air, earning big money by smearing with the help of three pseudo-artistic stencils carpet patterns on old bed sheets or any old piece of fabric.
There is in the story a wealth of indirect information as well. Perhaps the most interesting is a short survey of Soviet history from a peculiar though not unique angle: the generations of camp inmates. From 1930 to 1951 the flow of prisoners never diminished. The first prisoners, victims of the collectivization drive, were serving their first term when in 1935, after Kirov’s assassination, a new wave was sent to the camps, followed by that of the Great Purge which started in 1937. They were serving their second term when, after the war began, the soldiers who managed to break out of German encirclements and get back to their lines began to arrive, and continued to arrive until the end of the war. And those of them who survived were serving their third term in 1951 and ’breaking in’ new prisoners—actors, students, Baptists, Heroes of the Soviet Union, naval officers, directors of industry and bureaucrats, old men, middle-aged men and almost children—who came in a continuous stream to the camps with uniform sentences, now expediently increased to 25 years.
The question of people’s attitude to work as treated in ’One Day ...’, in relation to the place of work in the official Soviet scale of values, deserves a short study in itself.... The ’big scene’ in the story is the prisoners’ work on building a wall. At first glance this scene is the apotheosis of work, a song of praise to work (and, incidentally, the story’s only ’redemption’ theme). But, seen more closely, it becomes quite plain that Shukhov and his brigade do not work for the work’s sake but in order to erect as quickly as possible a shield against the killing frost and to receive a bigger ration of bread. Their enthusiasm has no other basis. Among his mates Shukhov is the only one who pays attention to the quality of the work (and even he slips a little towards the end of the scene), and the pride of work well done is a particular feature of his own character, not the general attitude....
The two stories, ’One Day ...’ and ’Matryona’s Household’, are not sketches (a genre which has been very popular in the Soviet Union since the early 1930s, and the artistic purpose of which is to draw attention to some external feature of life in general, some topical matter of public importance), but works of art, the purpose of which is to expose a problem (external or internal) which attracts or worries the author personally and which, in this opinion, deserves or needs his comments or his attempt at a solution. As works of art the two stories are based on the author’s knowledge, understanding and interpretation of life, in this case, on facts and happenings which he has actually experienced. (In ’One Day...’ he identifies himself with his characters and three or four times, when speaking about them, he uses the personal pronoun ’we’ ’Matryona’s Household’ is narrated in the first person.) The descriptive and narrative method he selects is ’direct’ and ’objective’: he represents life as it would be seen and understood by any ’normal’ person, that is, by people who neither possess any special knowledge, skill or understanding, nor have any extraordinary sensitivity, emotionality or mental or spiritual deformity. This method is usually called realism. The specific facts of life narrated and analysed in this cool and detached, direct way acquire through the author’s sincere and impassioned moral and intellectual engagement (usually called in such cases compassion) an intensity and sharpness which give them the qualities of universality and authenticity.
The problem which excites and worries Solzhenitsyn in these two stories is a familiar one to Russian literature, namely that of the Russian peasant. His approach to this problem, his comment upon it and—perhaps, it would be right to say—his attempt to solve it, is traditional for Russian literature (particularly that of the nineteenth century). His Russian peasant, as exemplified by Shukhov and by Matryona, is seen with all his faults; and at the same time he is idealized as he was by Grigorovich, Turgenev, Nekrasov, Lev Tolstoy et al. This idealization, for lack of other moral or social qualities present in the Russian peasantry, has to concentrate on two intangibles which can be neither proved nor disproved. These are patience and love of work.
The patience of the Russian peasant was for a long time a favourite theme with Russian writers who liked to see the peasant as the conscious ’bearer of the cross’, the martyr suffering willingly and hoping for reward only in the other world. It is difficult to understand this view of the Russian peasant, which was shared even by such exponents of the peculiar brand of peasant socialism as Chernyshevski and the Populists, or by such clearheaded and rational thinkers as Herzen. ’Pure idealizers’, while sympathizing deeply with the peasants, admiring them boundlessly, glorifying their Christian virtue and condemning morally those who seemed to be responsible for these shameful conditions, were content to leave things more or less as they were. ’Progressive idealizers’ thought to see the answer simply in overthrowing tsarism and transferring power to other hands; they hardly began to think of how, in practice, this would affect the peasants; they were only sure that their action would relieve the peasants of their undeserved martyrdom.
The notion of the Russian peasant as a mute and always patient sufferer became so widespread (it is the cornerstone of a myth known the world over under the name of ’the Russian Soul’) that it does not seem to have occurred to writers (and politicians, too) to look for other inherent characteristics, possibly more specific, to explain his condition (such as inability or unwillingness to think of the common good or far ahead, or to feel as a member of an organization of fellow human beings—characteristics to be found more readily in the masses of all races and nationalities than patience and readiness to suffer).
