This is a very serious book. It’s a deeply realist exploration of a single day in a Soviet-era prison camp, a gulag. In Siberia. In Winter.
It focuses on Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a man imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason. Like most of the characters in the book, no one could argue that he deserves his punishment.
Published in 1962 in the USSR, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich caused a huge political storm – no one had ever publicly discussed the reality of a gulag before, and its portrayal as brutal, dog-eat-dog, desperate, cruel and ultimately purposeless shocked the Russian public and, very swiftly, the world.
Shukhov wakes, eats, hoards food, works, hides tools, runs frivolous favours in exchange for the measliest scrap of bread or tobacco. There is a strict hierarchy, based on trade, rank, skills and also on what (if anything) a man gets sent from home. It’s horrible and oppressive and bitterly cold, but the most depressing thing about the text is the acquiescence to their punishment that most people have reached.
Each character, each political prisoner at a forced, tundra, prison camp, knows, deeply knows that they will not be leaving. Certainly not soon, definitely not young, and absolutely not healthy. A grim, cruel, reality has been accepted. There are no thoughts of escape. There are no thoughts of reform. There are no thoughts of a future. There is only the continued torture of the frozen, barren, wasteland of imprisonment. They resent bad behaviour in others, they get annoyed, angered, when the things that are cherished – food, warmth – are denied due to the actions of others.
The gulag system was designed to break people. And in this novel, Solzhenitsyn (who won the Nobel Prize less than a decade after this was published) shows how it works – basic human needs are exploited in order to exert control. His prose is terse, almost clipped, there is no pretence, nothing is hidden: the world of the prison camp is awful, is soul-destroying. Because that is what it was designed to do.
Perhaps not as harrowing as I had expected, but it’s all (apparently) true. Which makes it all the worse. Worth a read.