One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn follows an “ordinary” day in a Soviet Union “special camp”. Ivan Denisovich (Shukov) is eight plus years into his ten year sentence at a labor camp.
Wrongfully arrested but happy to be alive, Shukhov lives in the moment. He enjoys every morsel of food he receives, eating deliberately. His attitude is foreign to most as he finds the tiniest sliver of silver lining in nearly anything. A second bowl of thin soup, extra time by a warming stove, hard work that made the day go faster.
Shukhov’s day progresses methodically from reveille, through the work day, supper, and back to sleep. He is never treated with physical abuse. But the system is designed to beat each prisoner (zek) down mentally. They are fed meagerly, worked tirelessly, and forced to endure the freezing cold. It is a systematic cruelness and surviving your sentence is far from a guarantee.
“How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?”
The amazing thing is, Shukhov never dwells on his sentence. He explains that when he was wrongfully arrested that if he would have told the truth he would have been shot. Going to the gulag meant living. So every moment of every day that he is alive is better than the alternative. Although maybe only slightly.
The joy of eating is perhaps only second to that of resting. Shukhov saves part of his bread ration and later manages to procure an extra bowl of “food”. “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 yearn for a handful of them.”
To keep his dignity, Ivan works hard, is almost a perfectionist in his labors. He performs several favors for his peers, earning extra food. He feels relief that he wasn’t sent to the “Socialist Way of Life” camp that morning where they would have no warmth whatsoever. Mostly, he never gets lost in dreams of freedom.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is almost unimaginable in our comfy, easy lives. It is so easy to complain about a long line at Starbucks or that you need to grab an extra blanket for your soft bed. This simple, straightforward tale shows the cruelty of communism and the importance of humanity. It is an important read for anyone who enjoys freedom. We can never take for granted how lucky it is to be free.
At the end of that long day Shukhov counts his blessings. It was a great day for him.
It could have been much worse.