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One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn



Posted September 3, 2016 by

Reviewed by: Dave Cymbalisty              Date: 13 November 2001

one day in the THEME: Personal struggle for survival in a Stalinist concentration camp. A more literal translation of the title from the Russian would be “The Day Of Ivan Denisovich”. This “one day” is seen through the eyes of the hero Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a humble peasant who during WWII was captured by the Germans. After his escape he came back to the Russian lines where he was captured by his own countrymen, accused of being an enemy spy (forced by Soviet counterintelligence officers to sign his own “confession”), and sentenced to ten years hard labor.

The story follows the routine details of Shukhov’s life: jolted out of a frozen slumber at 5 a.m.; a breakfast of slop and boiled gruel with fish skeletons floating next to rotten cabbage leaves; roll call in the polar frost; followed by a ravenous-dog-escorted march to the day’s work… which consists of mixing cement and building walls in the utter desolation of the Northern steppe. The author’s depiction of this ceaseless slavery is truly mind-numbing.

On the way back to the barracks the men are meticulously searched for anything they may be attempting to be smuggle in. The penalty for doing so is something no prisoner wants to contemplate. Shukhov privately revels over a piece of wire and a string that he has managed to sneak past the guards. After all, who knows how vitally necessary these items may be “one day”! At the end of this particular day’s near-deathly labor Shukhov actually feels fortunate that he has managed to finagle an EXTRA bowl of skeleton soup, get a hold of some shreds of tobacco, and keep from being thrust into solitary confinement for any of the million minor offenses of the camp. The story ends: “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.” The final point reminding us of the Gulag system’s merciless punitive accuracy. A world of no parole… and no reprieve.

The reader is chilled by this book. It is shivering. Do we pick up anything by Solzhenitsyn for its “warmth and fuzziness”? Most definitely not. We pick him up to come face to face with mankind’s capacity to methodically inflict cruelty and despair upon others. In the process we are always afforded a very important glimpse of what those “others” are capable of enduring. And we set Solzhenitsyn down, thankful that we are none of his characters… even as we realize that some very real people (including the author himself) did not have that luxury. Ivan Denisovich is essential reading for human beings.

 – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – 1962

ReadLit Team


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