One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
This is an important book, perhaps the most important that has come out of Russia in many years. A completely authentic account of life in the forced-labor camps under Stalin, it is cast in a fictional form superbly adapted to its subject. Its narrative tone and method, relying on the selective accumulation of minute factual particulars, finely controls the powerful emotional content, never getting out of hand, never descending to rhetorical presentation or to any sort of preaching and moralizing.
The author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who is at present teaching physics and mathematics in a secondary school, served with distinction in the Red Army during the war but was arrested in 1945 on what is now officially admitted to be a “baseless political charge,” and was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. The experience recorded in One Day no doubt parallels his own, but he is not the novel’s protagonist. That role, from first page to last, is reserved for the simple village workman, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has no head for politics or any kind of “learned conversation.” He is a wonderful creation, exhibiting certain traits that are new as well as traits deeply rooted in the Russian literary tradition. The figure in that tradition he most reminds me of is Tolstoy’s Platon Karatayev. But there is also a significant difference between them. For Karatayev, standing somewhat apart from the other characters in War and Peace, who are portrayed with surpassing realism, is in the main a mythic figure, an abstraction of Christian goodness, while Shukhov, in no way dependent on religious doctrine or precept, is invested with a goodness that is altogether credible, altogether embedded in the actual. He fills in every crevice of his own nature, without appeal to higher powers or utopian and ambiguous dreams of saintliness.
As all ideologies are alien to Shukhov, so none can ruin him. Neither hero nor saint, existing in an environment where the only time the prisoners are not marched out to work in the early mornings is when the thermometer goes down to forty-two degrees below zero, he yields neither to hope nor despair but depends for survival on his own largely unconscious and invulnerable humanity. Though in no way exceptional, he is the unbeatable human being whom the regime can at any time destroy but never convert nor make over in its own image thus giving the lie to Orwell’s nightmare of total demoralization in 1984. Humble yet extremely resourceful in small ways, a man whose self-respect demands that he do his work properly and even joyfully, Shukhov has been “walking this earth for forty years. He’d lost half his teeth and was getting bald. He’d never given or taken a bribe from anybody, and he hadn’t learned that trick in the camp either.” He knows that the authorities twisted the law any way they wanted. “You finished a ten-year stretch and they gave you another one. Or if not, they still wouldn’t let you go home…. So you just went on living like this, with your eyes on the ground, and you had no time to think about how you got in and when you’d get out.” And why was Shukhov put in a concentration camp? He had escaped from a German prisoners-of-war cage and upon returning to his own lines found himself accused of treason. Though guiltless, he was forced to give evidence against himself: “The way he figured, it was very simple. If he didn’t sign, he was as good as buried. But if he did, he’d still go on living for a while. So he signed.” Shukhov’s fate is the essence of the Stalinist terror-system.
However, the way in which the author chiefly succeeds in his characterization of Shukhov is not by harping on his innocence or putting any kind of political gloss on his ordeal but by depicting him throughout as a person in his own right—not merely a victim and least of all a symptom but always a person, even when ill, starving, and freezing. The secondary characters, such as Alyosheka the Baptist and Tuyrin the boss of the work squad, are portrayed with equal responsiveness to their personal qualities. Now it is precisely this newly won and truly existential personalization of vision, so long outlawed in the Communist theory and practice of literature, which surprises and impresses us most in One Day. As a novel it is not, in my view, the “great work of art” that some people say it is; its scale is too small for that. But it is a very fine book in which not a false note is struck. Its theme, the nature of man under extreme conditions of inhumanity, is treated unpretentiously, without despair or overt bitterness, and above all, without the distempers and consolations of ideology. It is the same theme that Dostoevsky developed, though in a manner quite different, in his House of the Dead, another account of life in a Siberian prison, published almost exactly a hundred years ago. Dostoevsky, too, was a political criminal, sentenced by the Czar to penal servitude. How greatly the Russian people have suffered that their writers thus tragically echo each other across a century!
One Day first appeared in the Moscow literary monthly Novy Mir for November in 1962 in an edition of 95,000 copies that was at once sold out. Its publication in Russia thus clearly marks some kind of breakthrough towards freedom in Soviet writing. Thank God, the world is still unpredictable after all. No one, not even the most astute Kremlinologist among us, could possibly have forseen that the party-hierarchs would be prevailed upon to permit the publication of a work so devastating in its implications. It’s all very well to say that its subject fits in with Khrushchev’s renewed campaign against Stalin. That is true only in an immediate and narrowly political sense.
The novel’s meaning, in its broader aspects, is scarcely open to political manipulation. It is senseless to see its meaning serving the partisan interests of any faction in the Soviet power structure. No, the integrity of this story of an ordinary winter day, from reveille to lights out, in the life of Prisoner No. S-854 is inviolable. In the long run it cannot conceivably benefit any authoritarian elite, whether Communist or anti-Communist. The lessons it enforces—such as “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?”—are of a down-to-earth simplicity that should make any ideologue of power quail. And in the one “learned conversation” in the book, overheard on the run by the protagonist, we come upon the following words in a very brief discussion of Eisenstein’s famous film Ivan The Terrible: “The politics of it is utterly vile—vindication of a one-man tyranny. An insult to the memory of three generations of Russian intellectuals…. Don’t call Eisenstein a genius! Call him a toady, say he carried out orders like a dog. A genius doesn’t adapt his treatment to the taste of tyrants!” If Khrushchev can turn such sentiments to his own use, he is by all means welcome to them.
In a way it is a pity that we have on hand two simultaneously published and competing American editions of the book, for they are bound to get in each other’s way so far as prospective readers are concerned, and the more readers this book has the better. However, both versions seem to me satisfactory on the whole, though the Hayward-Hingley translation (Praeger) is somewhat more forceful and slashingly idiomatic in style. The Parker translation (Dutton) has been authorized in Moscow, but that should not prejudice readers one way or the other.