Sunday, July 03, 2022

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"In all his time in camps and prisons, Ivan Denisovich had lost the habit of concerning himself about the next day, or the next year, or about feeding his family. The authorities did all his thinking for him, and, somehow, it was easier like that." (p. 40)

This extraordinary book, detailing the waking hours on a bitterly cold day in a Russian work camp sometime in the early 1950s, is based on the real-life experience of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was released from such labour in 1957. 

First published in the USSR in 1962, my 1970 translation by Gillon Aitken is at least the third version in English. I can see why this book so haunted a generation. It seems to have influenced subsequent memoirs - of Soviet gulags, of the concentration camps in the war, of systems of oppression more generally.

In the USSR, the book and its implicit criticism of the regime overseen by Stalin was initially welcomed - perhaps emblematic of the new, more liberated era of Khrushchev. When Khrushchev was himself stripped of power in 1964, Solzhenitsyn fell out of favour. His books weren't exactly banned in the USSR, but life was made increasingly difficult. 

When, in 1969, Solzhenitsyn was chucked out of the Union of Writers in Russia, various bodies around the world staged protests of one kind or another. Most notably, the author was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. In July 1969, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain sent two delegates to the International Writers Guild conference being held in Moscow with the specific brief of making some protest about the treatment of Solzhenitsyn. One of those delegates was David Whitaker, and I've been reading his accounts of what happened there - and the fall-out from it. More of that anon.

The book is full of extraordinary moments: the men discussing the merits and techniques of Eisenstein's cinema as they get on with their weary toil in the snow; the man who is in prison because of the heinous crime of having received a note of gratitude from an English admiral after service in the war; the way a prisoner receiving a parcel of food from their family finds themselves in debt to everyone else...

In observing these details within the drudgery, Solzhenitsyn shows us the mechanics of the operation, the way the oppression works. The infighting of prisoners compels them to work, to play an active role in the system imprisoning them.

 "Who is the prisoner's worst enemy? Another prisoner. If only the prisoners didn't fight with each other, then..." (p. 114)

And while it's about the system, it's also about how an individual might survive in such conditions. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov hordes a crust of bread, does favours to earn himself an extra bit of thin soup, and squirrels away a broken bit of hacksaw blade with which he can later fashion a knife that will be useful for mending clothes. Only then the prisoners get searched and this small theft risks putting him,

"in the cells on 300 grams of bread a day and hot food once every three days. He imagined at that moment how enfeebled and hungry he would become and how difficult it would be to recover his present condition of being neither starved nor properly fed." (p. 117)

All that effort to keep going could be undone in an instant. And we're left with the horrible fact that this is just one day in 3,653 of Shukov's 10-year sentence. The last line of the book adds one further systematic cruelty.

"The three extra days were because of the leap years..." (p. 157)

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