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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich concentrates on one man, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, as he lives through one day in a Soviet gulag. The conditions of the camp are harsh, illustrating a world that has no tolerance for independence. Camp prisoners depend almost totally on each other’s productivity and altruism, even for the most basic human needs. The dehumanising atmosphere of the gulag ironically forces prisoners to discover means to retain their individuality while conforming to the harsh rules, spoken and unspoken, of the camp.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich serves as a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. Solzhenitsyn provides his readers with a seemingly hopeless situation, and then gives them characters who struggle fiercely to maintain their individuality.
Ivan had been in forced labour camps for eight years when the book starts. Shukhov was taken prisoner in a German camp. He escaped and was able to return to his country where he was sentenced for high treason.
The officials believed he had surrendered to the Germans and had returned to spy on his country for them. He was originally sent to Ust-Izhma in which the zeks were normally kept. After a while he was sent to a special camp where they kept the political prisoners. These gulags were the repositories for Stalin’s enemies, real or suspected. They housed many people taken in the great purges. It is estimated that the population in these camps was over 8.8 million from 1929-53.
The resilience of the human spirit is perhaps the most important theme of the novel. It demonstrates the possibility of success despite a cruel environment. Even though these people have been imprisoned in these camps, they manage to survive. They live in the worst conditions, but by focusing themselves on the basics of human life they live through each day, one at a time. Time is a very important factor for those living in the camps. Each moment they can get that the authorities do not control gives them a feeling of freedom and hope. These spare seconds enable Denisovich to keep going, giving him time to collect his thoughts, and rest his work-weary body. “[T]hat moment … belonged to the prisoners. While the authorities were sorting things out you stuck to the warmest place you could find. Sit down, take a rest, you’ll have time enough to sweat blood.”
Another major theme is the trust between individuals and their leaders and peers, a relationship necessary for day-to-day living. The prisoners are divided up into teams, and each team is controlled by a team-leader. These teams live, eat, and work together, and it is interesting to look at the variety of personalities in each team. The teams are fed according to their job performance, so if someone in the team is shirking their responsibilities, the whole team suffers. Forcing the zeks to depend on their fellow prisoners makes it much easier for the authorities to control them. They have to work hard because if they shirk their responsibilities the rest of the team does not get to eat. The team members insult and urge each other on, knowing full well that if they do not work to their full potential they will not eat well. “It was like this: either you got a bit of extra or you all croaked. You’re slacking, you rat – d’you think I’m willing to go hungry just because of you? Put your guts into it, scum.” Shukhov illustrates for the readers the importance of many little things that one tends to take for granted. “And you? You got an extra hundred grammes of bread for your supper. A couple of hundred grammes ruled your life.”
The camp tries to break them of their personalities, reducing them only to a number that is painted on their uniform. The zeks manage to keep their sense of identity despite these attempts at dehumanisation. Their personal possessions are key to their identity, and help them remain sane in such an intense environment. Aloysha’s bible, and Shukhov’s needle hidden in his hat, both illustrate that in spite of the camp’s attempts to strip them of their dignity, they are able to keep parts of their lives hidden from the authorities, and remain themselves in this small way.
Solzhenitsyn’s publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a major turning point in Russian history. The fact that Krushchev allowed this type of material to be distributed is amazing in itself. The mention of gulags was certainly forbidden, especially implying that an innocent man was thrown into one of these camps. This novel certainly undermines the idea of equality that communism first expounded as it came to power. The party’s control over Russia was in obvious decline if they let this novel be published. A party that once had made “even the sun in the heavens … kow-tow to their decrees,” was now losing authority.
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