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One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I've read the story of a "happy" day in Ivan's miserable life as a gulag prisoner more times than any other book I possess. It dared to look a monolithic Soviet beast in the eye and did not blink. Solzhenitsyn wrote Ivan Denisovich at the height of the Cold War, and even though it was published in 1962 in the literary journal Novy Mir (thanks to a brief, official "thaw" during which Khrushchev apparently saw the novel as a personally useful anti-Stalinist tract), it was still an extraordinary and courageous public statement at the time.

What I love about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is that it is never simply the story of a victim. It portrays an ordinary workingman coping with extraordinary hardship. Ivan's triumphs on this "happy" day in the camp are so small that they might escape notice in the "free" world. He swipes an extra bowl of gruel at dinner, finds a piece of metal that might be sharpened into a small knife, works hard and well, replenishes his precious tobacco supplies, and receives the rare gift of a tasty bit of sausage just before lights out. "He felt pleased with life as he went to sleep."

Ivan may seem to be working for "the big man" in this novel, but it is his foreman and his work gang to whom he gives all of his loyalty and for whom he labors so hard. His captors have cleverly designed a system in which the work gang is rewarded or punished as a unit, which compels the members to pressure one another to contribute equally. Even as Ivan acknowledges the genius of this plan, he transcends it with his own performance. When he starts laying cinder blocks at the Power Station that his work gang has been assigned to construct, Ivan brings a focus to the job at hand that the endless, daily degradations of camp life cannot impede:

"Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?" Solzhenitsyn asks. Yes, I have to answer. The author wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to expose the horrors of Soviet gulags, but he also wrote it to offer us a story of an ordinary workingman. I will only know the gulags through books, but I've known people like Ivan Denisovich Shukhov most of my life. This is my book, and that is why I celebrate the publication of this new translation.

I first read the novel when my high school history teacher suggested it as background reading for a course on Soviet history. I was transfixed. This slender volume was worth any number of textbooks or fat historical tomes. It brought to life the staggering injustices of the political system through its flesh and blood characters.

It was the first book to give a true insight into life in a 1950s Soviet labour camp - and was specifically mentioned in the presentation speech when Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This Christian novel explores the unfair nature of our fallen world. The main character Ivan Denisovich Shukhov ended up being accused of being a spy even though he was a loyal Soviet soldier captured by the Germans. Tyurin, the 104th squad leader, was the son of a rich farmer but has been in the camp for 19 years. Tzesar was a film director who was imprisoned before completing what would have been his first film. None of the characters seem like hardened criminals. This demonstrates that it does not matter who you are, life is ugly and will not be fair for anyone.

By renewing oneself spiritually you defy those who what to control your life on Earth. If you are unwavering in your faith, being bound, imprisoned or even dying cannot hurt you since Jesus already secured your place in heaven.

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and has garnered much acclaim for his efforts against communism. Like the character of Ivan Denisovich, life was cruel to the book's Christian fiction author being imprisoned and eventually kicked out of his home country. However, God blessed him with an extraordinary life and allowed him to return home years later.2

During Khrushchev's partial de-Stalinization campaign of the early 1960s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived in the town of Ryazan', worked as a schoolteacher, and secretly wrote about his experience in Stalin's concentration camps. Recollecting Tolstoi's suggestion that a whole novel could be devoted to one day in the life of a simple peasant, he once attempted to describe a schoolteacher's day, but then, under the pressure of his major concerns, he switched over to a detailed account of a day in the life of a concentration camp inmate. The times seemed propitious for getting the story into print; therefore, Solzhenitsyn "lightened" his story, that is, removed the most shocking and politically subversive material. After great difficulties and the intervention of Khrushchev himself, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) (Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha) came out in Novyi Mir, the country's most influential literary journal. Khrushchev had been partly won over by the peasant origins of the story's protagonist, yet Solzhenitsyn's choice of the peasant hero was mainly a hint at the fate of the millions of peasant victims, eclipsed by the much smaller number of intellectuals and party leaders "liquidated" under Stalin and rehabilitated with fanfare during the so-called thaw.

The publication of the story was a major event in Soviet literature: it seemed to signal that writers henceforth would be allowed to present sincere and truthful views of their country's past and present. For many readers the story was the first reliable aid to imagining what it was really like in the camps. It is now common knowledge that in the majority of Soviet labor camps the conditions were much harder than those of Ivan Denisovich, and the story itself mentions that the protagonist almost died in his previous camp. Yet the relatively livable setting of the story, which got it past the censorship, is a matter not of misrepresentation but of the choice of the place and time: the camp, modeled on the author's own Ekibastuz, is located among the relatively warm Kazakhstan steppes; its inmates are employed on construction sites; the time is around 1950, when political offenders were separated from criminal convicts yet the regime was not as murderous in its camps as it had been a couple of years before. The day described is a particularly lucky one; all of the protagonist's little projects and self-protective infringements of the rules have succeeded (it is suggested that this may have turned out otherwise). Nevertheless, the story powerfully evokes a sense of life reduced to the marrow amid chronic hunger, deprivation, terror, absurdities, and humiliations; it also builds up a complex picture of the veteran prisoners' adjustment and their struggle for physical and moral self-preservation.

By not idealizing his protagonist, not endowing him with eccentricities beyond endearing folk beliefs, and by avoiding accounts of excess atrocities, Solzhenitsyn creates the impression that Ivan Denisovich depicts a characteristic slice of camp life. The account of what seems to be a more or less typical day is comprehensive, from reveille to lights out, with a logical interconnection of the elements of the setting, yet without a strict thematic control of such narrative details as inset stories of other prisoners. These features of the narrative further contribute to its reality, and though the testimony that the story bears has been lightened, at the time of its publication it proved to be sufficiently consciousness-raising. By shaping Shukhov's camp experience not as a marginal but as a representative phenomenon, Solzhenitsyn practically institutionalized the Gulag subject as ample and vitally important material for literary exploration. The regime's rather prompt suppression of the camp memoirs that started flowing into editorial offices after the publication of Ivan Denisovich came to be perceived as violence that left the Soviet literature of the next two decades largely handicapped and drained.

One way of understanding Shukhov is as a cipher, utterly ground down by his life as a zek. His identity has been reduced to a number, he has not seen his home since the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. He has no contact with family.

To the end of his life, Solzhenitsyn was a Christian believer and, like Tolstoy, had huge faith in the innate wisdom and nobility of the simple Russian people. This means that his Gulag Epicureanism manifests itself in ways that Epicurus might not have anticipated.

Solzhenitsyn is a complex, often maddening figure. His intense Christian belief, coupled with his Slavophile convictions around the nobility of traditional Russian attitudes and Russian life often make him seem like the worst kind of 19th century Russian chauvinist, with all that implies. And in his later years, he was taken up by various Russian nationalist and right wing groups, and often expressed views that seem rooted in traditional Russian anti-Semitic tropes.

Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is a demonstration of how, in a restricted environment in which every move and word is proscribed and monitored, a prisoner can assert his free will and thus maintain his humanity. In portraying the bits and pieces of a prisoner's life in a forced labor camp, a life the author himself endured during an eight-year sentence under Stalin's rule, Solzhenitsyn undertakes to demonstrate the camp's effects on a prisoner's humanity. Solzhenitsyn's book was published in 1962; at a time when Khrushchev, then premier of the Soviet Union, was dynamically seeking to condemn the practices of his predecessor. While based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich chronicles the effects of the Stalinist system upon the individual worker's day and how these effects are set to rob the prisoner of any meaning in life and in due course negate his humanity. 041b061a72

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