Solzhenitsyn’s "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich": Story of Soviet Concentration Camp

Aju Mukhopadhyay

Aju Mukhopadhyay

Brief Bio: Aju Mukhopadhyay is a bilingual award winning Poet, Author, Essayist and Critic. He writes on varied subjects besides literature. He is a regular contributor to journals and books in India and abroad. Besides some awards and honours on poetry he received “Albert Camus Centenary Writer’s award” on Essays and Laureate award as Best Author. Besides main stream poetry he has been writing Japanese short verses published in many international magazines. He has authored 36 books including 12 books of poems and six books of short stories besides a novel. His poems and stories have been widely anthologised and translated. He has published more than 250 Scholarly essays in books and journals.


The Subject

Through the imagined character of Ivan Solzhenitsyn has narrated the incidents of his life in the notorious Siberian Concentration Camp where he was sentenced for eight years for writing a derogatory remark about Stalin, the communist dictator, in one of his correspondences with his close school friend. It is the story of prisoners sentenced to ill reputed labour camp in Siberia, the coldest part of Russia. The story relates the day-to-day routine of their life; how pleasant, bitter, surprising and hellish way they had to live.


The Summary

The day begins at dawn and proceeds through risky and boring routines strewn with pain,
humiliation, corruption and risk. Calling prisoners to assemble and dissemble is fraught with
corporeal-mental risk. Major portion of the day is spent in different types of work, mainly physical with short break for food. The routine ends at night after calling all for assembling and counting followed by all paraphernalia. All through the time severe Siberian cold chills the bone, clods the blood of all, of specially those who undergo some punishment. 

     Like millions of ordinary Russians Ivan Denisovich Shukhov was caught in the vortex of Second World War and compelled to join the Soviet Army. Undergoing all hunger and deprivation he fought with the Germans for four years. Once in 1945 he and another fellow soldier were captivated by the Germans but in a few days they escaped. Instead of receiving a hero’s welcome he was caught and charged for treason by Stalin’s supersensitive secret Police. Sensing that he would be shot if he argued, Shukhov ‘Confessed’ and was sentenced to imprisonment for ten years in Siberian Concentration Camp. The book tells about one of the three thousand six hundred and twenty-two days in Ivan’s prison life; one of the ordinary days, neither better nor worse than any. One plus point is that he seemed to be lucky by all points of view on that particular day and felt happy at the end.


Events of the Day: How they Tell Upon their Life  

Here is how the day begins and continues to progress until it sleeps at night with men.

     The roll call at dawn; a clang on the rail was hardly audible penetrating the double-paned, frost-blurred windows. Still wearing the inhuman chill all over his body Shukhov stood up to work as usual. They are there to put hard labour to build up their country; that is why the great leader had chosen them charging them with false heinous crimes. Vdovushkin, once a University student of literature but compelled to be medical assistant when caught with charges for crime unknown to him and sentenced to serve, came and examined him. He found that Ivan had a body temperature of 99.2 degrees instead of 100 like the others and said that there was no escape from work. Doctor would find him guilty and he would be locked for further torture. Sukhov did not wish to escape. He didn’t speak. Wearing the hat he went out to find the parade ground deserted. Atmospheric temperature outside was minus 17 degree whereas his body temperature was 99 plus. He started jogging around, alone. The fight was on. It was that rare moment when everyone in the camp was sleeping pretending that there wouldn’t be any work that day whereas they knew that everything had already been decided. When everything was foretold prisoners indulged in self-deception by deafening themselves as if the call was a mistake.

     A guard was rushing around the parade ground. He asked Tiurin how long they would have to wait for someone in his squad was late. Shukhov might be scared of him but not Tiurin. He would not wait in the cold; he led his 104th squad shuffling and squeaking for he knew how to grease the guard’s hand with a pound of salt pork. Instead of his squad some other squad was punished to go the ‘Socialist way of Life’ in minus 17 degrees cold ground without fire and shelter.

     To make the corrupt point home the writer explains,
     “A squad leader needs a lot of salt pork- to take to the planning department and to satisfy his
own belly too. Tiurin received no parcels but he didn’t go short of pork. No one in the squad who
received any lost a moment in taking him some as a gift.

     “Otherwise you would never survive.” (One Day 38)

     Then came the time when the whole parade ground became black with coats thrown in for it
is the time for search; search by numbers on the jackets and hats. The numbers often faded
and paled making them indistinguishable. The painters were there to touch up the numbers. Poor
painters too had to respond to roll calls and had to perform the drudgery. Anybody found with
indistinct numbers was confined to guard’s room for further treatment.

