Thanks to some famous Russian novels, Siberia has become for us Westerners sort of a synonym not just for harsh living conditions (above all owing to snow and bitter cold during seemingly endless winters), but also for cruel punishment in political systems that don’t allow deviations from the established doctrine. The book that I’m reviewing today shows most powerfully how Stalin carried to extremes what Russian Tsars had begun long before him: forced labour camps for political opponents or innocent men and women who somehow got under suspicion. The novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn focuses on the usual ups and downs of camp routine that make the day of an ordinary inmate in a Stalinist GULAG. Systematic cruelty, hardships and penury can’t extinguish his humanity and his ability to enjoy the few pleasant moments of his miserable existence.
Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn (Алексaндр Исaевич Солженицын) was born in Kislovodsk, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (today: Russia), in December 1918. Already as a university student he had in mind to write a monumental work on World War I and the Russian Revolution, but then he became a soldier in World War II and towards its end he was arrested for Anti-Soviet propaganda. After eight years in labour camps, during which he secretly kept writing, he was sent into exile in Siberia and he almost died from cancer. In 1956 Aleksandr Solzhenytsin was allowed to return to Ryazan where he worked as a mathematics teacher and wrote in his spare time. Only in 1962, however, he dared his literary debut with the novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Один день Ивана Денисовича) which was an immediate national and international success. After the end of the Khrushchev era in 1964 the political situation made all further publications of his works in the Soviet Union impossible for about twenty-five years, so the novels Cancer Ward (Раковый Корпус: 1966) and The First Circle (В круге первом: 1968) could be brought out – legally – only abroad. These early works earned the author the Nobel Prize in Literature 1970, which he received in person only four years later when he had already been evicted and deported from the Soviet Union. His most noted later works are The Red Wheel (Красное колесо) series on the Russian Revolution, of which August 1914 (Август Четырнадцатого: 1971) is the first of four finished parts or knots, and The Gulag Archipelago (Архипелаг ГУЛАГ: 1973). In 1976 the author settled down in the USA to lecture at university along with writing. In 1994, after the fall of Soviet Communism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returned to his home country where he died in Moscow, Russia, in August 2008.
The inmates of the forced labour camp in wintry Siberia have learnt to live only one day at a time and this One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has already served eight of ten years for espionage (although like many others he only had the bad luck to have been a prisoner-of-war of the Germans), starts all but promising. When Shukhov wakes up his bones ache and he feels sick altogether, so he stays in his dirty, bug-infested cot after reveille instead of getting up at once. It is only a minor violation of the camp rules, but the guard immediately gives him three days in the punishment cell with work and takes him away to the commander’s office. However, it soon turns out that the guard only wanted someone to wash the floor of the guardroom and in the evening he won’t be put into the punishment cell after all. Relieved Shukov does his job and ponders about whether he’ll have enough time to get to the dispensary to report sick after the scant breakfast in the canteen that will inevitably leave him hungry. In the end, he makes it, but the orderly has already completed the day’s sick list and tells Shukov to join his brigade for work. Led by their foreman called Tyurin, the twenty-four men of the 104th brigade march off and join their usual unit working at the half-finished thermal power station. It’s only then that Shukov knows that Tyurin has scraped together enough bribe-beacon for the camp officers to prevent them from being assigned to a new building site in the plain fields without a place to warm up (temperatures in the morning are at -27°C) or to hide from the wind. And the day continues with more such small surprises that make camp life a little easier to bear and the day – almost – a happy day.
It is obvious from the start that the novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is based on first-hand experience of everyday life in the forced labour camps or more precisely the ill-famed GULAGs which Stalin built in the most remote and unfriendly places of the Soviet Union from 1928 through his death in 1953. Despite all, the story that the third-person narrator tells from the point of view of an unconcerned observer is masterly fiction, not a memoir in the vein of the powerful accounts that holocaust survivors like Victor E. Frankl (»»» read my review of Man’s Search for Meaning) or more recently Manny Steinberg (»»» read my book notice of Outcry on Lagraziana's Kalliopeion) have produced ever since the end of World War II. The novella also reminds of the work of another Nobel laureate, namely the Hungarian Kertész Imre who in his novel Fatelessness from 1975 fictionalised the terror that he had experienced in Nazi concentration camps. Unlike these authors of fiction and non-fiction Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn didn’t attempt to show the grinding fight for survival of the average inmate during the entire period of detention, but an ordinary working day in the camps sufficed him to show the incredible suffering as well as the tiny pleasures that the GULAG system had in store. The story is written in a very concise as well as modest language and yet it evokes the atmosphere of the camp with incredible power as well as psychological depth. Once I had started reading my German translation of the book, I was hooked and couldn’t make myself put it away again unfinished.
In my opinion One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn counts among the best classics of world literature although it neither is the first nor the last fiction work revolving around the horrors lived in forced labour camps of a despotic system. The Swedish Academy awarded the author the Nobel Prize in Literature with good reason. Usually, I avoid reviewing books on my blog that are still widely read and on school reading lists, but this one feels so important that I just can’t help recommending it too. After all we should never forget!
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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!