'Art isn't what you do, it's how you do it': Enslavement, Ideology, and Emancipation in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
On One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Author: John Becker
From:Enslavement and Emancipation, Bloom's Literary Themes.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), the first novel of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is the story of prisoner Shcha-854, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who is detained in a Soviet forced labor camp. The novel was one of the first works published in the Soviet Union to provide a detailed description of the cruelties and hardships sufered by those enslaved within the Soviet convict labor system in remote settlements far away from their families, as was Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in Ekibastuzlag in northeastern Kazakhstan. As One Day records such atrocities, the novel also marks an unprecedented easing of the Communist Party's strict censorship policies under the leadership of Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev. Solzhenitsyn's narrative shows camp life as barbarous, yet Shukhov's optimistic refrains ring throughout the last half of the novel; he takes pride in his work and dreams of being free. Tough the narrative ends with Shukhov counting of one day of his enslavement, he believes in emancipation: the hope of reaching exile, the promise of an extra portion of nettle gruel, a sick day—anything that adds to his chances of survival.
One Day marked a radical change in Society literary culture with its departure from the state-enforced doctrines of socialist realism—a set of guidelines codifed by Stalin's cultural advisor Andrei Zhdanov to discourage artists from experimentation that either deviated from honest and realistic portrayals of life or lacked the proper revolutionary fervor. Socialist realist art is intended to educate the working class and to foster the international uprising of workers Marx prophesied. State-endorsed theorizers of socialist realism might have been pleased with Shukhov's optimistic refrains throughout the last half of the novel, as well as the pride he takes in his work. Shukhov evinces a remarkably intimate relationship with his bricklaying, despite knowing he will probably not be assigned to finish the work he has begun. Solzhenitsyn's protagonist—dehumanized as he is by the brutal workings of the camp labor machine—takes pride in his work. Further, despite the narrator's reiterations that a zek's (prisoner's) worst enemy is another zek, Shukhov empathizes with many of his fellow prisoners. While being openly hostile to the legacy of Stalin—which Khrushchev and others were in the process of dismantling at the time of One Day's publication—Solzhenitsyn's story denounces the most sacred beliefs of Soviet communism.
Rather than portraying his subject matter objectively, Solzhenitsyn draws upon the Russian skaz tradition, a genre of folk literature characterized by a fctitious narrator and vernacular language. Solzhenitsyn relates the events of the day through the limited perspective of a simple-minded peasant while a reporting narrator relays the horrid details of prison life. Both the narrator and the novel's protagonist use prison camp jargon as well as old Russian mannerisms and figures of speech—literary devices that complicate the enlightened, historical perspective championed by socialist realism. Solzhenitsyn complicates matters by switching artfully between his third-person narrator's point of view and Shukhov's. One example of the abrupt way Solzhenitsyn moves from third-person reportage to Shukhov's perception of events occurs when he enters the mess hut for breakfast (italics have been added to mark the shift):
Two or three workers from every gang shouted and shoved their way through the mob, carrying bowls of skilly and gruel on wooden trays and looking for a space to put them down on. Must be deaf, the blockhead, take that for bumping the tray and making me spill the stuf! Tat's it—use your free hand—give him one on the neck. Tat's the stuf! You there, don't get in the way looking for leftovers. (15)
Such shifts occur frequently throughout the text. Yet, despite these manipulations, the novel provides a realistic, unsparing portrait of camp life.
As we become acquainted with Shukhov, a war veteran from a small village unjustly accused of espionage, Solzhenitsyn conveys a sense of the psychological enslavement inficted by such camps. The narrative perspective of Solzhenitsyn's novel helps form its political commentary by providing a seemingly neutral, apolitical voice, which Solzhenitsyn uses to critique Soviet communism—not just the legacy of Stalin's terror. In fact, Solzhenitsyn's invective against the camp system and the kleptocracy running it bears a striking resemblance to Marx's famous critique of the way capitalism alienates workers:
What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor? [ … ] (1) The relationship of the worker to the product of his labor as an alien object exercising power over him.… (2) The relation of labor to the act of production within the labor process. This relation is the relation of the worker to his own activity as an alien activity not belonging to him; it is activity as sufering.… Here we have self-estrangement, as previously we had the estrangement of the thing.… Estranged labor turns thus: (3) Man's species being, both nature and his spiritual species property, into a being alien to him, into a means to his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual essence, his human being. (4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species being is the estrangement of man from man. (834–6)
Stalin's camps are designed to alienate prisoners. The narrator's grotesque depiction of camp life recalls Marx's famous critique, which was used to justify the repressive and totalitarian measures Soviet leaders took to create an egalitarian, classless society. Certainly, Solzhenitsyn's characters are alienated in all the ways enumerated by Marx. The novel's details underscore this incongruity, especially in its depictions of the numerous classes of zeks Stalinist communism has produced.