     Apart from the above minute hazards of camp life that often becomes dangerous with torture,
getting the necessary fuel for life becomes delicately hazardous as it is strewn with huge corrupt practices at every point threatening to further deprivation.

     The prisoners had to stand in long queue to get the pittance of food for lunch and dinner. Each had to please the superiors or sometimes a lucky colleague to get something from them to make up or satisfy the hunger. At night when Shukhov was lying near captain Tsezar, who slept by his side threw a piece of bread to him as an extra out of what plenty he got. “And he put out of his mind any idea of getting something tasty from what Tsezar had laid out. There’s nothing worse than working your belly to no purpose.” (One Day 142)

     There’s nothing to be happy with the food package they got. “Shukhov had known cases
when before his parcel arrived a fellow would be doing odd jobs to earn a bit of extra kasha or
cadging cigarette butts- just like anybody else. He has to share with guard and the squad
leader-and how can he help giving a little something to the trusty in the parcels office? Why,
next time the fellow may mislay your parcel and a week may go by before your name appears
again in the list!” (One Day 143) And that other fellow who kept your food “safe from friskers and pilferers.” (One Day 143) Naming the fellows go on ad infinitum for sharing that tiny food packet. It’s a self-pitying humility that one has to undergo just to keep fed and maintain his body in such surrounding inhuman climatic and living condition. Here is an example of drinking tea in the camp life.

     “Just then a captain appeared with “A pot of tea, special tea, you can bet! Two tea barrels
stood in the barracks, but what sort of tea could you call it? Sewage: warm water with a touch of
coloring, dishwater smelling of the barrel-of steamed wood and rot. That was tea for the workers.
But the captain must have taken a pinch of real tea from Tsezar, put it in his pot and hurried to
the hot water faucet.” (One Day 144)

     At dawn, “As soon as they’d left the barracks with the boots the door was locked after them. When they ran back they shouted, ‘Citizen chief. Let us in.’” (One Day 152)

     The guards entered their quarters, did the book keeping to be assured that none was missing.
If everything went right Tsezar would come diving between the tiers of bunks on his way
back. He thanked Ivan Denisovich who thanked back. Then Ivan Denisovich Shukhov shot up to
his top most bunk like a squirrel. He could now finish his bread, smoke his second cigarette and
sleep. He remembered that the day passed quite nicely for him as he was not punished on any
count, rather he managed extra food and drinks, he felt fresh and rejuvenated so his way to sleep
was laden with happiness and so, tardy. More so because Aloysha came to his bunk next to him,
and at the same level. He’s a very pious fellow who always reads Bible and pray. He surmonises
Shukhov who’s not opposed to God but doesn’t find any efficacy in praying in his situation,
hence the useless arguments ensue between them.

     At last when he’s left alone, “Shukhov gazed at the ceiling in silence. Now he didn’t
know whether he wanted freedom or not.” (One Day 155)

     At first he longed for it but freedom meant for him going home and he became sure that they
would never allow his going home.
      At the end when someone suggested that there won’t be any second count,
     “‘Yeah,’ said Shukhov, ‘We ought to write it up in coal inside the chimney. No second
count.’ He yawned, ‘Might as well get to Sleep.’” (One Day 156)
     “And at the very moment the door bolt rattled to break the calm that now reigned in the
barracks. From the corridors ran two of the prisoners who’d taken boots to the drying shed.
     “‘Second count,’ they shouted.
     “On their heels came a guard,
     “‘All out to the other half.’” (One Day 156)
     And after much of talks, shuffles and movements they were shoved to the other half of the barrack. And counting started. There could be problem if anyone was found short. which meant recounting but that didn’t happen. As soon as he was counted Shukhov ran back to his bunk. Tsezar also returned and Shukhov lowered his sac to him and gave a biscuit to Aloysha. He kept everyone in good humour. Everything sleepy, space of night was assured to them, they gradually fell silent.

     “Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day; they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t put his squad to the settlement; he had swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he had built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he had earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it.
     “A day without a dark cloud. And almost a happy day.
     “There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
     “Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.
     “The three extra days were for the leap years.” (One Day 158)


Time’s Role in it  

One day’s event among thousands and hundreds of days is nothing exceptional yet it is sensational and exciting. It does not seem to be a continuous occurrence. Time is fragmented here into pieces. At the end of the day and evening, at night, after they finally assemble and stand for being searched and counted and are allowed to occupy their allotted niche in the many tiered bunks, when they, like Ivan, recapitulate the incidents of the day, they actually string together all that happened separately occurring on the same day to find its effect in their lives. There is no flash back here. It is simply the narration; tale of prisoners’ lives strewn together through the events of the day. One day but it is the face of all the days past and to come as the day ends and rolls over to the next through the night. Time passes through their lives exhausting their cruel yet exhilarating moments of existence without any guarantee to regain what they left behind. Time passes through their lives.    