The Russian peasant’s love of work was, again traditionally, elevated by writers of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the level of a moral quality, and that, through a peculiar logic, for the very reason that in real life the opposite is the case. We are told that the peasant is lazy, indolent, fond of dodging work and, when forced to work, doing it in the most perfunctory manner. And, in the opinion of ’idealizers’, the peasant is right in being as he actually is, because he is forced to do the work which is of no benefit or no interest to him. Let him work as he wants—they suggest—and he will produce miracles of cleverness, skill and artistry, and all this by intuition or inspiration, without training or preparation.
The curious fact that Solzhenitsyn continues the traditional idealization of the Russian peasants seems to suggest that the conditions of their life today are not basically different from those a of century ago. ’Matryona’s Household’ indicates that even the peasants’ material condition has not changed appreciably. In so far as this is the case, its implications as regards the Soviet regime can scarcely be exaggerated.
The artistic merits of ’One Day . . .’ and ’Matryona’s Household’ are very considerable. Not only is there sincerity and passion (which, in this case, is indignation at the way peasants, human beings, are being treated), without which a work of art is flat and unconvincing, but also great craftsmanship, ability to narrate a story and remarkable skill in doing so.
Probably the most striking feature of the stories is the calm and detachment of presentation. The emotional stress which the subject-matter itself created must have been tremendous, but it never appears on the surface. ’Internally’, this is because Solzhenitsyn is concerned with more than the immediate subject-matter, which is only the outer skin of his ideas and ideals. ’Externally’, he achieves this composure firstly, by careful selection of facts, secondly, by strict control over his vocabulary and use of language.
The facts selected for representation are in both stories ordinary—life, external, commonplace facts, like, in the case of Shukhov, getting-up, having breakfast, going to work, working, returning, having supper, spending a few leisurely moments and going to bed; in the case of Matryona, their range is deepened (but not extended) by her hopes, dreams and memories. Never is there resort to emotional colouring, hyperbole or cheap sensationalism (which, with the subject-matter on hand, would be an easy slip to make for a lesser and less disciplined writer). The impact on the reader is achieved through his realization of how and why these commonplace facts of life are different from anything we know in our own life.
The description and narrative are conducted in a language which is cool and placid, simple and matter-of-fact. The type of language used is almost colloquial; it turns into slang or dialect in the dialogues, which are employed sparingly and only in order to emphasize or clarify the narrative or the description. The vocabulary is that of an educated Russian well versed in his national literature. There is no intentional play with words, no attempt to achieve special ’artistic’ effects by means of words, though Solzhenitsyn does create a great number of new words, mainly descriptive, mostly by an unusual method of noun-formation; but all his neologisms are perfectly understandable without special philological knowledge and are very effective.
Source: Gleb Zekulin, “Solzhenitsyn’s Four Stories,” in Soviet Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 1, July, 1964, pp. 45-62.
Labedz, Leopold, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record, Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1973, 320 p.
Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, New York: Norton, 1984, 1051 p.
Barker, Francis. Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form, New York: Harper and Row, 1977, 112 p.
Scholarly analysis of the political function of Solzhenitsyn’s writings. It shows how Solzhenitsyn’s later writings moved him from democratic values to traditional Russian authoritarianism.
Bjorkegren, Hans. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, New York: Third Press, 1972, 186 p.
A dated, but readable biography of Solzhenitsyn.
Gives a good chronology of controversy over “One
Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
Ericson, Edward E., Jr. Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980, 239 p.
A survey of Solzhenitsyn’s works using the theme of moral and religious vision.
Labedz, Leopold, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record, Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1973, 320 p.
Collection of letters, speeches, pronouncements and notes by the participants in Solzhenitsyn’s literary life and the Soviet establishment which sought to suppress him.
Nielsen, Niels C., Jr. Solzhenitsyn’s Religion, New York: Thomas Nelson, 1975, 164 p.
An analysis of Solzhenitsyn’s literary faith, with special emphasis on the Orthodox Church.
Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, New York: Norton, 1984, 1051 p.
A thorough biography of Solzhenitsyn. Scammell offers a critical analysis that sees the greatness of the writer, as well as displaying his personal weaknesses.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr. The Oak and the Calf, New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of literary life in the Soviet Union. It contains a kind of personal account of his emergence as a writer, the petty politics of writers, and of the censorial powers of the Soviets.
Solzhenitsyn: A Pictorial Autobiography, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974, 95 p.
A dated but entertaining overview of the man, providing a visual feeling of his life and times.
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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1962