Saturday, 6 September 2008
Book Review: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
I should confess that I had never read any of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works while he lived. The flurry of obituaries and articles that followed his death at the age of 89 motivated me to start with his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. A little less than 200 pages, this translated work is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences in a Soviet gulag. One Day was originally published in November 1962 in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir after receiving approval from Khrushchev and the Communist Party Central Committee who felt that Stalinist excesses had to be exposed. Six years ago, Khrushchev had denounced Stalin as a brutal dictator.
The protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukov, is a soldier who had the misfortune to be captured by the Germans and the double misfortune to be able to escape from captivity. One would think an escaped PoW would be welcomed with open arms. At least, in Mikhail Sholokov’s The Fate of a Man, one of my all time favourite short stories, the hero escapes from German captivity and gets, well, …… a hero’s welcome. Shukov (as Solzhenitsyn’s hero is referred to throughout One Day) is not so lucky. He is suspected of being a German spy and is given a ten year sentence in the gulag. We are told that from 1949 onwards, the standard sentence was raised to twenty five years.
I read this book during the long train commute I have each day to get to my place of work. Nothing could have prepared me for One Day. Sure, like all of you, I too had heard of the horrors of the gulag. But there is something about Solzhenitsyn's matter of fact narration that takes you to the coal face, in a way that melodrama could never have done. As I read One Day, every ten minutes or so I would jerk up and look out of the train window at the green Surrey countryside rushing past in order to assure myself that all was well with my world.
Solzhenitsyn does not try to show the gulag as an unbearable or intolerable place. Rather, he explains how Shukov, a veteran of the place, who has already served eight of his ten years, gets through a typical day in a rather successful manner. Shukov's secret to survival is simple. He gives respect where it is due. He obeys his team leader Tiurin. He works hard, even if the work involves the building of a wall in minus twenty odd degrees using mortar that must be constantly heated to avoid freezing over. He steals when he thinks he will get away with it. He cheats in the mess room to get more food, without damaging the espirit de corps within his work team. However, there was one instance when he indulged in a high risk activity – the smuggling in of a hack saw blade into his camp. If he had been caught with the blade, he would have got 10 days solitary confinement in the cells where the lack of warm food, the dampness and the cold would have ruined his health forever and substantially reduced his chances of surviving his remaining sentence.
Solzhenitsyn digresses from Shukov's story to tell us bits of other stories. The inmates in the camp include writers, an ex-navy captain, a former Hero of the Soviet Union, a man who had served as a liaison officer on a British convoy etc. Just as in Shukov's case, most of them are in the camp for flimsy reasons. For example, the liaison officer received a gift from a British admiral, which gave rise to the very reasonable suspicion that he had betrayed his country.
However, Shukov is not a man who wants to survive at a cost to his family. Many inmates receive food parcels from their homes which help them get by. Shukov has specifically asked his family to not send him any, since his family is not very well off.
Solzhenitsyn shows us time and again how stupid, thoughtless and callous the gulag authorities are. For example, some of the prisoners are shown trying to dig holes in the permafrost using pickaxes, which only causes sparks to fly up. They don’t have the firewood needed to light a fire and thaw the ground. Every time there is a snowstorm, work is suspended and the prisoners are closeted indoors, not out of concern for the men, but to prevent them from escaping.
The camp has inmates from various parts of the USSR and Solzhenitsyn doesn't try very hard to be politically correct. I assume that in this, he reflects the values of his times, though I doubt if things have changed substantially in modern day Russia. There are a few Estonians and Shukov professes to like them. He has never met an Estonian he didn't like. Two of the characters are Letts (Latvians). Shukov likes one of them – Kilgas – a good worker who speaks very good Russian, a man with a good sense of humour who receives two food parcels every month. The other Lett is the one Shukov buys tobacco from. He is a mean one. The fiercest guard in the camp is a Tartar. A Moldavian is shown to be universally hated since he had spied for the Rumanians, a genuine spy, unlike Shukov and others who were falsely accused of spying. There are many Ukranians and Shukov considers them to be different. They speak Russian with an accent, but there is no serious animosity. One of them, Pavlov, is the deputy team leader.
Tsezar is a motley of nationalities (Greek, Gypsy & Jew), a Moscow intellectual who receives 2 food parcels a month. Tsezar is good at greasing palms and has managed to find himself a clerical job, which allows him to avoid doing physical work in the killing cold. Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that Shukov doesn't like him at all, though he is not above doing odd jobs for him in exchange for food or tobacco. What's more, Shukov gives Tsezar good advice once when an unexpected inspection of the camp at night would have caused Tsezar to lose a food parcel he had just received. It is not very clear why Shukov gave that advice. Maybe it was to preserve Shukov, a source of food and odd jobs for Shukov and score a few brownie points with him. Or maybe Shukov did it out of the goodness of his heart.