The Writer and his Creation

Alexander was posthumously born on 11 December 1918. He was brought up by his stenographer mother. He studied mathematics and physics before he got a chance long after to study literature for some time. “I would not have survived eight years of the camps, if as a mathematician, I had not been assigned for four years to a so-called sharashka; and in exile I was allowed to teach mathematics and physics which made life easier and gave me a chance to get down to the job of writing.” (Solzhenitsyn 16)

     Writing was his earnest dream even as a child and the hard, never to forget experiences of life set him to write one of the best works he produced which brought out the worst examples of the practice of communism giving birth to such inhuman demons as Stalin and Mao Zedong, even as it proved the fallacy of communist theory.

     The Birth Centenary of Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, the Great Russian Writer, was observed in December last year, 2018. It is still vibrant in the memory of men who knew what he experienced in his life and how the artist in him expressed them through his literature. He served in the army during the World War-Two; suffered imprisonment in Siberian labour camp for eight years for a remark about Stalin, a fluke, and released after the death of Stalin in 1953 but was exiled to Central Asia and rehabilitated in 1957 after the new leader Khruschev had denounced Stalin in 1956. Again, his citizenship was revoked and he was deported in 1974, the year he was awarded Nobel Prize. He suffered from cancer and recovered; married and had children. Defying all obstacles throughout his life he lived robustly creating history and literature at the same time. His works are reflections of his life. His first book published was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962; the only book selected by Khruschev to renounce Stalin and published from USSR. It was the writer’s skill and courage that one communist leader used against another without much regard for the writer as such. All his other manuscripts were rejected by the regime. It is doubtful how valuable were the lives and the principles of such leaders and their dogmatic ism who ignored such great writers and their reflections on life.

     See the frustrated look of a writer in a communist country; how he lost all faith but recovered unbelievably after the unforeseen stroke of fate. Any writer in any other country would suffer the same and suffers in similar situation but he will have further scope and option in a country with a democratic set up.         

     “Throughout the years up to 1961, not only was I convinced that I would never in my life see a line of mine in print but I also did not dare read anything to most of even my close friends for fear of divulgence. Finally when I was about forty-two the secretiveness as a writer began to oppress me very much. The heaviest burden was the impossibility of having my work commented on by sophisticated literary readers. In 1961, following the Twenty-second Congress of the CPSU and Tvardovsky’s speech at it, I decided to reveal myself and to offer “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.’

     “Such self-revelation seemed to me then-not without good reason-very risky; it could lead to the destruction of all my manuscripts and me myself. But at that point things turned out happily; after extended efforts A T Tvardovsky succeeded in bringing out my novella a year later. But publication of my things stopped almost immediately; my plays were held up, as was in 1964 my novel ‘The First Circle,’ which in 1965 was confiscated along with my archives from years back. In those months it seemed to me that it was an unforgiveable mistake to have exposed my work prematurely and that I would not be able to complete it.” (Solzhenitsyn 64-65)

     But sheer fate restored his writing life as he confessed here, “We almost never can evaluate and through consequences immediately become fully conscious of events which have already happened to us; all the more unpredictable and surprising for us is the course of events to come.” (Solzhenitsyn 65)

     He became known when this One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published as a
weapon. All his other books were published in foreign countries. Besides the slight look and
volume of the book (not very thin though with a page length of 158 in paperback) the purport of
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was highly serious eye opener. He authored greater books like The First Circle, The Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago (awarded Nobel Prize). Strong while tortured, calm while disturbed, he was robust in physical, vital and mental health; exuded serenity. Carrying the tradition of his predecessors he was one the greats among the famous Russian litterateurs. 

