on 17 October 2011
I read this book, in this translation, when it was first published in English in the 1960s. It was the beginning of a life-long interest in Solzhentisyn. His work presents a formidable challenge to translators and sadly, this not the best translation available and I am surprised the Penguin are still publishing it. The translation by H. T Willets published by Harper (ISBN 0002716070) is vastly superior and is the only one that was approved of by Solzhenitisyn. If you don't read Russian and want to understand why Solzhenitsyn was so critically acclaimed a writer this version will not help much.
on 14 February 2001
First and foremost, this book conveys the barbarity of Stalin's concentration camps. By writing the novel from the perspective of an uncomplicated utilitarian, Solzhenitsyn's message is conveyed in a simple but extremely effective way. By drawing on his own experiences in such a camp, his account of this single day is both authoratative and compelling. Beyond that though, he makes numerous attacks on the state of Russian politics at the time and indeed on Russian society, which he weaves elegantly into the text. After reading this book one is left in no doubt as to the horror of a life in Siberia's camps, or to the author's personal opinion of the state of the land of his birth. In short, this is probably Solzhenitsyn's finest work, and as such must be read by all.
on 27 February 2009
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.
Before Novy Mir published Solzhenitsyn's 47,000 word story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in 1962, Soviet authors had only been allowed to refer to the labour camps of the Gulag, not actually write about them. Essentially a Stalinist phenomenon, the camps had finally been abolished a year or so earlier. Publication of the novella (after a degree of censorship) required the specific authorisation of Nikita Khrushchev.
The story reflects Solzhenitsyn's own experience as a political prisoner. He was sentenced for criticising Stalin in a private letter; his character Ivan Denisovich Shukhov for having the misfortune to spend a few wartime days in Nazi captivity before escaping and re-penetrating the Red Army lines. Shukhov was obliged to sign a confession that he had returned as a spy (better to sign than be shot, he reasoned) and sentenced to ten years, which he spent at first in a 'general' camp and then in the 'special' camp in which Solzhenitsyn details his day. Knowing prisoners who had been sentenced to one ten year term after another, Shukhov had no expectation of being allowed to return home when his sentence ended, but he hoped at least to gain the relative freedom of internal exile.
The day described is in winter, with an outdoor temperature of -27.5C. Nevertheless, the work battalions are formed-up as usual and marched to various work sites in a rapidly developing settlement. Shukhov's team is assigned to work on construction of a power station. Although not as favourable as the indoor work of the machine works, that is considered preferable to being sent to the Socialist Way of Life settlement, where there was neither shelter nor any source of heat. At least at the power station it was necessary to have fires to thaw and dry sand, the partially constructed buildings afforded some shelter, and there was a makeshift canteen.
As the day goes by, Solzhenitsyn informs us of many of the permutations of a prisoner's life. Some achieve relatively cushy jobs, some manage to contrive small advantages for themselves, but it is made clear that the position of every single one of them is utterly unenviable. For most prisoners, the primary objective is to keep themselves alive, to survive their sentence and once again taste freedom. Striving to obtain and hold on to every gram of their food entitlement, and if possible a second helping or a morsel from another prisoner's food parcel, is paramount. It is important to keep out of trouble; ten days in the cells condemns a man to a shortened life of ill-health, fifteen days to the grave. It is also necessary to maintain good relations with key figures among one's fellow prisoners and to remain optimistic.
At the end of the day, Shukhov counts his blessings; he had not been put in the cells, his team had not been sent to work at the Socialist Way of Life settlement, he had several times obtained extra helpings of food, enjoyed his work building a wall, found and smuggled into camp a piece of a hacksaw blade that he would fashion into a cobbler's knife, and he hadn't fallen ill. 'Almost a happy day.'
on 7 October 2015
I'm not going to describe the contents; sufficient to say this remains a magnificent short novel, set over just one day in a Soviet gulag. There is only one chapter and it is difficult to put the book down because you want to keep reading.
on 17 January 2006
‘One Day…’ is possibly the most important book published in post-Stalinist Russia. During the 1960s Kruschev was rapidly backing away from Stalin’s legacy (a period known as ‘the thaw’), and the Soviet authorities allowed the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s book to indicate a new openness about Stalinism. People who lived under Stalin were aware that many of their fellow citizens had been ‘disappeared’, but had no idea what had become of them. ‘One Day…’ was the first written account of the labour camps they were sent to.
The book follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov through a single day in his life in a labour camp in a freezing winter. It is filled with the minute details about the day, the little things that make life bearable for a few hours. The picture it paints is of men hung out to dry by the state, sent to camps for non-existent crimes, brutalized by guards (and each other), freezing to death or slowly wasting away from malnutrition and overwork. Life in the camps is unfathomably hard, and it becomes clear that the men sent to them had been sent there by the state in the hope that they would never return.
