One day in the life of a Siberian concentration camp
Jan 3, 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 his readers aware of the fact that millions of prisoners were suffering the same fate on meaningless charges fabricated from thin air with nothing by way of evidence to support them. The novel, clearly built on a foundation of Solzhenitsyn's personal experiences spent in a gulag, is a courageous (and, under the circumstances, perhaps almost foolhardy) critique of the tyranny that was the Russian experience under the dictatorship of Stalin.
The story that Solzhenitsyn tells could hardly be categorized as compelling. In fact, it's anything but. Solzhenitsyn has expertly portrayed an overwhelming atmosphere of dreary darkness, hopelessness, despair and exhaustion through the banality of the prisoners' daily existence - the hunger, the cold, the de-humanization, the repetitive grinding work, the isolation, and the stark paucity of everyday living in a setting without joy. It wasn't so much that there were physical punishments, cruelty or the terror that one reads about in other prison stories such as "Papillon", "The Shawshank Redemption"or"A Tale of Two Cities", for example. The punishment in Shukhov's camp arose more obviously out of the deprivation and unutterable tedium of an inhumanly spare existence devoid of pleasurable experience. Indeed, it was clear that even the guards and prison staff were probably suffering only a scant degree less than the unfortunate inmates.
"How often had Shukhov in his youth fed oats to horses! Never had it occurred to him that there'd come a time when his whole soul would crave for a handful of them."
On sleeping in the inhumanly cold Siberian winter:
"He must make his bed now - there wasn't much to it. Strip his mattress of the grubby blanket and lie on it (it must have been '41 when he last slept in sheets - that was at home; it even seemed odd for women to bother about sheets, all that extra laundering). Head on the pillow, stuffed with shavings of wood: feet in jacket sleeve; coat on top of blanket and - Glory be to Thee, O Lord. Another day over."
As I said, spare writing that is itself a metaphor for the very things it so powerfully describes.
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 … more
"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' … more
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 … more
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.