     Let us delve deep into a very serious and emotional moment of his life as he recalled later:
     “One pallied European February it took me from our narrow salient on the Baltik Sea, where depending on .one’s point of view, either we had surrounded the Germans or they had
surrounded us, and it deprived me only of my familiar artillery battery and the scenes of the last
three months of the war.
     “The brigrade commander called me to his headquarters and asked me for my pistol. I turned
it over without suspecting any evil intent, when suddenly from a tense, immobile suite of staff
officers in the corner, two counterintelligence officers stepped forward hurriedly, crossed the
room in a few quick bounds, their four hands grabbed simultaneously at the star of my cap, my
shoulder boards, my officer’s belt, my map case, and they shouted theatrically, ‘You are under
arrest!’
     “Burning and prickling from head to toe, all I could exclaim was, ‘Me, what for?’
     “And even though there is no answer to this question, surprisingly I received one! This is
worth recalling because it is so contrary to our usual custom. Hardly had the SMERSH men
finished ‘plucking’ me and my notes on political subjects, along with my map case, and begun
to push me as quickly as possible toward the exit, urged on by the German shellfire rattling the
windowpanes, than I heard myself firmly addressed-yes! Across the sheer gap separating me
from those left behind, the gap created by the heavy-falling word ‘arrest,’ across that quarantine
line not even a sound dared penetrate, came the unthinkable magic words of the brigade
commander:
     “‘Solzhenitsyn. Come back here.’
     “With a sharp turn I broke away from the hands of the SMERSH men and stepped back to the
brigade commander. I had never known him very well! He had never condescended to run-of-
the-mill conversations with me. To me his face had always conveyed an order, a command,
wrath. But right now it was illuminated in a thoughtful way. Was it for shame for his own
involuntary part in this dirty business? Was it from an impulse to rise above the pitiful
subordination of a whole lifetime? Ten days before, I had led my own reconnaissance battery
almost intact out of the fire pocket in which the twelve heavy guns of his artillery battalion
had been left, and now he had to renounce me because of a piece of paper with a seal on it?
     “‘You have . . .’ he asked weightily, ‘a friend on the First Ukranian Front?’
     “‘It’s forbiden! You have no right!’ the captain and the major of the counterintelligence
shouted at the colonel. In the corner, the suit of staff officers crowded to each other in fright,
as if they feared to share the brigade commander’s unbelievable rashness (the political officers
among them already preparing to present materials against him). But I had already understood:
I knew instantly I had been arrested because of my correspondence with a school friend and
understood from what direction to expect danger.     
     “Zakhar Georgiyevich Travkin could have stopped right there! But no! Continuing his
attempt to expunge his part in this and to stand erect before his own conscience, he rose from
behind his desk-he had never stood up in my presence in my former life-and reached across the
quarantine line that separated us and gave me his hand, although he would never have reached out his hand to me had I remained a free man. And pressing my hand, while his whole suite stood there in mute horror, showing that warmth that may appear in an habitually severe face, he said fearlessly and precisely:
     “‘I wish you happiness, Captain!’
     “Not only was I no longer a captain, but I had been exposed as an enemy of the people
(for among us every person is totally exposed from the moment of arrest). And he had wished
happiness to an enemy?
     “The panes rattled. The Garman shells tore up the earth two hundred yards away, reminding
one that this could not have happened back in the rear, under the ordinary circumstances of
established existence, but only out here, under the breath of death, which was not only close by
but in the face of which all were equal. (The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn 23-26)

    About this conscience of the Brigade Commander let us remember the oft repeated word of Sri Ramakrishna, the Kali worshipping sage of Dakshineshwar, that he is a true man who has his man and huns meaning honour and self-consciousness. When a man realises himself as Amritasya Putrah, the son of immortality, ever free as part of the immortal soul; free from all bondage, he actually knows himself as a true man, the son of God. Death he fears not, cares not for an assailer. In a rare moment of revelation, a flash of consciousness, the Brigade Commander had reached that point when defying all warnings, not caring for any consequences he said and did what he felt right and true at that point of time.  

     Solzhenitsyn further explained the cause of his arrest precisely,
     “I was arrested on the basis of censored extracts from my correspondence with a school friend
in 1944-5 basically for disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him by a
pseudonym. Material complementing the ‘accusation’ was rough drafts of stories and reflections
found in my map case. Nevertheless, this was not sufficient for a ‘trial,’ and in June 1945 I was
‘convicted’ by a procedure that was then widespread- in my absence by a decision of OSO (an
NKVD Special Tribunal)-and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp (at that time it was considered a mitigated sentence). (Solzhenitsyn 20)

     After the turmoil was over, the writer was all laughs when expressing his opinion on work of
art; “A work of art contains its verification in itself; artificial, strained concepts do not withstand
the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces; turn out to be sickly and pale, convince
no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us,
compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them.
(Nobel lecture. Solzhenitsyn 70)


Conclusion

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote what life had taught him verified in the crucible of time and       experience; his writings drew on truth of what he experienced. It exposed the falsehood of all diabolic claims and whims of the poisoned heart of the dictator at the helm of the communist regime; how inhuman and horrendous was the result of the communist movement was witnessed by the world as it happened in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic. It has left an indelible mark in history recorded by such great writers as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Mikhail Sholokhov. The images created by him are permanent as illumined by his creative words; no one is expected to refute them.


Work Cited
1. Solzhenitsyn Alexandeer. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: A Signet Book; New American Library. 1963. Paperback.

2. Solzhenitsyn-A Pictorial Record. London: The Bodley Head. 1974. Paperback.

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