I have recently learned that the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is under consideration to be banned. I understand that the government would prefer that the mistakes of our forefathers be forgotten in an effort to progress as a nation, where we would make a ‘fresh start’. It is human nature to hide the darker part of our history, as is depicted in this book, but I assure you that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has more to it than simply describing the mistreatment of zeks in a gulag. It is much more than that. It depicts the self-preservation of man in the face of incredible adversity. It demonstrates how a person can take pleasure in the small and less noticeable things in life, in an effort to maintain motivation to survive. In this sense, the book is a tribute to the endurance of humanity.
Especially in today’s world, we often need motivation to keep going due to crime, injustice, or maybe something as simple as having too much work to do. Consequently, novels such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are what many people turn to for support. Also, the book is educational, accurately portraying the life of a prisoner in a gulag, immersing the reader in a zek’s shoes. As Russians, despite our dark past, we should not be so quick to deny our history, but instead strive to have a deeper understanding of it so in the future we will be able to prevent such mistakes from happening once more.
This book may seem simple on the surface, but in truth it teaches many lessons. The foremost of these is to stay positive and work hard – the book illustrates this through the many survival strategies of the zeks. Some of the zeks, most notably Fetiukov, seem to lose their humanity and become more feral, more animal in their desire to survive in the camp. A “past-master of cadging,” (p. 68), Fetiukov goes as far as to collect fag-ends from spittoons and filter the unused tobacco. He “peaches on his mates” without any worries – this is not a good idea, since a zek’s greatest enemy is another zek. At this rate, Fetiukov “will not live to see the end of his stretch” (p. 129) because his attitude is all wrong – he is no longer human. Shukhov, on the other hand, will live out his sentence, since he remains human. His greatest asset would be his strong work ethic: while working, Shukhov “[forgets] all about the sick bay,” in addition to the weather and guards.
He even goes as far to ask Tiurin, the team leader “[why the guards] make the work-day so short,” since the inmates are just getting in their stride. Basically, “time [flies] when…working,” something Shukhov often remarks. Religion is another way to forget about the hardships in the prison. Shukhov isn’t as religious as some of the Baptists in camp, namely Alyosha, who could “shed the hardships of camp life like water off a duck’s back,” certainly an impressive feat and integral to retaining one’s humanity. Also, to survive in the gulag, it is important to not think about pre- or post-prison life, something Shukhov desperately tries to do. This is seen when he forbids his wife from sending him any packages, but he still wishes that he would receive just one, one day. Also, once his sentence is up, Shukhov hopes to see one of the carpets he thinks about from time to time. By thinking of the good life, Shukhov is vulnerable to the hardships presented by the prison, unlike when he is working; when working, Shukhov loses all track of time and place and concentrates solely on his masonry. When thinking about packages, carpets, and other luxuries, he only wants to get out of prison more. This is his sole weakness, though, and he still manages to retain his humanity.
Relative to the other prisoners, Shukhov is full of energy and life despite facing the grueling possibility of spending several more years in the gulag. He even has to suffer through “special camps” where the conditions are even worse than the other camps. Yet, Shukhov manages to take pleasure in life. He takes pleasure in small things, since he does not (and is prohibited to) have much at all. The ritual of eating exemplifies this fact. Solzhenitsyn writes:
“Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper.” (p. 17)
Because of this, eating is extremely important – it is the only time the zeks have to themselves, other than sleep. Shukhov savors his food, for example allowing sugar to melt in his mouth while he cuts a hole into his mattress, places a piece of bread inside, and stitches it back up. Only then has the sugar completely melted. In this scene, we see that Shukhov takes so much pleasure, and tries to maintain that pleasure as long as possible, in what? A small handful of sugar? Another example would be Shukhov’s hacksaw blade. To him, the hacksaw blade is a gateway to extra food and whatnot, since he would be able to fashion a knife from it to create and trade further goods. The blade means so much to him that he risks being sent to the cells by smuggling it to his bunk. Taking pleasure in such small objects, such as sugar and a hacksaw blade, illustrate Shukhov’s attitude towards life. To many zeks, the harsh weather and strict guards render everyday as terrible, whereas Shukhov manages to think of them as being good days (for what they are, days in a prison). By showing how Shukhov will survive due to his optimism and how Fetiukov will not, Solzhenitsyn inspires readers to keep their heads up, no matter what the situation.
This book is also educational, immersing readers in the gulag “experience”. Solzhenitsyn, a former inmate himself, shares his account of a typical day in a gulag through Shukhov’s day, describing it to the most minute detail. For example, zeks were assigned numbers, stitched onto a “white [strips] that had been stitched to the [front and] back of [their] black jacket.” The number is also said to appear on the zeks’ black trousers, and on a patch of cloth on the front of their hats. The more than adequate description of the zeks’ numbers shows that in the gulag, a zek is not thought of as a person, but merely a number – one of many. Another small detail would be the thermometer in the camp, sheltered to keep the reading as high as possible (and therefore keeping the zeks working; they are not allowed to work in temperatures below -41oC).
This is another example of the injustices in the camp. Another key element of the prison life would be the food, which is accurately portrayed. It would always be a skilly, using either carrots, black cabbage, groats, or shredded nettles, depending on what is available that season. The fish in the soup is also more bones than anything else. Finally, margara porridge is served – tasteless, boiled grass. Obviously, there is a lot to be learned from this book. By accurately portraying the prison life through the story of a fictional prisoner, and not through a textbook (for example), readers can truly get a hold of what life was like and therefore expanding their horizons. With a textbook, learning is more of a chore, but with a novel, the entertainment allows the reader to enjoy himself, passionately learning all the while in this case.
In the end, I believe that you should keep One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Russia. This book is beautiful in so many ways – it illustrates the endurance of humanity, inspiring its readers to stay positive and to strive, no matter what the situation. It teaches its readers how life in a gulag during Stalin’s reign was, such as the harsh weather, strict guards, and injustices. Because of this, the book acts as a reminder of our past mistakes, which we should never forget, so we do not commit such mistakes again.