The Soviet Destruction of Man's Spirit - Book Review - "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's first work. It's importance cannot be understated as it was one of the first honest accounts which helped bring awareness to the reality of life in the Soviet Union during Stalin's reign. Under the veil of the iron curtain the depth of brutality and despair which was hoisted on the Russian people was not clearly known to those in the West. Communism promises utopia and equality for all, but what was life really like for the average person? The reality was that a vast proportion of the population was affected by the looming existence of the Soviet gulag work camps, many times being sent there for crimes that seem ridiculous, such as even having the suspicion of being against the "Revolution" or considering liberal thoughts. (In the novel one of officers from the Soviet army, who was an emissary to the British during the war, received a token of gratitude sent by a friend from his old post which simply had inscribed on it something to the effect of "with affection." Such a "crime" was enough to land him in the gulag camps for at least a 10 year sentence.) These work camps were nothing to take lightly, and this is what we get to live as we experience what one day in Ivan Denisovich's (nicknamed Shukhov) life was like. He has been in the camps for 8 years, and has two more to go in his sentence. This book presents an ordinary day from wake up at 5am to final check at 9pm in a work camp in Siberia. If nothing else, this book will make you appreciate the warm and uninterrupted sleep, as well as the plethora of food, that we enjoy in the free world today. 

The Soviet Destruction of Man's Spirit 

What was most striking to me about the day in the camps was the utter denigration and humiliation of the men who were there. The method of the camps was to provide just enough of the basic necessities of life to keep people alive and functioning, but not enough to ever satisfy, effectively creating a competition amongst the prisoners to survive. The main thoughts of Ivan Denisovich, as well as the other prisoners, seemed to center on food and warmth. The need to satisfy such basic drives prevents the prisoners from thinking about much more than that, or from acting more out of line than they did. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner they received warm gruel of some sort. It could be a thin fish stew, or watery oats, but never enough to satisfy. Along with the gruel, they received a bit of bread, the amount of which was dependent on their success at their jobs. Not only that, but strict rules about entering and obtaining food in the mess hall required that you only enter when you had five of your gang mates, and could get your hands of food trays, of which there were not enough to go around, leaving people fighting for them. Imagine surviving on such meals while working in minus zero temperatures doing manual labor day after day. Prisoners were forced to act like animals, often, in order to obtain their food. If any package was sent to you from the outside, to even receive it you had to pay off each of the hands it touched along the way. And if you left anything unattended during the day, it would be stolen. 

"They gave up their trays to some other fellows. Pavlo sat down to his double helping, and so did Shukhov. They didn't say another word to each other. These minutes were holy. Shukhov took of his cap and put it on his knee. He dipped his spoon in both his bowls to see what they were like. It wasn't bad. He found a little bit of fish even. The gruel was thinner than in the morning - they had to feed you in the morning so you'd work, but in the evening they knew you just flopped down and went to sleep. He began to eat. He started with the watery stuff on the top and drank it right down. The warmth went through his body and his insides were sort of quivering waiting for that gruel to come down. It was great! This was what a prisoner lived for, this one little moment. Shukov didn't have a grudge in the world now - about how long his sentence was, about how long their day was, about that Sunday they wouldn't get. All he thought now was: 'We'll get through! We'll get through it all! And God grant it'll all come to an end." 1

This comes to the next focus, warmth. A constant struggle for the prisoners was to keep themselves dry and warm enough to keep moving. Much of their day is spent thinking about how to steal wood or manipulate their work environment to block out the constant cold. The few places that were heated, like their barracks, were never warm enough. And the factories that they were working in didn't have heat. So if you got your boots wet, you were in trouble. It must have driven many to the brink of breaking down due to the fact of never getting fully warm. To make matters worse, if you were caught doing something wrong (such as walking around by yourself, or sneaking in a piece of wood to heat the furnace more) you were sent to the "cooler." The cooler was a cold cell with concrete and no windows. Put in there in isolation, you only received warm gruel every three days. Shukhov says at one point that ten days in the cooler will change a man for the rest of his life, and fifteen days will bury him in the ground. Your life was fully in their control. They didn't even allow the prisoners to know the exact time, but as Shukhov said ... what did it matter anyway, they didn't have freedom. 

