I suppose it’s a bit ironic that I finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the midst of one of last weeks winter storm, snow falling and wind blowing and the temperature dropping as low as 2 degrees Fahrenheit. And yet, Utah’s snow is just as quick to melt as it is to accumulate, nothing like the frozen tundra where the Russian gulag imprisoned millions of victims of Stalin’s purges. As far as that world may be from this one, both in time and space, Solzhenitsyn’s tale is no less relevant, and not just for its historical significance in blowing a hole in the secrets of the Russian gulag.
The classic is a description of a day in the life of a prisoner of the Russian gulag in the mid-1950s, and it’s every bit as readable now as it was when it came out in 1962. As a prisoner of the gulag himself, Solzhenitsyn well knew the daily trials and travails, and in One Day… he describes the hard life of a prisoner with a descriptive accuracy that colors the image but doesn’t slow the story. Indeed, it reads like an autobiography–which it is–but carries all the literary force of a work of fiction.
A beautifully written work of fiction.
After I read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History last year I found myself completely mesmerized, if grotesquely so, with the bizarre world of the Russian gulag (is it redundant to call it that?). Applebaum referenced Solzhenitsyn’s One Day… and subsequent works so often that I felt I had to read it. And I’m glad I did. The gulag was a place where the rules of justice didn’t apply, where all the distortions of a byzantine bureaucratic system are magnified, and where there is not so much a distinction between good and evil as there is scarcity and more scarcity. Even the guards who man the watch towers are prisoners of the Twilight Zone-like gulag, if only in command and a step or two above the prisoners.
In this weird and oppressive world, the only sanity seems to come from a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Pleasure is found in warm–and watery–soup. A market is black, providing not necessities, but the few luxuries that get smuggled in, like tobacco, or maybe the piece of serrated metal that can serve as a make-shift tool. Interspersed with effortless description Solzhenitzen inserts insights that bring the labor camp to life: the escape that physical labor provides, the struggle to keep a mentality of survival, competition between work gangs for what amounts to just a bit more than nothing, the daily fight to stay warm, and, always, oppression–and the survival–of the human body and spirit.
Here he is, at the end of his day, considering with almost grateful serenity the fortune of the 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 got over it.”
Describing hunger: “The belly is a demon. It doesn’t remember how well you treated it yesterday; it’ll cry out for more tomorrow.” And “That bowl of soup—it was dearer than freedom, dearer than life itself, past, present, and future.”
The delusional power of the government on the laws of nature: “Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.”
“Who decreed that?”
“The Soviet government.”
And finally, the resignation of time in the gulag, a seemingly never-ending stretch: “The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one. Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were for leap years.”
If you’ve never read about the gulag, or even if you have only a passing knowledge of it, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a must-read, a beautiful and power piece of literature that not only describes history but made it. As such, it deserves its place among the classics of 20th-century literature.