One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own time “spent in a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan” (http://www.nobelprize.org.html) and if his other works are as profound as this novel it is clear why he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. The story details a single day in the life of its protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has already spent eight years within the Soviet Gulag system in the 1940s. Having first spent time in the general Ust-Izhma camp, Shukhov, amongst others who were imprisoned for alleged political crimes, was transferred to the ‘special’ camp where this story is based. Death, disease and violence are commonplace within the forced labour camp and day to day survival becomes all encompassing, for body, mind and spirit. Solzhenitsyn describes an inhumane existence where prisoners are reduced to mere numbers and set to work on various building sites or plants at least six days of the week in freezing conditions. Fed meagre portions of bread, porridge or soup and dressed in identical clothes hardly fit for the climate and even then stripped from them at the whim of guard searches, the men are grouped in teams and only granted reprieve from their duties when the temperature drops to -41°.
The teams in which the men live and work are the closest to family or friends, particularly in conditions where negotiating the system is paramount to survival and alliances can change within moments. The sources and targets of frustration and ill will interchange rapidly, particularly when food or fleeting moments of personal time are threatened. Mutual respect with team leaders is all important given their slight sway in making deals with the authorities. Learning the politics of the camp is integral, such as who to befriend, aid or share rare gifts of food with. Communication with the outside world or family is scant and almost becomes irrelevant in the monotony of camp life, unless a prisoner is the recipient of a food parcel. Resigned to their fate, the prisoners eventually stop counting the days of their sentence, some still with the hope of freedom, others just doing the best they can to stay alive, relishing small pleasures such as the butt of a cigarette or an extra serving of the daily ration.
Solzhenitsyn’s narrative is honest and frank and his style isn’t overly emotive in order to emphasise his views. By describing just one day in such detail he allows the reader to comprehend the horror of living such a punishing existence day in, day out with no respite. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich grants perspective to current first world complaints and privileges taken for granted and is also a testament to the strength of people who suffer at the cruel hand of other human beings. Most definitely a valuable read.
“This brutal, shattering glimpse of the fate of millions of Russians under Stalin shook Russia and shocked the world when it first appeared.
Discover the importance of a piece of bread or an extra bowl of soup, the incredible luxury of a book, the ingenious possibilities of a nail, a piece of string or a single match in a world where survival is all. Here safety, warmth and food are the first objectives. Reading this book, you enter a world of incarceration, brutality, hard manual labour and freezing cold – and participate in the struggle of men to survive both the terrible rigours of nature and the inhumanity of the system that defines their conditions of life.”