"Then they brought in a can to melt snow for the mortar. They head somebody say it was twelve o'clock already. 'It must be' Shukhov said. 'The sun's right overhead.' 'If it's right overhead,' the Captain shot back, 'that means it's one o'clock, not twelve.' 'How come?' Shukhov asked. 'Any old man can tell you the sun is highest at noon.' 'That's what the old guys say!' the Captain snapped. 'But since then, there's been a law passed and now the sun's highest at one.' 'Who passed the law?' "The Soviet Government!' The Captain went out with the hods. But Shukhov wouldn't have gone on arguing anyway. Did the sun come under their laws too?" 2

Ivan Denisovich wisely says that a man cannot think about the "rest of his sentence," but only about today. To try to comprehend what 10 years or 25 years would be like in the camps would crush a man's spirit. He is even resigned to the fact that even if he gets out of the camp without some arbitrary extension added on to his sentence, that he would never make it home. They never let you make it back to your town of origin. 

"Ivan Denisovich, you mustn't pray for somebody to send you a package or for an extra helping of gruel. Things that people set store by are base in the sight of the Lord. You must pray for the things of the spirit so the Lord will take evil things from our hearts..."  ... "What d'you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul. Paul the Apostle said: 'What mean you to weap and to break my heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.' Shukhov looked up at the ceiling and said nothing. He didn't know any longer himself whether he wanted freedom or not. At first he'd wanted it very much and every day he added up how long he still had to go. But then he got fed up with this. And as time went on he understood that they might let you out but they never let you home. And he didn't really know where he'd be better off. At home or in here. But they wouldn't let him home anyway..." 3 

Yet, at the same time, we see that at the end of the book Shukhov says that he has had a "happy" day. There is still some shred of dignity that he, and other prisoners, tried to preserve for themselves. Shukhov was able to get a double portion of lunch and dinner, he was proud of his work building a brick wall, he was able to enjoy a little tobacco, and he even found a piece of metal that he was able to sneak into camp to hopefully make a knife out of. These things may seem small, but to him these were almost miracles. 

"Shukhov went to sleep, and he was very happy. He'd had a lot of luck today. They hadn't put him in the cooler. The gang hadn't been chased out to work in the Socialist Community Development. He'd finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon. The boss had gotten them good rates for their work. He'd felt good making that wall. They hadn't found that piece of steel in the frisk. Caesar had paid him off in the evening. He'd bought some tobacco. And he'd gotten over that sickness. Nothing had spoiled the day and it had been almost happy. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty three days like this in his sentence, from reveille to lights out. The three extra ones were because of the leap years...." 4

What stuck out to me was that it wasn't just the prisoners who suffered, it seemed as though all of the higher level workers in the camp were miserable as well. Sure, they may have enjoyed a little more food, and the enjoyment of being in power, but at the same time there were strict regulations and expectations put on those in charge by the people above them. At one point Shukhov makes this observation that, at the end of the day, the guards just want the same thing everyone else does, to be warm, fed, and to rest. In actuality, it just seemed like the gulags were Hell for everyone involved, not just the prisoners. 

The most humanizing part of the book was what seemed to me to be the comradery that the members of the gangs shared. They lived in small rooms with each other, five or seven to a room, as well as spent the day working and eating together. There are some men in the camps that are not capable of friendship, but Shukhov seemed to relish those close to him and many times throughout the day offered to take care of his friends. Even in the worst of conditions, it seemed that they were in it together and could still sustain some of their humanity, regardless of how hungry and cold they were. 


1 - 175, 176

2 - 76

3 - (204, 205, 206) 

4 - (209,210)