“Stark…the story of how one falsely accused convict and his fellow prisoners survived or perished in an arctic slave labor camp after the war.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
After being arrested in early 1945 for writing anti-Stalin comments in his private letters, author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years hard labour in a gulag. Following his release, Solzhenitsyn then wrote this semi-autobiographical novel which follows the average day of an inmate named Ivan Denisovich as he battles ill health, tries to avoid the attention of overzealous guards, and attempts to make his meagre rations last as long as possible. Life in the gulag is extremely tough and only the strongest survive.
Published after Stalin’s death, and with Khrushchev’s permission, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich showed both Russia and the rest of the world the realities of life for those Stalin kept oppressed.
Our story follows Denisovich who has been imprisoned for supposedly being a spy during World War II when, in reality, he was briefly captured by the Germans. Nevertheless he’s found guilty and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour. The events described throughout the novel may be entirely typical of a day-in-the-life of an inmate, indeed nothing major happens, but the book is fascinating as it gives readers an insight into the day-to-day life inside a gulag and shows how inmates work together to survive their sentences. Each inmate is assigned a squad, and each squad has a leader. Leaders are in charge of ensuring their squad gets their work done and act as a relay point between inmates and their guards. Ivan himself is not a leader, but details how a good leader can be the difference between life and death.
Basic comforts are extremely rare in the gulag and that includes food. Inmates are given a certain amount of rations each day, usually just bread and porridge made with water, and it’s up to them to survive on it. The novel made me realise just how much we take food for granted here in the West and I was struck at how an inmate’s entire life. and thoughts, are centred almost entirely on their next meal. Inmates have countless tips and tricks for fooling their stomachs into thinking they’ve eaten more than they have and one portion of the book describes how, when eating a bowl of porridge, inmates will use a rag to mop up the left over moisture and then suck it clean. Solzhenitsyn then writes that the bowls look as though they’ve been freshly polished. Not an ounce of food is wasted and keeping up one’s strength can be the difference between life and death. As Denisovich reflects, getting sick for just a few days can require months to get back to one’s full strength.
Life in the gulag sees prisoners enduring hard labour, hard labour that must be done in freezing Russian winters where temperatures can reach below −40 °C. Warm clothes are hard to come by and prisoners must make their own garments in order to withstand the cold. Winter is so brutal that mortar must be constantly mixed or else it freezes and snow can pile almost as high as the prison fences. Like in any prison, the gulag sees a vast network of trading going on between inmates and greasing someone’s palm today can see you getting an extra chunk of bread or some tobacco tomorrow. One man’s trash is another’s treasure and Denisovich is constantly on the look out for odds and ends that he can smuggle back to camp and bargain with.
Denisovich also reflects on the type of people he’s imprisoned with and how one’s attitude can be the difference between surviving one’s stretch or dying in it. There’s certainly a sense of camaraderie between the prisoners, but this is a place where only the strongest survive and no one is about to stick their neck out for someone else when it could cost them dearly. As mentioned earlier, inmates are all put into squads and if one squad member fails to do their share of the work then all members are punished, this in turn ensures that those who don’t do their share are severely frowned upon and there’s no room for dead weight.
Whilst life in the gulag is certainly brutal, I was surprised to find that the writing isn’t as depressive as one might expect. At no point does are protagonist give in to self pity (though no one could blame his if he did) and there’s a stoic sense of pride and community among the inmates, even a dark sense of humour. Life is taken one day at a time and, despite all his hardships, Denisovich ends the day with a certain feeling of contentment that he has managed to achieve as much as he has and that luck has been on his side. It’s certainly the kind of book that makes you realise just how resilient humans can be and will certainly make you appreciate just how much easier your basic needs are to fulfil. The book also serves to show the world just how brutal life under Stalin was for millions of Russians and it’s not hard to see why this book is considered such an important critique of Stalinism and socialism.
Added 9th May 2018