Just reading about the Soviet Gulags will make anyone feel relieved not to have lived in Russia during the early to mid part of the Twentieth Century, where individuals would be imprisoned, punished, and then penalized with an extra ten years for doing hardly anything at all. Alexander Solzhenitsyn discusses in detail the Soviet Gulag system, the politics behind it, as well as the philosophical complexities involved when one loses freedom in his great and masterful work for which he is most well known: The Gulag Archipelago. A thick and thorough work, I recommend it highly. Yet One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a bit different — in some sense, it is a light work in comparison to The Gulag Archipelago, if such a thing is possible.
The tale involves a single day of a single man within the corrupt prison system, and, ironically, it is a good day, or as Alexander Solzhenitsyn notes at the end: “The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.” In the book, Ivan gets past inspections, fights yet again the freezing cold, mediocre food, and endures yet again another day hoping that his prison sentence will not be extended for some petty reason. Set in 1951, Solzhenitsyn immediately pulls the reader in with this intrusive observation: “The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside the camp HQ at five o’clock as always.”
In the Gulag camps, one is never comfortable, but rather, suffers varying degrees of discomfort. And those days that are better than others merely means that one experiences less discomfort than usual.
The tale begins with Ivan’s oversleeping and being threatened with punishment for it. Likewise, prisoners who steal food not only suffer the brunt of the guards if they are unlucky enough to get caught, but they must also endure their own feelings of worry and panic: What if I get caught? Will they extend my sentence another ten years? The narrator argues that in many ways, for these reasons of anxiety, stealing food or other goods make the act not really worth it.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a very fast and easy read. The book offers a good introduction into the Gulag system via the individualisms of a single man on a single day. In many ways, these individualisms offer a personal advantage as far as gaining readers’ empathy, though One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich lacks some of the more intense, philosophical and brilliant depictions that are present in The Gulag Archipelago. In other words, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not as deep, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
And because so many works can suffer on account of mediocre translation, this version was translated by H.T. Willetts, and the book notes that this is “The only English translation authorized by Solzhenitsyn.” Whether this is really true or just for marketing purposes is no matter, because the writing is rich and rife with observation, albeit not to the degree as in The Gulag Archipelago, which is primarily a historical work, as opposed to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is more character and situation driven.
The book offers an intimate look at routine, when one is forced into discipline, and just how one handles it moment by moment. Observations that may go overlooked in the outside world no longer are so when one is within the prison system. In many ways, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is about the plight of the individual wishing to retain his individuality amid the imposing structure and regime around him. Everywhere there are interruptions that interfere with the individual, and this makes it all the more difficult to retain one’s identity within this environment. As for surviving, one has to know just how to bend the rules without breaking them, all the while keeping an eye on himself and those around him to ensure he does not get caught and then punished. It certainly is not an easy life, and nor is it a pleasant one, but prisoners will engage in activities to make their time there if never really comfortable, then a little less uncomfortable than normally.
Reading this, you will learn of the prisoners (even the sycophantic ones), the guards, their daily interaction, and what exactly goes on in their minds throughout this time? Amid such rigid routine, certainly the mind would go soft were it not for the imagination to keep it occupied. For very often, it is merely one’s mind that decides if one will outlast another, and how one chooses to fill it depends on one’s determination, optimism (if any remains) and wisdom. By the end of the tale, Ivan decides it has been a good day because he manages not to “be thrown in the hole,” nor does he get caught by the guards at search point. These events show, if nothing else, that there is much to appreciate.