One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and was first published in 1962. The novel takes place in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, describing a single day of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. The author, Solzhenitsyn was himself imprisoned in the Gulag camps between 1945 and 1953. The edition I read is the Signet Classics 2008 and it is this cover that is my favorite among all the editions.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner in the Gulag labor camp. He is a member of the twenty-four man squad called the 104th. Formerly, he was a farmer and soldier who was arrested falsely on the charge of being a spy. On the day the novel takes place, Shukhov is already a veteran of these labor camps and is in the process of serving a ten-year sentence.
The story begins at 5:00am when the prisoners are awoken for a long day of hard labor. The reader learns about the process of the labor camp through the thoughts and actions of Shukhov. When this book was first published, it was a shocking revelation of the corruption and abuses in the Soviet system. However, reading it in 2012, it’s pretty much exactly what one would expect from the book. The book ends somewhere close to 11:00pm, with Shukhov fallen asleep in his barracks bunk.
In the book, we learn about the society within a society that forms in prison. The reader is given to understand the level of corruption that occurs from the highest level, to the lowest level in the penal system. The prisoners are constantly harassed and monitored, so that they have no free time, no rest, and no escape. The guards who run the prison are corrupt and harsh, but they are, in essence, stuck in their own prison – since they have no real desire to work at the Gulag in the cold, either.
Daily, after being frisked, corralled, and searched, the squads march to a new location in the freezing bitter cold where they begin their day of work. The work is designed to be inefficient and tedious. The materials and tools needed to accomplish any sort of productive work are lacking. Food is dolled out in scarce, weak portions. None of the prisoners have proper garments, nutrition, or equipment.
This particular day is a relatively good one for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. He falls asleep at the end of the day fairly content with the events of his day. Throughout the day, we follow his efforts to survive in the subculture that is his squad and the larger culture that is the entire prison. The devil is in the details for his survival – how many ounces of bread is he allotted? How can he best ration his bread, clothing, tobacco, and rags? Who can be barter with? Who can be trusted and who is hazardous for his survival? Basically, the day is a good one because Shukhov is able to stay warmer than others by a few degrees, get a few extra ounces of bread, and have an extra cigarette or two. These, for him, are major wins, though looking from the outside in, they do not seem that important. In the Gulag, it is all about daily survival – and most of that means being smart and careful. Arrogance, stubborness, and foolishness are all pitfalls that usually spell the end of prisoners before their term is up. However, in order to gain such little bonuses, it requires great cunning and effort on the prisoners’ part – is it worth it?
Toward the end of the book, another prisoner puts a question to Shukhov – has Shukhov so adapted to prison life that he actually does not wish to be free anymore? Was hoping for his release to freedom anything but a boring hindrance? Is it better to focus on daily survival? Shukhov’s contented sleep at the end seems to almost signify that he has been truly broken, since it seems that his complete acceptance of the prison life means that he would not escape or choose to be released even if he was given that option. That, it seems, is the real terror of the labor camps – not the physical strains and struggles.