The narrator relates the endless duplication of tasks in the camp bureaucracy and its variegated hierarchy of stooges, foremen, warders, and administrators, showing class division and the alienation of both zek and guard alike. Descriptions of this absurd system depict those charged with making sure everyone in the work convoy is counted: Two sentries, a lieutenant, an escort party sergeant, the assistant guard commander, and yet another lieutenant count the numbers of zeks as they move past the barbed wire of the camp. The narrator states the rationale for such redundancy, which is fear:
All this on behalf of the administration. Every man more precious than gold. A single head short behind the wire and your own head would make up for it.… All this on behalf of the convoy. On no account must they make a mistake. Sign for one head too many and your own would make up the number. (37)
"More precious than gold," the zeks are not valued for their labor or their intrinsic humanity. Rather, their worth is tied to their numbers: Toroughly quantifed, the zeks are a commodity that threatens to enslave the guards, who will become commodities themselves if they fail to keep an accurate tally.
The narrator's description of mealtime and its preparation offers a clear example of the camp's stratifed caste system. In a lengthy passage, the number and tasks of each stooge that attends the cook and his "hygienist" are systematically laid out by the narrator. Including the hygienist, who does nothing except "watch" the cook prepare the meal, a total of nine people are given an extra portion of prized oatmeal gruel from the caldron (73–5). Even before this happens, half of the fat allotted to the cook for the day's lunch has already been stolen. Solzhenitsyn concludes this catalogue of corruption with the following summary: "What the boss man doles out is all you can get.… There's thieving on the site, there's thieving in the camp, and there was thieving before the food ever left the store.… It's dog eat dog here" (75). Not only does the narrator characterize the spectacle as lawless and primitive, but as the result of one person's will: "the boss man" Stalin. Here, in Stalin's most controlled environment, which ostensibly rehabilitates counterrevolutionaries, zek preys on zek, prisoners are worked to death, tribes (work gangs) battle one another for survival, and class upon class of stooges and informants proliferate in a harsh winter landscape.
As critic Georg Lukács first suggested, One Day's "grey monochrome" atmosphere of bureaucratic mishandling, unabated cruelty, mortal fear, and suspicion—though "extreme"—serves as a "symbol of everyday life under Stalin" (Lukács 13). Solzhenitsyn's references to this bleak period in Soviet history are often made through seemingly unimportant details, such as the confscation of his prized boots. Shukhov compares his loss to Stalin's forced collectivization of farms and "how they rounded everybody's horses up for the kolkhoz" (13). Thus, Shukhov's nostalgia for his work boots—which he remembers better than his own estranged wife—refers to an event that resulted in the death and enslavement of millions of perceived resisters (13–4). While the novel chronicles this period, the narrator's description of the three artists that touch up the numbers on each zek's uniform also comments upon Solzhenitsyn's present: the artistic enslavement of Soviet culture by the doctrines of socialist realism. Reduced to tracing the figures of the dehumanized number-names by which the bureaucracy can best use and discipline the workers, these artists fulfll the role Stalin's cultural policies had relegated all artists to: literally inscribing the worker in the camp's reality, his relationship to the State, and his place in the "revolution" (30).
Solzhenitsyn elaborates further on the plight of artists in Stalin's Russia when Shukhov delivers Tsezar his bowl of gruel. Tsezar, a film maker who was never allowed to finish his first piece, is busy discussing the second part of Sergei Eisenstein's epic biography of Tsar Ivan IV, Ivan the Terrible, a political figure credited (especially by Stalin) as a defender and unifer of the Russian state. A censored version of the film premiered in 1946, but Stalin was displeased with Eisenstein's second installment, which recounts Ivan's purges of the disloyal and conniving Muscovites plotting his assassination—a set of historical events that resonate with Stalin's purges during the 1920s and 1930s. Tough both Tsezar and his interlocutor, prisoner Kh-123, seem unaware of Stalin's displeasure with the film or its censorship, they argue over the relationship between technical brilliance, integrity, and artistic value:
"Objectively, you will have to admit that Eisenstein is a genius. Surely you can't deny that Ivan the Terrible is a work of genius? The dance of the masked oprichniki [members of the Oprichnina, Ivan's "secret police"]! The scene in the cathedral!"
[ … ] "Bogus," he said angrily. "So much art in it that it ceases to be.… And the political motive behind it is utterly loathsome—an attempt to justify a tyrannical individual. An insult to the memory of three generations of the Russian intelligentsia!" (He was eating his gruel without savoring it. It wouldn't do him any good.)
"But would it have gotten past the censor if he'd handled it differently?"
