One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel this book would be a great one to make Western high schoolers, who are convinced of the “evil fascism” of their country, to read. They can whine all they want about how “totalitarian” their government is, but they have nothing to complain about in comparison to the prisoners of Stalin’s communist work camps. Many people seem to forget the horrors and deaths that were committed in red Russia during Stalin’s reign (over 20 million dead, 1 million from the gulags alone). Solzhenitsyn, a gulag survivor himself, brings these atrocities front and center in his book in a cool, almost detached manner that speaks eerily of what sort of damage must have been done to his psyche.

The protagonist, Ivan Denisovich, is going on eight years in the work camps. He is gaunt from lack of food, and he has lost some teeth from scurvy. But beyond that, he’s relatively healthy for the gulag. Like all prisoners, he has been stripped of his name and is referred to by his number. He’ll be shot on sight if it’s even suspected he’s trying to escape, and there are about 100 different ways he can end up in “the hole” (solitary confinement in a cement block).

He’s accustomed now to how the system works, and he uses it to his advantage. For instance, by doing menial tasks for his overseers, he manages to get extra grams of bread to eat and extra portions of stew (if you can call it stew). It’s basically water with a little fish and potatoes, if you’re lucky. He trades in some ill-gained rubles for cigarettes. He trades work for warmth. Basically, he has a really great day in camp, considering he’s forced to work in -20 degree Fahrenheit weather for eleven hours and is patted down and searched multiple times by guards just because!

The writing style is simplistic and factual, interspersed with prison lingo and colloquialisms. Sometimes Solzhenitsyn jumps from past to present tense or switches from third-person limited view to second-person, which threw me when I first started reading. I’m used to writing that picks a POV and a tense and sticks with it. But this translation is supposed to be the most faithful adaptation of this book, so apparently that was how Solzhenitsyn wrote it in Russian.

I can see why this book would have been revolutionary when it came out. I’m sure there were many people in the world who didn’t want to think that such atrocities were being committed in Russia. The sad state of affairs is that there are people living in 2019 who likewise turn a blind eye to the horrors committed by the Commies. They were a nasty bunch, doesn’t matter if we’re talking about what happened in Russia or Cambodia or somewhere else. Anybody who treated human beings in this cruel manner was an animal. Hopefully, we can learn from these tragedies and start treating all human life better, regardless of whether they agree with our political leanings or not. Otherwise, we Westerners might find ourselves degenerating into this same totalitarian mentality.

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