One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (book)

Edition 29 May 2018, by Hendrik Ike

On the 7th of May Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for the fourth time as President of Russia. Having been the main figurehead of this postcold war nation, it serves to examine the nation he has left behind. No other 20th century Russian writer, with the exception of Nabokov, has contributed more to the literary canon than Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and nowhere has his prose left so markedly an impact than in ‘One Say in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, a seething spiritual account of one man’s life in the Russian Gulag system for the entirety of a single day during the Soviet era. Most of Solzhenitsyn’s reflections seem almost banal; he describes without excess the bitter temperatures, the constant longing for food and the hard work exercised by labourers of the camp. Himself a prisoner of the Gulag system for eight years, Solzhenitsyn conveys the utter desperation and vague hope of the individuals who were situated there.

The remarkable detail he provides in explaining the meaning of a watered-down bowl of yellow porridge or a recovered razor blade in the snow enables the reader to understand how such harsh treatment can give rise to an inner determination of spirit; where a person fights against their own destruction. Yet the camp also reflects the hierarchical nature of humans in the most Darwinian sense. Even within the camp were levels of security and comfort depending on the connections of the prisoners. Most are cast out to the steppes to slowly renovate an old boiler room or pick at ice to dig holes for foundations. Others manage to work in the warmth of the mess halls or display enough competence to handle the local postal service. With these duties come benefits, normally realised by more generous food rations and less time in sub-zero temperatures. Yet throughout this hell and hypocrisy, Solzhenitsyn can beautifully convey the moments where all is not lost, where one prisoner will give food to another or allow their vulnerable side to show in order to grow faith in the idea of a better place. What Solzhenitsyn deserves therefore is the recognition of spotting that even within the worst circumstances, people can care and love for each other. Despite the horrid backdrop, this short novel of 143 pages contains an overwhelmingly positive message. In an age where it is easy to spend too much time focusing on the negative issues of modern life, this work serves to remind us of how to stay strong no matter what the odds, step by step.