In early 1945, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested in an East Prussian village and charged with making derogatory remarks about Stalin. Solzhenitsyn, like millions of others, consequently became a victim of the notoriously brutal gulag labour system, spending the next eight years in labour camps. He was released in 1953 and nine years later his novel, ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, was published in the literary journal Novy Mir. However, yet again Solzhenitsyn fell out of favour with the Soviet authorities and was deported in 1974 after being expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union for ‘opposing the basic principles of Soviet literature’. He returned to live in Russia in 1994 after twenty years in exile.
‘Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper’ (p17).
This omission of chapters enables the reader to visualise the monotony of life inside a gulag where a prisoner’s mind is occupied by only three thoughts: food, work, sleep. The novel, as is evident from the title, centres on just one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. One day out of his three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days sentence. However, considering the aforementioned monotony of life inside the gulag, the reason for describing just one day becomes readily apparent. There is simply no point in describing the other three thousand six hundred and fifty two days. Every day is exactly the same.
Throughout the novel the characters are subjected to numerous challenges in their fight to survive. However, the principal challenge lies not in the rules and regulations of the camp or in the hard labour that the prisoners face day in day out. The principle challenge, from which there is no escape, is the brutally cold weather.
‘With the snow creaking under their boots, the prisoners hurried away…All kept their heads down, buried in their buttoned-up coats, and all were chilled to the bone, not so much from the actual cold as from the prospect of having to spend the whole day in it’ (p12).
The guards exploit these conditions, making prisoners stand outside in the freezing cold for an endless amount of time whilst they check, and re-check, that every prisoner is accounted for before they set off for work. At one point the prisoners are forced to remove their undershirts out in the cold, depriving them of the last bit of warmth they had left. However, despite such acts of cruelty, we are soon made to realise that it is the prisoners who fare better in this battle to survive the elements. Whilst prisoners tie a cloth over their faces to protect themselves from the wind the guards are not allowed to do the same. In this respect, the captives have more freedom than their captors.
‘A guard can’t get people to budge even in working hours, but a team-leader can tell his men to get on with the job even during the break, and they’ll do it. Because he’s the one who feeds them. And he’d never make them work for nothing’ (p77).
He achieves this respect because he is a prisoner himself and is a victim of this cruel system.
At the end of the novel we leave Shukhov after what has been a good day. He hadn’t been put in the cells; he’d stolen an extra bowl of kasha (porridge) at dinner; he’d bought some tobacco and he hadn’t fallen ill. ‘A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day’ (p143). Whilst such events might seem trivial to most, to a man deprived of his liberty such brief moments of happiness are a reason to keep going. They are a reason to survive.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000)