One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich – book review

As the coldest Winter in 100 years continues in most of North America,  now is a good time to read One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is the story of a man in a Siberian prison camp when the Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin. Our current American weather seems like a warm spring day compared to a winter in Siberia.

This is a very short, easy to read and fascinating book. It is supposedly a work of fiction, but the author himself was in a Siberian prison camp from 1945-1953, so it is really autobiographical.

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The Siberian prisons were work camps and the prisoners were forced labor. Stalin wanted to build up Siberia, which, despite the harsh climate,  is full of natural resources. The prisoners in this book are working on building a hospital. Ivan and his crew have to work outside in sub-zero temperatures to build the outer cement block wall. Ivan is the foreman of the crew.

Despite the subject matter of the book, it is actually hopeful and inspiring rather than depressing.  Ivan and his men build a good wall, which is strong and straight and well put together. They do this not to impress the guards, or because they are afraid. They build well because they have pride in their work and in their own toughness. The book shows how men can still have dignity even in the most dire of circumstances.

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The details of life in the prison camp are also fascinating. For example, the guards themselves are almost prisoners.  No one got assigned to be a guard in Siberia unless he had angered some superior officer, or else make some political mistake.

It turns out that prisoners could also receive gifts that friends or relatives would send to them. If you were lucky some friend might send you some sausage or other food. The unwritten rules about receiving the gifts were very simple. Theoretically any gift was all yours, but you actually only got to keep 1/3 of it.  If you got a package of food, you would give 1/3 to the guards, 1/3 to the “voy” and keep 1/3 for yourself.

The voy were the criminal bosses in the prisons. There wee two types of prisoners – political and criminal.  The career criminals were naturally much tougher and more dangerous than the political prisoners, so it was important to pay respect to them.

This book was first published in 1962 when Nikita Khrushchev was in charge of the Soviet Union and Stalin was dead. Khrushchev decided to lift the restriction on censorship and allow authors to publish without government oversight. One Day In The Live Of Ivan Denisovich quickly became a sensation in the Soviet Union and throughout the world.

People had known of prison campn in Siberia, but this was the first time anyone had actual detailed exactly what they were like.  People in the Soviet Union were astonished to see in writing things that they did not dare whisper about when Stalin was alive.

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Khrushchev’s flirtation with artistic freedom did not last long. One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was more than had been expected. The  government began gradually putting censorship back into place. By 1970 the censorship was reinstalled to the point where Solzhenitsyn could no longer publish in the Soviet Union. He had to have manuscripts of future books smuggled out to be published in the west.  Of course, in the long run, Solzhenitsyn’s  books ended up outlasting the Soviet Union.

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So on this cold winter day, I recommend that you read this little book about one man’s day during a Siberian Winter. It may warm your heart to know that even in the bleakest of times, there is a spark of pride and freedom than can keep a person warm.

 

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