A Full Day in the Communist Gulag: When Alexander Solzhenitsyn Became Ivan Denisovich

joseph pearce has enshrined one of the articles in Crisis Magazine where he presents masterpieces of literature “in a nutshell” to A day in the life of Ivan Denisovichfrom Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), the stark narration of a full day of a political prisoner in the communist Gulag Archipelago.

Pearce biographed the Russian Nobel Prize (Solzhenitsyn. a soul in exile) and, to get to know him, the best passport was their common admiration for chesterton.


A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich in a nutshell

Few recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature can be more worthy than Alexander Solzhenitsynwho illustrates with his life and work the power of literature to transform society.

Born in 1918, just one year after the bolshevik revolution unleashed the terror of communism on the peoples of what would become known as the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn would become one of the most influential figures in his nation’s quest for freedom from the marxist tyranny.

Sentenced to seven years in Soviet labor camps for the “crime” of criticizing jozef stalin In private correspondence, Solzhenitsyn would expose the horrors of the camps in his three-volume magnum opus, gulag archipelagoand also in the short novel A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich.

While the first, called a “literary research experiment”, was a broad Overview of the entire labor camp systemthe second focused on a single day in a specific field. The first observed the landscape of the fields through a literary telescope; the second put the daily life of the prisoners under the microscope.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, when he was imprisoned in a communist concentration camp.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, when he was imprisoned in a communist concentration camp.

Solzhenitsyn drew on his own personal experience in the fields to write A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The fictional field in which the novel takes place is based on a field in northern Kazakhstan in which Solzhenitsyn had spent part of his sentence; and the novel’s eponymous protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, bears some resemblance to Solzhenitsyn in his characterization. So there is a dimension almost autobiographical in the history.

As the title suggests, all the action of the novel takes place on a lonely day in the life of the protagonist. In this way, Solzhenitsyn introduces the reader to the claustrophobic and monotonous life of prisoners, who follow the same routine day after day, with no apparent end in sight. We not only experience the claustrophobic monotony, but also the chilling physical intensity of the experience. They take us with the work group, in sub-zero temperatures, to a construction site where Shukhov works as a bricklayer. he does so much cold that the bricks must be placed quickly before the mortar freezes.

The reader also feels the pangs of hungry that are a permanent part of prisoners’ lives. Shukhov’s life is spent searching for ways to scrounge up scraps of food, and one of the most memorable parts of the novel is the description of the spiritual, almost sacramental act of eating the daily rations.

When Shukhov sits down to eat, we are told that “the holy moment has come”: “Shukhov took off his hat and put it on his knees. He tried one bowl, he tried the other. Not bad, there was some fish. Usually the night meal was much sparser than the breakfast meal, if they’re going to work the prisoners have to eat in the morning, they’ll go to sleep at night anyway. the liquid, he drank and drank. As it went down, filling his entire body with heat, all his guts began to churn inside as he encountered that ranch. Woooooo! Here it comes, that brief moment for which a man lives zek [prisionero]. And now Shukhov did not complain about anything: neither about the length of his stretch, nor about the length of the day …. he Now he only thought about this: we will survive. We’ll hold on, God willing, until it’s over.”

A potato had slipped into the bowl, which was unusual, but there wasn’t much fish, “just a few bits of backbone”: “But you have to chew every bone, every fin, to get the juice out of them, because juice is healthy“It takes time, of course, but he was in no rush to go anywhere. After dinner, he resisted the urge to eat his ration of bread. “The bread would suffice for tomorrow. The belly is a rascal. She doesn’t remember how well you treated her yesterday, tomorrow will cry out for more“.

'A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In addition to detailing the grim and exhausting minutiae of the day’s rituals and routines, A Day in the Life focuses on the inmates’ relationships with each other and how each of them copes. the degradation of their daily existence.

Tyurin, the head of the task force, is a survivor. A veteran of the camp, sentenced nineteen years earlier for the “crime” of belonging to a family of well-to-do farmers, he is respected by the other prisoners for his strength and couragetempering the latter prudently to avoid falling into the clutches of the camp guards.

Fetyukov has abandoned all traces of his human dignity in pursuit of satisfying his appetites, shamelessly begging for food and tobacco. By blindly serving his body, has lost his soul.

At the other extreme is Buynovsky, known as “the Captain” for his service as a captain in the Soviet navy. New to the field, he takes the dignity of his rank too seriously and lacks the necessary submission. If he wants to survive in the fields, he must learn to bend without breakingas Shukhov and Tyurin have learned to do.

Finally, there is the inspiring figure of Alyoshka the Baptist, who is the christian presence. He is at peace with himself, with his situation, and with his fellow prisoners because he is at peace with God. He faces his suffering with the hope of final liberation. He is not limited to physically surviving amidst the hardships and harshness of his sentence, but he is capable of prosper spiritually. He is a witness to the presence of Christ, a light in the darkness.

The final judgment on A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich does not correspond to the literary critics, but to the former prisoners from the Soviet labor camps who wrote to Solzhenitsyn after the novel was published.

“I couldn’t sit still,” wrote a former prisoner. “I would jump up, walk around and imagine that all these scenes were taking place in the field that I was in.”

“When I read it,” another wrote, “I literally felt the rush of cold when one leaves the cabin to be inspected.”

Another former prisoner, after declaring that his own life was accurately described in the novel, told his reply to a woman who had criticized the novel for being too depressing: “A bitter truth is better than a sweet lie,” he replied.

The last words belong to a woman whose husband had died in the fields: “I see, I hear this crowd of hungry and frozen creatures, half people, half animals, and among them is my husband… Keep writing, write the truth , although now they do not publish it! Our tears were not shed in vainthe truth will surface in this river of tears.”

Solzhenitsyn would continue to write. he would follow telling the bitter truth and unmasking the sweetness of the lie. He would be a tireless defender of the millions of people who died in the camps and the millions who mourn them. Ultimately, his words would prove powerful enough to help bring down Soviet tyranny. Such is the living legacy of this true 20th century hero.

Translated by Verbum Expensive.

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A Full Day in the Communist Gulag: When Alexander Solzhenitsyn Became Ivan Denisovich