Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s first short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells the story of a peasant unjustly sentenced to ten years of hard labour in one of Stalin’s Siberian gulags. Solzhenitsyn draws on his own personal experience of four years in a prison camp in Kazakhstan. Many of the characters are based on real people he met working as a bricklayer in the 104th squad, like his hero, Ivan Denisovich Shukov.
Shukov meets a whole cross-section of Soviet society as he moves through his day of hard labour, freezing weather, harsh treatment from the guards, starvation and deprivation. Just one day is enough to convey the author’s criticism of this form of punishment, which is largely unjustified, and, in many cases, seems to have no chance of coming to an end.
Under Stalin, writers were obliged to conform to the Party’s idea of appropriate literature, Socialist Realism, portraying in a positive light the factories and collective farms. However, at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 Krushchev denounced the Stalinist regime and began a process of “destalinisation”, which finally allowed a piece of literature such as “One Day…” to be published, with immense success. Although Krushchev later regretted his decision to publish Solzhenitsyn’s work, the international attention created by “One Day…” protected the author from possible retaliation.
It is fascinating and remarkable that a whole novel can be created around just one day, a fact which helps to emphasise the monotony of never-changing prison life. The story deals in part with the abusive system, which tried to destroy the very expression of humanity, transforming the in-mates into animals with survival as their only concern. At the same time humanity is praised for its endurance despite the harsh conditions.
Interesting as much for the tiny details as for the greater issues raised, this modern classic should be a must-read for everyone.