Wednesday, August 30, 2017

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Published 1962

Experience a typical day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet Gulag. Ivan Denisovich has been a prisoner for eight years, and he knows how to survive in the work camp. He is a fictional character, -- as is his story -- but it is a topic the author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is all too familiar since he himself knows personally what life is like inside the Gulag. 

Under a Communist regime, disagreement with government was strictly prohibited and would earn you ten years in a prison work camp. Or you could be accused of something, like spying; even if it was not true, that's ten years, too. No one was safe. If you were suspected of dangerous thoughts, you would be arrested. That's because the citizen was not to be trusted; he was an enemy of the State. And when your ten years were up, you could get another consecutive ten-year term, without explanation. That was Communist life in Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, in the mid 1900s. (By the way, not much has changed. No one can be trusted under a Communist regime.)

I'm digressing again.

Solzhenitsyn provides us with a glimpse of how to survive bare minimum life on the inside of the gulag by running along side Ivan Denisovich as he stretches out his day. He has hours of backbreaking, exhausting work to do, using very few tools, wearing unsatisfactory clothing and boots in freezing temperature, while subsisting on barely any food. Plus the men must endure the long roll calls and the possible violence from the guards if things do not go smoothly.

There are many different ways to survive in the work camp, but there are also different kinds of survivalists. Ivan is successful because he is resourceful and has a good work ethic and an encouraging outlook on life. He is also perceptive and quick-witted.

But there are others who are mentally weak, who will suffer physically, more than the rest, and those who will struggle because of their pride. It is advisable to submit to your authorities and support one another in times of conflict. It is also helpful to retain your dignity, if you can.

Ivan is perplexed by the comparison of two specific types of survivalists: a Christian who survives on the bare minimum, but is always content and joyful. He prays continually and even reads aloud from his Bible (which he keeps hidden in his bunk), while his squad leader works hard for Ivan's group, cheating and lying to get the best deals for his men. Why does one feel the need to work exceptionally hard for the best, while the other is satisfied to just exist with very little?

Whatever the answer, Ivan ponders the end of his exhausting, sickening, freezing day. He managed to ethically acquire extra food today, he found and saved a piece of wasted metal to make into a tool, and he escaped a few incidents that could have turned violent. It was not such a bad day, after all, and he felt pretty good about that. That is how you survive in the Gulag.

10 comments:

  1. I've not read any Solzhenitsyn yet, but he rather fascinates me. Adding this to my TBR list so I don't forget to try it some day!

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    1. My first Solzhenitsyn was The Gulag Archipelago, which is rather long, but you can find an abridged version, which is just as effective. I like Gulag even more so b/c it is his true story, and you get his full emotions and thoughts and lectures at all of us.

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  2. Solzhenitsyn is a great author. I read One Day a few years ago & more recently Cancer Ward, my favourite. It's been many years since I read the Gulag but I found a copy & look forward to reading it again. I think it's the abridged version; not sure which version I read the first time. I just finished Life & Death in Shanghai, a true memoir, and as absorbing as Solzhenitsyn. Once I've read books like these it's hard to read books that are more light-hearted; they don't satisfy me. Maybe I just have a morbid streak :) Enjoyed your review, Ruth.

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    1. Life and Deathlooks interesting. I added it to my wishlist on Amazon. Thanks.

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  3. This is one of my favorites and a great introduction to the writings of Solzhenitsyn. Your commentary reminded me why I like it.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this -- I am 1/3 through the Gulag Archipelago, and Solzhenitsyn's writing (even in translation) is far more compelling than I'd imagined.

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    1. He's intensely deep, too -- well, with Gulag he is; but One Day is not comparable b/c of its simplicity.

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  5. I read this book many years ago but I need to read it again. I'm especially interested in the Christian character and how he could have joy living in those conditions and would I have that kind of joy under the same conditions.

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    1. I thought it was interesting that Solzhenitsyn utilized the Christian character at all b/c his main character swept him under the rug. He wasn't interested, and yet he observed his simplicity and contentment.

      Very good question. That would be so tough.

      Have you ever read The Hiding Place?

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