Book Review: “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

[Classic Reads 2012-03]

“Freedom meant one thing to him—home” (p.136).

Russian literature has always intrigued me, more for its survival in facing the Bear than for its literary genius. I selected this book for this year’s Classic Reads list mostly due to the writer’s unique plot: a relatively uneventful day in the life of political prisoner of Soviet Russia.

I say “uneventful” because the content of the book is neither thrilling nor, as compared to other novels, exciting. It is however terribly intriguing, which is why One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has remained a classic through the life and afterlife of the Soviet Union’s oppressive rule. Its minor conflicts midst the major conflict of life in prison maintains the readers interest, and the entire novel teaches the reader more than most textbooks could about how people managed to survive confinement in Russia’s coldest and harshest prisons.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s introduction to this 1998 Signet Classic edition shed a great deal of light for me, not only on the story, but also on the author and the times of his writing. Solzhenitsyn himself had spent some time in a Russian gulag, and while One Day is not an autobiographical tale, it certainly is based on some real-life experiences. It is also important to note that One Day was not meant to overtly condemn Russia for her inhumanity but rather to inform the world of what political prison was like. Rather than being immediately condemned for the novel, Solzhenitsyn was actually praised by Khrushchev himself, who, when he had first read the book, was experiencing hints of anti-Stalinism himself.

Several portions of the book stood out to me as I read, namely those which gave insights to prison that only a prisoner could give. As Ivan Denisovich Shukhov watches the guards freeze in the bitter Siberian winter, he remarks that, because “the guards weren’t allowed to tie cloth over their faces, theirs was not much of a job either” (p.32). He does praise the guards in a way, however, when he comments on their wisdom in organizing the prisoners: “To outsmart you, they thought up work squads…Everything was so arranged in the camp that the prisoners egged one another on. It was like this: either you all got a bit extra or you all croaked. You’re loafing…do you think I’m willing to go hungry just because of you? Put your guts into it, slob” (p.48). Such emotion led prisoners to this conclusion regarding their chances at ever overtaking the guards: “Who’s the  [prisoner’s] enemy? Another [prisoner]. If only they weren’t at odds with one another—ah, what a difference that’d make!” (p.101).

Ivan’s “crime” of high treason was nothing more than an honest escape from an enemy POW camp, later twisted by the KGB into something far more subversive. For preserving his life, he received a sentence of ten years. Survival depended on behavior in this Siberian gulag, which is why Solzhenitsyn writes that “if you show your pride too much…you’re lost…Better to growl and submit. If you were stubborn they broke you” (p.41). And so the Ivan Denisovich Shukhov whom the reader meets, a man nearly to end of his prison term, is a gentle, submissive, hard-working and loyal prisoner who never causes ripples with the guards, but who still fights for his fair share with the prisoners.

I truly enjoyed this book, despite its lack of chapter breaks and regular novel-ish features. I recommend it to lovers of history and those interested in learning more about humanity’s resilience in trials. I would also like to share my favorite line from the whole book, a line which is more a life-lesson for all than simply a proverb for the imprisoned: “The belly is a demon. It doesn’t remember how well you treated it yesterday; it’ll cry out for more tomorrow” (p.118).

©2012 E.T.

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