"[…] A genius doesn't adjust his treatment of a theme to a tyrant's taste."
[ … ]
"Yes, but art isn't what you do, it's how you do it."
[ … ]
"I don't give a damn how you do it if it doesn't awaken good feelings in me!" (86)
Such a conversation, arising as it does in a novel which is highly critical of Stalin's policies, has a special bearing on the nature of Solzhenitsyn's artistry. Whether Eisenstein, in his portrayal of Ivan the Terrible, was being critical of Stalin's regime in the last years of his life is questionable. Nonetheless, many of its audiences (especially in the West) thought so, and such a claim implicitly depends on the ability of art to subversively communicate what cannot be safely imparted in simple terms. Furthermore, the mere suggestion that this level of artistic trickery is possible tempts Solzhenitsyn's readers to treat his sparse narrative commentary with the attentiveness of "a slow moving and circumspect zek" (82). Readers who remain blind to the "treatment of a theme," Solzhenitsyn implies, do not "savour their gruel," and it "does them no good" (86).
At the beginning of the novel, one of Shukhov's first gulag mentors informs us that a different law governs the camp system. The "law of the taiga," or forest, determines a zek's fate: "Know who croaks first? The guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in sick bay, or squeals to godfather" (4). This law bears an intimate connection with nature, as suggested by the camp's physical isolation from the rest of civilization, as well as the narrator's repeated assertions that a zek's worst enemy is another zek—an echo of philosopher Tomas Hobbes's "state of nature." But this primitive law of self-interest is wedded to the camp's institutionalized corruption and culture of surveillance: "A stoolie will always get by, whoever else bleeds for him" (4). And, of course, this law of the enslaved demands obedience, as refected by what the narrator calls "the convict's daily 'prayer' ":
"Your attention prisoners! Keep strictly to your column on the march! No spreading out, no running into the column in front, no moving from rank to rank, keep your eyes straight ahead, keep your hands behind your backs and nowhere else! One step to the right or left will be considered an attempt to escape and the guards will open fre without warning! Leader—quick march!" (39)
If this is a summation of Stalin's new religion, then we can clearly see that it is predicated upon fear: A single misstep, no matter how trivial, may (or may not) receive the maximum punishment—execution or punitive starvation.
The fear of such consequences seems to be as innate as the workings of nature, as dependable as the sun rising each morning. The almost "natural" status of Shukhov's enslavement is suggested in the narrator's initial description of the camp:
Two big searchlights from watchtowers in opposite corners crossed beams as they swept the compound. Lights were burning around the periphery, and inside the camp, dotted around in such numbers that they made the stars look dim. (9)
As the zeks prepare to fall into ranks for their daily journey to the work site, the camp is again described as an antagonist of the stars, an artifcial and grotesque caricature of nature:
The camp lights had chased the stars from the sky, and it was dark as before.… When they first set up this "special" camp, the guards still had stacks of army surplus fares, and as soon as the light faded they would fll the air over the camp with white, green, and red fres. It was like a battlefeld. Then they stopped throwing things around. Probably cost too much. (18)
From the beginning of Solzhenitsyn's novel, this dystopian "nature"—animated by fear rather than utopian longings—is hopelessly inefcient and fraught with error. Even when Shukhov and his fellow zeks leave the camp, nature is subject to the Party's dictates. One of the appointed counters at the camp gates, is a captain "fond of explaining things" who, the narrator tells us, can "work out for you whether the moon would be new or old on whatever day in whichever year you liked" (38):
"It's sure to be twelve," Shukhov announced. "The sun's over the top already."
"If it is," the captain retorted, "it's one o'clock, not twelve."
"How do you make that out?" Shukhov asked in surprise.
"The old folk say the sun is highest at dinnertime."
"Maybe it was in their day!" the captain snapped back.
"Since then it's been decreed that the sun is highest at one o'clock."
"Who decreed that?"
"The Soviet government."
The captain took of with the handbarrow, but Shukhov wasn't going to argue anyway. As if the sun would obey their decrees! (68)
Although Shukhov does not believe the captain's claim, the government has refashioned his sense of time: "He'd often noticed that days in the camp rolled by before you knew it. Yet your sentence stood still, the time you had to serve never got any less" (67). Even the length of sentence can be arbitrarily changed. As Shukhov comments to the gang prankster Kildigs, "Don't keep counting. Who knows whether you'll be here twenty-five years or not? Guessing is like pitch-forking water" (69).
The arbitrariness of zek life, its fate at the whim of a faceless bureaucracy that attempts to change basic laws of nature, prefaces the narrator's relating of Shukhov's arrest. After escaping his Nazi captors and finding his way back to a Soviet unit, Shukhov and his sole surviving companion are deemed traitors, German spies sent back on "a mission" of some sort (70). Shukhov, we are told, was faced with a very clear decision:
The choice was simple enough: don't sign and dig your own grave, or sign and live a bit longer.
