One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1963)

“How can you expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold?”

Having had this book on my shelves for quite some time, and having been far too intimidated to read much Russian lit post-grad school, this looked short enough for it to be manageable to me. So picked it off the shelf expecting some dense complex intricate hard-to-follow plot with weird Russian names (:-) ) and actually come to find out that it’s really a very good story and the names are very do-able and don’t change from page to page (a la War and Peace).

I had very little idea about what this story was about, apart from it was Russian and about a prisoner of war camp. I also hoped it would be set in cold weather as I had just about had enough of the heat this summer in Texas, and set in Siberia, it did cool me down weather-wise.

The book was published in 1963, and is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950’s gulag* system, smack in the middle of Stalin’s time, and was notable as this was first time that anything like this (anything critical of the government) had ever been published in Russia.  Ivan, the protagonist mentioned in the title, is an innocent political prisoner being charged with spying, and the whole book features what happens in just one day of his life in the camp.

Solzhenitsyn had actually been imprisoned in a Soviet labor gulag camp from 1945-1953, so he was familiar with what he wrote. It’s a very tough life – very cold, harsh, unprotected, hungry – and as in other prisoner-of-war situations, it’s a brutal dog-eat-dog world for the campers. After he was released, Solzhenitsyn wrote this book, and submitted it to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish. After some editing of the text, the story was published as a short story in a Moscow literary journal and the world was introduced to the existence of these labor camps. It was the first major piece of Soviet literature to be published with a political theme since the 1920’s (and it was written by a non-party member) so it was a sensation when it was released.

Publication of “One Day…” lead to the outside acknowledgement of such human rights abuse in Russia, but it also heralded allegations of Solzhenitsyn being against Soviet ideals, and he was branded an “enemy of the state” by one Soviet newspaper. In 1969, he was expelled from the Soviet Union of Writers (which was a gatekeeper for published works at that time), and in 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature.  However, Solzhenitsyn didn’t feel that he could accept the prize in Sweden, and Sweden refused to give it to him in another location, so he didn’t actually get the award until 1974 when he was deported from the USSR after having been arrested by the KGB.  (The KGB also reportedly tried to assassinate him with ricin in August 1971, an attack which didn’t kill him, but did make him ill for some time. He was allowed to return in 1994 after the Soviet political system had collapsed.)

Quite a story and quite a book. It’s shocking to realize that this was based on truth. It’s also amazing to think of how this was the life as lived by a “well-behaved” prisoner – one who followed all the rules and did what he was told to do. Even with these choices, life was horrible. I can only imagine what life was like for someone who was rebellious in some manner during their PoW days.

At around the same time as reading “One Day…”, we also happened to watch the movie “The Way Back” with Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and others. This also addresses the gulag camps, is based on a true story, and features a small group of men who escape from a camp and walk (without maps or support equipment) across the Russian steppes, the desert and the Alps to India. Blinkin’ amazing. These guys were incredibly tough! I found it really interesting to watch this movie having just finished “One Day…” Fascinating.

Gulag: the Soviet Union’s forced labor camp system from 1918-1956.

So – great read all in all.