ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH | Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Signet, (1962), 176p.
This novella by Soviet dissent Alexander Solzhenitsyn transports the reader into the grueling daily life of a Communist hard labor prison. When published in 1962, during Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin phase - an act itself later responsible for the Premier’s disposition - it was an immediate sensation. The Russian public was unaware of the realities of its government’s gulag. Solzhenitsyn, a decorated WWII officer, wrote from first-hand experience after eleven years of brutal imprisonment for minor thought crimes. Later, he was imprisoned again for writing a detailed nonfiction account of Communist prisons.
Solzhenitsyn won a Nobel Prize for his work.
The Day in the Life is terse in prose, partially due to translation issues but primarily by design, crafting the tone and roughness of prison existence. The main character is practical, not philosophical. He focuses on survival, which means being a productive squad member, watching the backs of those closest to him, and staying out of the guard’s sight. Fed only ounces at each meal, the inmates obsess about keeping warm amidst an endless Siberian winter.
Like Epictetus - the famed Stoic, once enslaved but never imprisoned - Solzhenitsyn’s character retains agency. The choice of inner enslavement is forgone even when survival requires external submission.
Readers of One Day are forced to search their minds for what they find dear and how they would respond to such unspeakable physical torture. While the Soviet Union is formally gone, the spirit of tyranny still roams the face of our planet, seeking to criminalize ill-favored thoughts and expressions with increasing fervor. In this vein, Solzhenitsyn’s work seems less like a witness or t