Now that Alexander Solzhenitsyn is remembered as a formidable opponent of Communism and the Soviet system, it is strange to think that "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", which deals with the controversial subject of life in a Soviet labour camp, was first published (in November 1962) in an official literary magazine with the blessing of the Soviet authorities. Indeed, its publication is said to have been authorised by Nikita Khrushchev himself. Khrushchev's motives were, of course, self-interested. He saw the book as a useful tool in his campaign of de-Stalinisation, a campaign which served to justify his own rule and his disposing of rivals such as Lavrentiy Beria and Viktor Abakumov who had been more closely associated with Stalinist repression. (Khrushchev's own complicity in Stalin's crimes was, of course, airbrushed out of history). Nevertheless, the publication of the book was an unprecedented event; never before had so critical an account of Soviet rule, even Stalinist rule, been openly distributed.
The action of the book takes place on a single day in January 1951, a day seen through the eyes of the central character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who is in the eighth year of a ten-year sentence. Shukhov's sentence was imposed after, as a soldier in World War II, he was captured by the Germans. Although he managed to escape and make his way back though the Soviet lines, he was accused of being a spy. The novel is autobiographical and reflects Solzhenitsyn's own experiences in the gulags after he was imprisoned for writing derogatory comments about Stalin in a private letter.
Shukhov is innocent of the accusations of espionage, but this does not really matter to the Soviet authorities as the purpose of the labour camps was less to punish the guilty than to deter the populace from uttering any criticisms of the regime and to act as a source of slave labour for Stalin's grandiose construction projects. The prisoners (known as "zeks" in Russian) are organised into squads of around 20 men each. (Shukhov's squad is the 104th). As an incentive to work, the zeks are fed according to how much work their squad accomplished the previous day, forcing them to work as hard as possible to survive. Any slackers will be pressurised into working by their fellow squad members.
On the day in question, the 104th are set to work building a power station, even though it is bitterly cold and the mortar used for bricklaying will freeze if not applied quickly enough. (Regulations state that the men will only be excused work if the temperature drops below -41°C). We get to know a number of Shukhov's fellow squad members, including the foreman Tyurin, respected by his men for his fairness and his skill in bargaining with the camp authorities, the deeply religious Alyosha who is supported by his faith, the shameless scrounger Fetyukov and Buinovsky, a former naval captain (imprisoned for accepting a gift from a British colleague) who finds it difficult to adapt to the camp after his previously privileged life. We also learn of the hardships faced by the zeks- the harshness of the weather, their inadequate clothing and equally inadequate food, consisting (unless they are lucky enough to receive parcels from home) of black bread, thin porridge and watery cabbage soup. They also face bullying from the guards, who are obsessive about enforcing petty regulations, although Solzhenitsyn does remind us that the guards are human too. Their attitude stems mainly from their own resentment at the hard conditions and at the harsh discipline imposed upon them. Should any of the zeks succeed in escaping, those guards deemed responsible will be forced to take their places in the camp.
The book ends with Ivan reflecting that he has had a good day. He hasn't fallen ill; he hasn't been sent to the punishment cells; he managed to obtain an extra bowl of porridge at dinner; he found a broken hacksaw blade which could serve him as a knife; his friend Tsezar received a parcel and shared some of its contents with him. "A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day". This passage is, of course, deeply ironic. If this day, with all its hardships, counts as a good day in Ivan's life, we are left to reflect on what a bad day must be like.
Even in the West this book was an influential one, forcing many people to reassess their view of Soviet Communism; to Russians in the sixties, trying to come to terms with the legacy of Stalinism it must have come as a shattering revelation. Solzhenitsyn never explicitly denounces the Communist system in the book; had he done so, the book would doubtless have been banned. He simply provides a description of what life in the gulag was like, but in the long run his stark, spare prose was to prove as damaging to the system as any amount of political rhetoric. It is hardly surprising that after Khrushchev's fall his successor Leonid Brezhnev did all he could to muzzle Solzhenitsyn, eventually expelling him from the Soviet Union.