Thursday, August 9, 2018
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Publisher: Signet Classics Mass Market Paperback – 2008 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Signet)
The title is very clear, but I would think few readers would be quite prepared for what follows. This is just exactly like a thoughtful diary of someone who was in prison and decided to give a detailed description of one single day, one that would deal with all that was most typical of the day to day life in a Soviet gulag.
Shukhov (Ivan Denisovich’s everyday name) has been in prison for 8 years. He was given a ten year sentence, which would amount to 3,653 days (with the three extra days for leap years). However, it is never certain that you will even be released at the end of your sentence; they may just decide to add on more time. It is bitter cold in winter. He has his number, Shcha 854 on his wrist.
In his case he didn’t actually commit any crime. The novel is set at the beginning of 1951. He left home in 1941 for the war and was captured by the Germans and eventually escaped. However, when he got home he was accused of being a German spy and sentenced to 10 years in the camp. He’s been there since. He wasn’t a spy, but that didn’t matter in 1941; he was accused of being a spy and it was easier and safer to send him to prison than not.
He was sent to a prison in the bitter cold north of Russia. The narrator emphasizes the terribly difficult situation, yet there are ways one can learn to simply survive, and within that set of unwritten rules they live out their lives day by day. And that is what this novel does: it lays out a typical day. It’s not even the story of a 24 hour day. Rather it is a description of waking up in the morning and it runs until lights out and one can go to sleep at night; perhaps 15 to 17 hours.
This “day” allows Solzhenitsyn to give us very detailed descriptions of everyday thoughts and actions, giving us the sense of boredom, hopelessness and powerlessness of being a zek (a prisonor in one of these Russian prisons).
We follow them from breakfast, off to their work assignments, and to the march home. It is set in the bitter freezing days of winter and this adds to the misery and difficulties of the zeks.
I found it structurally interesting that there are no chapter breaks at all, nothing stops the rolling along of this “day.”
Each work group is marched out of the prison into the near-by area where there is some job or other. In this particular case the work foreman, himself a prisoner, is Andrei Prokofyevich Tyurin. He is tough but fair. Treats Skukhov well enough.
Skukhov’s own special skill is bricklaying. He found and stole a good trowel, essential to bricklaying, and has it hidden away where he can get it out when needed.
Small little perks could be won by work groups so this encouraged a certain amount of co-working, cooperation and camaraderie. This system was key and any one given job “favors” could be won over. Groups came to know that working together was in everyone’s benefit.
Who is the convict’s worst enemy? Other convicts. They compete with one another for various favors and cause more trouble than not. They also add to the repressive power of the guards.
“If zeks didn’t squabble among themselves, the bosses would have no power over them.”
Some prisoners get packages from home and can trade things for favors. Shukhov never gets packages, but he’s skilled in helping others who do get them and earns small favors of food and cigarettes and such for his trouble. His friend, Tsezar gets parcels. Shukhov waits in the line for him, helps him hide his goods and delivers them. Doing this he earns his bits and pieces.
Despite the horrors of this place, it becomes clear that a “system,” a way of life develops. Perhaps it might be better to describe it as a system of survival. There is the need to constantly share and bribe others. It’s actually a rather orderly process, admittedly with lots of cheating and fear.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s story is gripping, revealing and damning of the dehumanized nature of these prison camps. There is such hopelessness among the zeks, yet the power of the human ability to adapt and survive is actually celebrated by this novel. It is chilling, depressing and hopeless, yet I feel fortunate to have been “instructed” and enriched by Solzhenitsyn’s fascinating treatment.