This book is exactly what the title suggests: a look at one day in Ivan Denisovich (Shukhov)’s life. Shukhov was arrested on baseless charges – fairly common at that time – and was sentenced to ten years in a Siberian labor camp. The book explores one day in his eighth year, a winter’s day that is a – relatively – good day. It is as much about the labor camp as it is about Shukhov and the other prisoners.
This was an excellent book. I’ve stated in the past that I know very little about Russian history, philosophy, geography, and politics, but that didn’t matter for this book. When you’re standing outside in below-zero temperatures, pre-dawn, with clothes not quite thick enough to keep you warm, what do politics matter? When you have to fight to get your bowl of watery gruel and a chunk of bread a couple times a day, when you have to walk two miles to your day’s labor site in harsh Siberian wind, philosophy doesn’t matter so much. What matters is survival. And not just physical survival, but mental and emotional survival, too. Solzhenitsyn makes it clear multiple times in this book that if you solely looked out for your physical survival, like the scrounger, Fetyukov, you probably wouldn’t live out your years in the camp. Instead, you must learn camp culture. You form alliances with your labor gang; you figure out the most profitable way to get more than you would get alone. You respect your gang boss if he’s a good one, because he’s the one that’ll get you good jobs and good “wages.” You work hard because otherwise you’d freeze to death, plus your rations would be smaller. You keep in line because otherwise your whole gang is punished, and a hoard of angry, freezing men is not an enemy you want.
The Siberian labor camps were horrible, and it would be easy to imagine the prisoners as hateful or miserable or hopeless. And yet, they aren’t any of those things. Sure, they don’t like the life they’ve been forced into. They don’t like the cold or the short food rations or the nearly pointless labor. They don’t like the long hours, the lack of cigarettes, or the inability to go to the hospital when they’re sick. But they don’t dwell on those things. They can’t. Some of them are sentenced to 25 years. If they got caught up in anger or despair, they wouldn’t survive. Instead, the men adapt. They figure out the best way to do things. They learn to treat each day as it comes, to acknowledge good days and bad days, to know that every day that you aren’t dead is essentially a good day. They find little happinesses in unexpected places. A bite of sausage a bunkmate received from home and shared with you, or a spot near the fire for your socks to stay overnight so they’d be warm in the morning. Strange to say, but despite all the horrors happening in the labor camp, this book actually filled me with hope and faith in humanity.
Solzhenitsyn himself served time in the Siberian labor camps. After he was freed, he wrote this book and The Gulag Archipelago, both about the camps. I’ve not read the latter, but I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. It took me over a week to read it, but only because it was the sort of book that felt better read slowly, absorbing and digesting each piece. Even through translation, the writing was superb, and Solzhenitsyn managed to attack the Soviet government and its policies without the book sounding or feeling solely angry or cynical. I really enjoyed it.