Instead of sending it off to the conveyor belt of the dining hall, I decided to finish my last piece of bread and felt the guilt, more strongly than ever. I went upstairs to my room and picked up the half-opened book on my desk, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As the food was swallowed down my throat and the warmth spread inside me, I was once again unsettled by the stories of survival in One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, feeling a sense of responsibility to carry on the weight of the darkest days of Soviet history so that both the impotency and resilience of human life under extreme conditions shall never fade away from the collective memories of human race.
One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an account of life in the Gulag—the Soviet forced-labor camp—during the years of Stalin. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a prominent intellectual and dissenter of the Soviet Union, drew from his own experience in the Gulag in writing the novel, making the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich, somehow a truthful reflection of Alexander himself. As suggested by the title, the novel is written in the voice of Shukhov (Ivan Denisovich), a prisoner who has been in one of the Gulags in Siberia for seven years. From Shukhov’s perspective, we not only have a detailed account of the extreme and inhuman conditions of the camp, including the schedule of the prisoners, constant hunger and coldness, stringent discipline and savage treatment the of prisoners; we also empathize with his fervent thoughts and emotions that he buried deeply within.
It is perhaps difficult for us who live in the post-Soviet world today to imagine and truly comprehend the experiences of those who persisted in Gulag. It is easy to dismiss the sense of other-worldedness that one can find in this book because the description is perhaps too forthcoming and abominable to be a true. However, the camp is like a complex and hostile ecosystem where the rule of natural selection created a hierarchical social ladder that governed the lives of all. Prisoners have to follow strict, semi-military discipline of the camp that controls every aspect of life: Organized into gangs and labeled by number, they eat and sleep all together under the constant watch from the authority, ranging from the foreman to warder to commander and to soldier. Lives of the prisoners are worthless, and there are a millions ways one can die in the camp—coldness, insufficient food, penalties due to misdemeanor of disobedience of any formal or informal rules all attribute to an unnatural death. Nonetheless men persist in these extreme conditions
What moves me deeply about this novel is the admirable resilience of human souls in face of institutional cruelty. The will to survive is so strong that they adapt to the system, and one of the means they succeed in doing that is to forgo the ability of thinking, to think as minimally as possible. It is perhaps insane to say that Gulag simplifies one’s life in confinement, but it is a cold, relentless truth in the most tragic sense. Solzhenitsyn captures this truth with short, choppy sentences and realistic articulation of one’s thoughts, and the following description of the dinner scene reflects the effect of his style:
“He began eating. First he just drank the juice, spoon after spoon. The warmth spread through his body, his insides greeted that skilly with a joyful fluttering. This was it! This was good! This was the brief moment for which a zek lives. For a little while Shukhov forgot all his grievances… For the moment he had only one thought: we shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we’ll see the end of it!”
Solzhenitsyn’s plain, simple language and hopeful tone not only illustrates the incredible strength and the will to survive of each prisoner; it also conveys a sense of tragedy by putting the noble resilience of a human being against the backdrop of unimaginable cruelty. As I was reading this, a vivid image came across my mind—a candle burning in the darkness; its flame was tragically cheerful.
I decided that I will try my best not to waste any food after putting down One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It might seem silly—how much a difference would my action actually make? However, a book like One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich has the power to remind us over and over again that those who have suffered, who are suffering, and who will suffer are real human beings, whose stories not only bear testimony to any difficult memories of the past but also transcends history itself. Those stories are as timeless as this simple truth: we all have the alienable right to live regardless of the conditions we find ourselves in.
Reviewed by Charlotte C ’17 for Literature of the Millennium