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.
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