He signed. (71)
Shukhov's arrest, shocking in its mockery of justice, prefaces an even more atrocious revelation: the story of Senka Klevshin, a veteran captured by the Nazis, interned at the concentration camp, Buchenwald (into which he smuggled weapons for an armed uprising), and then persecuted for his contact with the enemy upon his return home (71). Thus Solzhenitsyn relates a string of controversial revelations whose very utterance would, in Stalin's time, warrant imprisonment after the captain's ludicrous claim that the government had changed the speed of the sun. History, we might infer, is equally unafected by the pronouncements of Stalin and his legions of cronies, who remained criminally indifferent to war veterans and peasants alike as they continued to engineer a new society by liquidating entire classes of people and suppressing dissent with purges and executions. Solzhenitsyn's narrator, by bearing witness to the lives and circumstances of those unfortunate enough to be swallowed by history (and Stalin's desire to control its development and presentations of its legacy), emancipates what has been left out: the death and sufering of millions of people in the name of progress.
In One Day, Solzhenitsyn suggests the zek's emancipation is coming, that no apparatus of oppression can conquer the spirit of man. For Solzhenitsyn, the human psyche is mixed, forever capable of barbarity and civility toward itself and others:
[ … A] human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of hope. (Gulag, Vol. 1 175)
Thus, good and evil are part of the human condition: Reasonable and just people engage—when under the pressure of the State or the sway of a narrow, intolerant ideology—in the most inhuman activities: "Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.… Tanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions" (Gulag, Vol. 1 174). Moreover, Solzhenitsyn insists that the Soviet system cannot survive without the camps, that Soviet communism requires enslavement and forced labor: " … foreseen as far back as Tomas More, the great-grandfather of socialism, in his Utopia[, the] labor of zeks was needed for degrading and particularly heavy work, which no one, under socialism, would wish to perform" (Gulag, Vol. 3 578).
Ekibastuzlag, the camp where Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, was the site of a mass hunger strike in 1951. Some of the prisoners from that camp also took part in the Kengir Uprising: a 40-day rebellion involving thousands of armed and well-organized zeks with a long list of demands, including the prosecution of camp guards for illegal shootings and the reexamination of their cases. Even before the death of Stalin in 1953, many acts of defance had begun to occur throughout the camp system, usually involving labor strikes rather than full-blown mutinies (Applebaum 472–3). One Day foresees these rebellious acts, which presumably transpire shortly after the novel ends (Shukhov was arrested during the war; he has been in camps for eight years). The narrator tells us that zeks are starting to smuggle knives past the guards and assassinating informants—a practice known in the camps as "chopping"—whose only refuge is, ironically, the block of isolation cells used to punish unruly prisoners with slow starvation (One Day 72; Gulag Vol. 3 233–41). Thus the historical circumstances surrounding Solzhenitsyn's novel help us understand Shukhov's optimism. The guards and warders treat prisoners differently after these portentous acts of violence: "Oh, yes. Slitting a few throats had made a diference. Just three of them—and you wouldn't know it was the same camp" (105). The zeks—long dehumanized in an atmosphere of constant mortal anxiety, at the whim of an authoritarian, absurd, and bureaucratic machine—are autonomous human beings capable of brutal acts that engender fear and respect.
Solzhenitsyn's technical virtuosity—his subtle use of an ironically naïve peasant's perspective, his deft maneuvering between third person and interior monologue, his combination of suggestive symbols and realistic reportage, his intermingling of camp slang with old Russian proverbs and figures of speech—hides a subversive subtext that seeks to emancipate art from the enslavement of Marxist-Leninist aesthetic dogma, Stalinist repression, and the ideologies underpinning them. The ambiguity created by Solzhenitsyn's narrative framing and limited perspective cloaks a devastating critique of not only Stalin's camps and the evils they inficted, but of the very foundations of Marxism and its notions of historical progress and human nature. In One Day Solzhenitsyn seeks to enact change, investing art, and especially literature, with the power to bring about cultural renewal and emancipation. By recounting a "good day" of Shukhov's imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn reveals the mechanisms of institutionalized servitude and its inability to control the spirit of the oppressed. The guards frisk Shukhov as he approaches the camp gates to ensure that he has no bread to survive an escape attempt or a weapon to resist his enslavement. The narrator reports his silent response to this indignity, equating his humanity with bread to survive the barren taiga or a knife to use within the camp walls. At this moment we see the enslaved Shukhov refect upon the soul, his only means of emancipation: " … go ahead, he told them silently, have a feel, nothing here except bare chest with a soul inside it" (35).