One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a former POW serving a 10 year term in a Gulag on the Kazakh steppe for being a spy. He is innocent. The book chronicles a single day of his existence, beginning with a 5 a.m. reveille. Our protagonist, having been deemed not to have risen from bed on time, is forced to clean the guardhouse. Shukhov hopes the temperature that morning is below -41C, meaning that there will be no outdoor labour, but he is out of luck.
The day is spent working on a construction site. The prisoners’ (zeks) efforts are complicated by rudimentary tools and temperatures so low that the mortar for laying the bricks freezes if not applied quickly. Shukhov toils alongside his squad, the 104th, who are led by Tiurin, a strict but fair disciplinarian.
Despite the oppressive, dehumanising environment that has resulted in the inmates being consumed by their continual struggle to find food, warmth and avoid punishment, there are instances of the human spirit remaining unbowed, such as the Baptist Alyosha’s continued faith and the inmate who always lays a cloth out on the table at mealtimes to eat off.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a semi-autobiographical novella that puts a human face to the plight of the untold millions who suffered in the Soviet Union’s Gulags. Its concise prose and matter of fact style are effective in laying bare the starkness and brutality of camp life. This harrowing and atmospheric novella is one of the most powerful and poignant books this reader has ever read.