One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." -- Fyodor Dostoevsky
This book was a good way to take my mind off of my own problems. Reading about the grueling conditions of a Soviet gulag made my daily worries seem trivial.
The novel is set in Stalin's Russia of the 1950s and follows the prisoner Shukhov from the moment he wakes up at 5 a.m. to when he finally goes to bed after laboring all day. Shukhov was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, even though he was innocent. While fighting for Russia in World War II, he was captured by the Germans. He managed to escape and return to his own lines, but then he was accused of being a spy. Faced with being shot or doing hard labor, he signed a confession to spare his life.
Shukhov has already served eight years and knows how to survive in prison. He stays out of trouble and tries to do small favors for people who can get him a little extra food each day. He is a hard worker and believes that prisoners have to help each other to stay alive. He learned this lesson from his first squad leader, who told the new inmates: "Here, men, we live by the law of the taiga. But even here people manage to live. The ones that don't make it are those who lick other men's leftovers, those who count on the doctors to pull them through, and those who squeal on their buddies."
The prisoners are forced to work in brutally cold weather and have very little food. This book makes you appreciate being warm and well-fed, to be sure. When Shukhov is refused a favor from a guard who works indoors and who sits near a heater, he wonders, "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?"
In other sections, we see how important it is to eat slowly and to treasure each bite: "More than once during his life in the camps, Shukhov had recalled the way they used to eat in his village: whole pots full of potatoes, pans of oatmeal, and, in the early days, big chunks of meat. And milk enough to bust their guts. That wasn't the way to eat, he learned in camp. You had to eat with all your mind on the food -- like now, nibbling the bread bit by bit, working the crumbs up into a paste with your tongue and sucking it into your cheeks. And how good it tasted -- that soggy black bread!"
While reading "One Day," I was reminded of some other great books about work camps, such as "Escape from Camp 14," which was about a North Korean prison, and several about the Holocaust: Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," Elie Wiesel's "Night" and Art Spiegelman's "Maus." Each of those books has their own insights into how people survive in subhuman conditions.
I appreciated the spare, straightforward language of Solzhenitsyn. According to the introduction, Solzhenitsyn himself had served eight years in a Russian concentration camp, reportedly for making a derogatory remark about Stalin. The book was published in 1962 during Khrushchev's reign, and was considered an attack on Stalin's human rights violations. I admired Solzhenitsyn for having the courage to tell this story.