The genius of ‘One Day…’ is that we start to realise that Ivan is having a good day, because he doesn’t fall foul of the guards, and actually scrounges a little extra soup. This make the book a fairly pleasant read, or at least not a relentlessly grim one, but at the back of the reader’s mind is the thought that, if this is a good day, I would hate to read about a bad one. Subsequently, ‘One Day…’ is a strangely upbeat book about a terrible, terrible place, making it an easy read while simultaneously ramming home the horror of the camps. It is deservedly recognised as a classic, both because of its historical importance and writing style, and should be read by anyone interested in great twentieth century writing.
Solzhenitsyn’s first novel reconstructs a typical day during the ten-year sentence of an inmate in a forced labour camp during the Stalinist era. Although narrated from the perspective of a soldier falsely charged with being a German spy, the autobiographical implications are clear: Solzhenitsyn himself had been arrested for criticising Stalin in a letter, and consequently spent eight years doing hard labour in three different camps. The third and final term of his imprisonment was spent in a camp for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, and it is generally considered that this is the setting for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book created a literary sensation, thanks to its being one of the first works of the post-Stalin age to convey to an international readership the experience of political imprisonment and repression under the ancien régime; moreover, its direct and unimpassioned style made it a worthy newcomer to the Russian canon, preoccupied with realism and social representation.
Perhaps the most insightful aspect of this novel is the way it charts the change of an inmate’s mentality and personality as he begins to adapt to the rigours of his new existence – a necessary adaptation, since those who pine for their former lives in the outside world, and its normalcies (like Fetyukov) will not last their sentence. Shukhov (Denisovich) is a case in point: he understands that one can only survive by ingratiating oneself in the system of reciprocity that exists among the prisoners; a world where you constantly scratch other peoples’ backs in the hope that they will generally scratch yours in return. He also understands when to be humble (in front of the camp authorities or the gang leader) and when to be aggressive (in the food hall, or when labouring). Crucially he has come to realise that survival under such inhuman conditions hangs on a ‘blanking out’ of reality or notions of justice. Keeping his boots in good condition, avoiding the cells, beatings and the worst jobs, getting himself extra portions of food – these are the minor ‘victories’ by which, if achieved, he is able to convince himself that he has had a good day. Denisovich opines that a prisoner must get everything he can from his free moments – early in the morning, at the end of the day, and during the very brief pauses for meals. These moments of liberty become sacred, the days are manageable because one is constantly aware of working towards them. Thus a bowl of soup is to the starved and oppressed inmates ‘more precious to them than freedom, more precious than their previous life and the life that the future held for them.’ Yet at the same time, the constant roll calls, searches and fear of punishment pervade the inmate’s mind, creating an unceasing paranoia that is perhaps the most terrifying ordeal of his camp existence, since it robs him of freedom even in his free moments:
‘Even the thoughts of a prisoner are not free, always returning to the same thing, the individual turning it over in his mind again and again: would they find that piece of bread in his mattress?’
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a compelling, incisive account of an existence that might now seem inconceivable to us, so far from our notions of human rights and individual freedom of choice. As such it is a vitally important means of not forgetting the many appalling labour and concentration camps that crossed the face of Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. There are aspects of the book I did not like – it seemed to lack a literary style at times, and could be slow-paced and tedious in parts (although this is perhaps not inappropriate given the setting), but it unquestionably still merits reading, being both a seminal account of an inglorious chapter in Russian history and a psychological investigation of how one could best survive such circumstances – a testament to the resistance of man stripped of his freedom.
on 30 October 2013
I was so happy to find this book still available to buy. I read this at school and loved it then. The writer really brings to life how these men lived and worked and struggled for even an extra bit of bread. Everyone should read this book.
on 18 May 2014
In these times, where the threat of war on Europe's eastern borders looms large yet again, many people will be asking themselves why Russia is acting as it is.
Having been interred in prison camps by Stalin, Solzhenitsyn writes with an informed brilliance, and a sharpness which cuts through to the bone. As you follow the struggle for survival in the Siberian wastes of the narrator, you are reading of more than 24 hours in a prison camp: You see portraits of man in all his glory and depravity; The Kafka style grinding of human lives in the gears of a bureaucracy driven by an evangelical political system; and a universally appreciable quest for small comforts and victories.
The prose is efficient, but with a peculiarly Russian artistry, thrusting you right into the heart of the novel to show you the beauty of suffering. As an introduction to Russian literature, I feel this is a far more productive and satisfying starting point than earlier writers (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy et al), being more comfortably paced and sparse than the classic masters. As an examination of the Russian mentality, it is phenomenal. Solzhenitsyn reveals determination, resilience, and a sort of national parochialism which borders on pride, despite what their government does to them. To try and express all the author reveals in an Amazon review is virtually impossible though - the book needs to be read and absorbed.
In short, a wonderful addition to any library, and one which you will return to in search of hidden truths.
on 1 June 2016
The book conveys the constant element of threat experienced each day by "the zeks" coming from all sources and utterly relentless.
The good day experienced by Shokov was actually a series of negatives. This didn't happen, that didn't happen.
This has been my first experience of Solzhenitsyn but I do think I would like to read more.