Read and review: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Alima Nurmukhamedova

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short story by Alexander Solzhenitsyn published in November 1962. It narrates the course of a single day in the life of an ordinary prisoner called Shukhov Ivan Denisovich in a Soviet labour camp. Highly praised for its racy literary style, insightful and truthful depiction of labour camp life and subtlety of political and social criticism, the short story is considered to be a turning point in the history of the USSR, and is widely read and studied to the present day.

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Arguably, there could not be a better, more qualified person to write such a story. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a man of utmost intellectual abilities: not only was he carefully observant of his surroundings, ranging from his immediate situation to that of the whole world; lustful after literature and history and able to process the information in a creative way as a truly good writer would be; but also highly knowledgeable in the field of physics and mathematics. Having graduated with a distinction from the Rostov State University with a degree in the aforementioned subjects, Solzhenitsyn went on to teach them, which enabled him to describe the physical work performed by the labour camp prisoners in the most intricate detail. Aside from that, Solzhenitsyn’s own experience made the short story astonishingly authentic as he himself was sent to a labour camp in the northern part of Kazakhstan himself, for criticising Stalin and his serfdom-like policies in his mail correspondence with an old friend.

Solzhenitsyn described the publication of Ivan Denisovich as “miraculous” and it is nothing short of a miracle indeed. Criticising not just Stalinism but also the general way the Soviet authorities applied communist ideals, the short story had almost no chance of getting published. Solzhenitsyn recollects that hadn’t it been for Tvardovsk (the editor of Novy Mir, a literary journal) and his ardent desire to see the short story in print, and for Khrushchev and his undertaking of dissipating of Stalin’s cult of personality, the short story would have never seen the light of day.

It is positively shocking to think, given the widespread acclaim upon its publication, that it was extremely likely that no one would have ever read One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. A lot of people were profoundly touched by the work; indeed, Solzhenitsyn received an overwhelming amount of letters from other prisoners of labour camps praising his short story, the first labour camp novella in Russian literary history, begging for meetings to tell him more stories of their own gruesome experiences. And so Solzhenitsyn did meet them and thus Ivan Denisovich helped the author to accumulate striking material for his later works, such as The Gulag Archipelago.

Apart from the basic human level, the short story was also met with high praise from critics, almost immediately receiving universal critical acclaim as it was quite quickly translated into at least 11 other languages and talked about in the Nobel Prize award ceremony. Many critics were even prophetic in their reviews saying that the new long-awaited giant literary genius had finally arrived. Solzhenitsyn’s work was mainly complimented on its use of racy language, succinct style and naturalist portrayal of life, the latter of which is absolutely critical to Solzhenitsyn’s intentions.

Solzhenitsyn set out to describe his labour camp life in the most candid way possible and amidst the work the idea was conceived. The writer realised that he just needed to describe the most ordinary day of the most ordinary prisoner in the most scrupulous detail and that it would suffice to reflect the whole of prison existence and more. Naturally, with such a goal Solzhenitsyn uses the very language of the men, the zeks or the prisoners. It is the voice of the Russian muzhik or the Russian man that we hear in the short story showcasing the incredible versatility of Russian language ranging anywhere from literary discussions to colloquial phrases, to Ukrainian vernacular to profanity. Indeed, the short story assembles a range of characters different in their nationalities and occupations before the imprisonment but united under the aegis of shared suffering caused by the Soviet regime. Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Russians, prisoners of war, intellectuals, baptists, criminals and many others – all speak in their own voices and we are able to hear them.

Consequently, we pity them tremendously for having to be unfairly made to work in extreme cold, with little if not non-existent sanitary conditions, while suffering from malnutrition. However, more importantly perhaps, these feelings generate further mediations regarding the Soviet mode of existence. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is highly allegorical as it is fully capable of describing one day of the life of an average person in Soviet Union. Should the conditions of this life be compared to that of the labour camp is revealing of Solzhenitsyn’s critical stance in this short story.

The prisoners of the labour camp are shown as having a very sophisticated social hierarchy based on their age, pre-war occupations, belief systems and even individual physiques; quite often they address each other according to the military rank and some of them seem to rule the others. However, just as we become fully engaged in their daily routine the social portrait turns bitter as for the Soviet authorities that govern the camp, those prisoners, each an individual with a story, are known only by their assigned identity numbers. It was a complete and forced relinquishment of individuality; the way prisoners exist having to fight for a tiniest piece of bread, a place to dry the valenki, even work tools, while the authorities live with all the essential conveniences ensuring that the rest are kept living in fear is Solzhenitsyn’s reflection on how the Soviet regime treated its people in an identical manner. They were held as beings with no human rights in constant fear of getting denounced, and because of that the people shrank themselves, both mentally and physically. A happy joyous commune way of life where no one is in need – a communist ideal never achieved in USSR.

On that note, Solzhenitsyn as an author blends wonderfully together all of the voices found in the story and although being quite strong in criticism is at the same time less certain in what a political alternative should be. At the time Solzhenitsyn was gradually becoming more and more disillusioned with not just the fact that crucial Marxist and Leninist principles were being abandoned in USSR but with communism as a whole. Instead, Solzhenitsyn was turning towards Orthodox Christianity which is reflected in the polemic dialogue between Ivan Denisovich and Aleshka, the Baptist who devoutly prays and reads the Bible every night. And yet, there is still uneasiness as to how life itself should be organised.

Overall, it is no wonder One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is still relevant today. For one, it is an almost universal truthful account of sufferings and hardships in the Soviet labour camps and, if one was to treat it allegorically, of suffering in general in the Soviet Union. This short story is more than that however. The way the governmental machine is infiltrated with bribery and corruption and the way it executes power has not changed still, at the very least in the countries of ex-USSR dominion. Lastly, in the contemporary world where many distrust communism, there yet seems to be a place for disillusionment with the capitalist mode of production as well – the USSR’s privileged few and their desire of power were in the wrong, but was communism?

Alima Nurmukhamedova is an English and Related Literature student at the University of York

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