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A Cold Day in Hell

  • Feb 5, 2009
"Hell" is a pre-Christian concept, adopted and adapted from the religion of Odin and Thor. In Old Norse, Hel was an underworld deity as well as a place of bleak afterlife. Hell was not an inferno, a fiery punishment for sinners, but rather an icy cold limbo. The various Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin words in the King James translation of the Bible that are translated as "Hell" chiefly have the more fundamental meaning of "the grave."

The forced labor camp for 'special' politically tainted prisoners, in which Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has spent 8 years of his 10 year sentence, is Hell at its icy worst, a kind of limbo from which no one will ever truly be released except into another kind of exile. Shukhov himself, in his conversation with his Baptist workmate Aloysha, explicitly rejects the Christian notions of Hell as punishment and Heaven as reward. That's the longest and most 'philosophical' conversation in the book, and it occurs at the very end of Ivan's emblematic "day" like every other day. This little book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been canonized as an exposé of the absurd brutality of Soviet Communism -- of the hellish conditions in the archipelago of labor camps that made a mockery of communist ideals -- and it certainly played that role historically. But, as the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko argues in his introduction, there's a deeper level to Ivan's experience than the mere political, and western readers have been too quick to interpret the book just as a political indictment of the unnamed Lord of Hell, Joseph Stalin. Yevtushenko also asserts that the raw language of Solzhenitsyn's writing in Russian has allusive and descriptive strengths that are scarcely conveyed in English translation. That's not hard to believe; most translations fall somewhat short, but sadly enough I doubt that I'll be learning Russian soon.

Ivan Denisovich's "will to survive" -- his stubborn defiance combined with sly subservience, his pride in his own endurance -- has a universal meaning. "Do Your worst to me, God," he seems to be saying, "but I will persist. I will survive Your capricious cruelty. I scorn Your power to degrade me for arbitrary offenses. I will outlast Your Hell if I can." At least in his first published book, Solzhenitsyn above all is proclaiming the supreme value of human life against all forces of nature, religion, and the state.

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review by . May 21, 2010
While there were many earlier sources that described the existence of the Soviet Gulag, this book was the first document that described the camps that was sanctioned by the Soviet authorities. To readers of books about the German and Japanese camps of World War II, the descriptions of life in the Soviet Gulag are all too familiar. Hunger is a constant companion and the inmates jostle and curry favors for slight improvements in food. Even something as simple as an extra pint of watery soup, a small …
review by . January 03, 2010
"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's first book, a classic of modern Russian literature and the title that propelled him onto the literary world stage. As for the plot - well, the title itself serves as a synopsis. The story, such as it is, describes a single day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov who is serving a term in a Stalinist labor camp for offenses against the state. That they were never clearly described is surely Solzhenitsyn's method of making …
review by . July 29, 2008
At the height of his power in the 1930's and 1940's, Joseph Stalin sent millions of the citizens of the Soviet Union into forced labor camps. All it took was a chance word heard by the wrong person and you were sent to a camp. It is not an exaggeration to say that at the time, the entire economy was based on slave labor. This book is about Shukhov, one of the inmates in a camp located in the frozen north. The day described here is a typical day, as he and his fellow prisoners all engage in the daily …
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From the icy blast of reveille through the sweet release of sleep, Ivan Denisovich endures. A common carpenter, he is one of millions viciously imprisoned for countless years on baseless charges, sentenced to the waking nightmares of the Soviet work camps in Siberia. Even in the face of degrading hatred, where life is reduced to a bowl of gruel and a rare cigarette, hope and dignity prevail. This powerful novel of fact is a scathing indictment of Communist tyranny, and an eloquent affirmation of the human spirit.
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ISBN-13: 978-0374529529
Author: H.T. Willetts
Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux
Date Published: March 16, 2005

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