thoughts on books: one day in the life of ivan denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is an amazing book that profiles one day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag. The story is short and focuses on the daily routine – the little details that come to mean everything in a life that is diminished by imprisonment. Ivan is a poor, uneducated man who is in prison because … well, it’s not really clear. Some other Russian novels use extraordinary characters to describe the dramatic and terrible circumstances of imprisonment, which then inform the prisoner’s struggles. Others tell of people whose special skills or knowledge are exploited, hidden, or contained by an authoritarian government. Ivan’s story is quieter. He represents “the poor” or “the lower class” person who ended up in the gulag for some minor crime or for breaking the rules at the wrong place and time – in the eyes of many, he is a nobody. In reality, he is in a Stalin-era work camp to do menial labor (under horrible conditions) that needs doing – fixing up buildings, repairing things, and anything else that the powers that be deem appropriate.

Ivan is having a bad day in that he doesn’t feel well but a good day in other respects. In the morning, he has a little extra bread that he hides for later. At work repairing a wall, he has a good trowel and is able to move along quickly through his work. He finds a piece of metal that he could make into a knife or other tool … and the guard doesn’t find it when he searches Ivan. He is able to gain more food by helping another inmate who receives a package. He avoids the small infractions of the rules that will bring him punishment that is far beyond the size of the “crime”. This is life for Ivan – navigating the relationships with the guards, steering clear of infractions, and negotiating with other prisoners. He tries to get along with everyone and to maintain some level of humanity when the guards, policies, and conditions are dehumanizing. Even his “good day” is characterized by filth, hunger, cold, and lack of basic necessities.

The gulag where Ivan is held is presumably in Siberia. The descriptions are so real that it makes one cold just to read about it. The prisoners wear rags, sleep on mattresses with little covering, and work in the cold. It is below zero and frigid. There is one scene in which their work supervisor allows paper – paper! – to cover the broken windows of the building in which they work. Using paper to try to shield them from the wind is against the rules – they are told to take down the paper, but the supervisor ignores the order. The knowledge that so many people died in the gulags is just gut-wrenching. These forced labor camps were brutal and unconcerned with individuals. It is a difficult story to read but is so wonderfully written that the reader empathizes with Ivan as he moves through his day.

One of the saddest things is that Ivan is stuck where he is, with little hope of getting out anytime soon. If there was a book called The Next Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it would essentially be the same as this book. There is no one advocating for him. The powers that be are happy with him where he is – he’s a good worker – and have no desire to help him move on to something better. He has no privacy, no sense of safety, no dreams of better things to come. He and his fellow prisoners form friendships and try to help each other when they can, as many are (after a time) forgotten by families and friends and are alone. They exist, day after day, with little control over anything in their lives. This is a powerful little book.