One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, set in a Russian work camp in the 1950s. The novel describes a single day for Ivan Denisovich, more commonly referred to as Shukhov.

Ivan Denisovich was first published under the Russian title of Odin den Ivana Denisovicha in 1962. Although it is widely available in book form today, it was originally published in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir.

The novel was originally written in Russian, so it should be noted that any English copy is a translation. At least three English translations have been made. Of those, the 1963 Signet translation by Ralph Parker was the first to be released and remains the most common, followed by the 1963 Bantam (Random House) translation by Ronald Hingley and Max Hayward. A third translation, the only one authorized by Solzhenitsyn, was done in 1991 by H.T. Willetts, and is generally considered to be the best. Some names differ among the translations; those below are from the Bantam translation.

The book was also made into a movie in 1970.

Shukhov has been sentenced to the concentration camp because he was thought to be captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war in World War II. This is not true, but he is nonetheless being punished by the government for being a spy. His sentence is for ten years, but the book indicates that most people never leave the camps. The final paragraph suggests that Shukhov serves exactly ten years -- no more and no less -- but this is not completely clear.

The day begins with Shukhov waking up sick. For waking late, he is sent to the guardhouse and forced to clean it -- an unfair punishment, but minor compared to others mentioned in the book. When Shukhov is finally able to leave the guardhouse, he goes to the dispensary to report his illness. Since it is late in the morning by now, the doctor is unable to exempt any more workers and Shukhov is forced to work.

The rest of the day mainly speaks of Shukhov's squad (the 104th, which has 23 members), their allegiance to the squad leader, and the work that the prisoners do. Solzhenitsyn also tells of methods used for survival; the whole camp lives by the "law of the jungle", a "survival of the fittest" type attitude. Shukhov is one of the hardest workers in the squad and is generally well-respected. Rations at the camp are small, but for Shukhov they are the only thing to live for, and he conserves the food that he receives.

At the end of the day, Shukhov is able to provide a few special services for Caesar, an intellectual who is able to get out of manual labor and do office work instead. Caesar is most notable, however, for receiving packages full of food from his family. Shukhov is able to get a considerable share of Caesar's packages by standing in lines for him. Shukhov's day ends up being a productive one, "almost a happy day".

The author Alexander Solzhenitsyn had first hand experience in the Russian prison system. He was sent to the Gulag from 1945 till 1953 for allegedly insulting Stalin by calling him "Old Whiskers" in a letter to one of his friends. The main character Shukhov was also imprisoned unjustly for being captured by the Germans and then escaping to the Soviet Union for which he fought. They accused him of being a traitor to the Soviet Union and sentenced him to ten years in the "Special Camps". Solzhenitsyn set up the character Shukhov to resemble his experience so he could accurately portray with experience what it is like to live in these camps. This novel expresses the harshness Stalin brought to the Soviet Union and focuses on specifically on the effects Stalin had on Ivan Denisovich. We see through at the end of the novel despite the circumstances, Ivan is still able to find happiness.

This novel is a comment on the Stalin years in exhibiting the cruelty he brought on the Soviet Union in order to make it great. Stalin was known for selling the Russian peoples food in order to buy materials needed to make the Soviet Union an Industrial nation. Many parts of Russia needed infrastructure to be built in the icy taiga. People who are free for the most part not want to travel to the frigid north in order to do hard labor. Stalin therefore decided he would sentence able-bodied people convicted of even petty crimes to the labor camps so that he may better serve Stalin’s ambition. Thousands of convicts were eventually sentenced at show trials for at first a sentence from five to ten years but then eventually a mandatory twenty five years. The Buynovsky was sentenced in the new standard minimum sentence of twenty five years whereas Shukhov was in his eighth year of his ten year sentence. The Stalinists era worked solely to make Russia a greater country by enslaving thousands of people to work in inhumane conditions.

Those in the camps found every day life a challenge. The prisoners were assigned numbers for easy identification and to take away a part of their humanity much as the Nazis did to the Jews. The prisoners were then split into troops to complete their duty. Ivan Denisovich prisoner number was S 854 and he belonged to the 104th work squad. Each day the squad leader would report to the Office of development and get their duties assigned. The squad would then be fed according to how they performed. In this way, prisoners of a squad were forced to work together and pressure each other to get work done. If a certain prisoner was slacking, the whole squad would be punished. For example, in doing the count of all the prisoners at the end of the day one man was missing from all the squads. The Moldovan spy kept every single prisoner waiting out in the cold until he was found and woken up. Upon his arrival back prisoners cursed him "Bastard! Shit! Idiot! ...its no joke to rob five hundred men of over half an hour" (pg 95). The team also was also rewarded together. It was a multi-person effort to an illegal extent when Shukhov and Kilgas stole the felt for warmth. When a guard came by and threatened to report them, they teamed up on him and said they would kill him. It was also a team effort to steal the two extra bowls of soup.

Happiness in this novel can be found throughout in this oppressive environment. Upon reading the first chapter we are startled by the cold temperatures even for us who live in a northern climate. The reader is continually shocked at the harshness of the cold worsened by the inadequate bedding and clothing. The boots zeks (prisoners) are assigned rarely fit, the thin mittens can easily rip, and their coats are thin. Shukhov is able to find happiness through hard work. He advises and helps Caesar with hiding his precious food. He steals two bowels of soup at supper. He uses his hour of free time in the morning to repair other prisoner's boots. Through the hard work he finds happiness in both accomplishing something such as making a stable, straight wall and through rewarding himself by buying tobacco. Filling his body and staying alive another day is what makes him happy. For another man, Alyoshka, his belief in God makes him happy. He said he'd actually rather be in the camps where he can read the Bible and pray than outside the camps where he would not be free to worship as he pleased.

Living in Soviet Union at the time this book was set was harsh for all, irrespective of the hierarchy of privilege. Many people who had worked with Stalin in higher management echelon were convicted and executed. Peasants land was taken away from them in order to make great communal farms. Soldiers such as Buynovsky and Shukhov were sentenced to labor camps. Through all this misery, happiness and a feeling of accomplishment were able to be achieved. Shukhov by our standards of living would be miserable. He however was able to go to bed at night and thought about what he had accomplished in building the wall and how nice it felt to have his belly full, "Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day." (139).

Other characters include:

  • Alyoshka, a Baptist, who attempts to convert others, especially Shukhov, to Christianity. He believes that being imprisoned is a good thing, since it allows him to reflect more on God and more spiritual matters. Alyoshka is, amazingly, able to hide a Bible in the barracks. Shukhov responds to Aloyshka's numerous attempts at converting him by saying that he believes in God but not heaven or hell, nor in spending much time on the issue.
  • Gopchik, a young member of the squad who works hard and who Shukhov has fatherly feelings for. Shukhov believes Gopchik has the knowledge and adjustment skills to advance far at the camp.
  • Tyurin, the squad leader for the 104th, who has been in the camp for 19 years. Tyurin likes Shukhov and gives him some of the better jobs. This is only part of the hierarchy: Tyurin must argue for better jobs and wages from the camp officers in order to please the squad, who then must work hard in order to please the camp officers and get larger rations.
  • Fetyukov, a member of the squad who has thrown away all of his dignity in the camps, and is particularly seen as a lowlife by Shukhov and the other camp members. One of the situations involved Fetyukov taking cigarette butts out of a spittoon to unwrap them and extract the used tobacco, which was precious at the time.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Tr.Ralph Parke (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000) ISBN 0141184744

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