One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

For my conflict in Modern Middle East class, I had to read the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It was and interesting and heart-breaking read. It depicted the life of Ivan Denisovich in a Prisoner of War (POW) Camp after World War II. It brought to light the in-humane hard labor the prisoners were put through and how the paranoia of Joseph Stalin caused the imprisonment and death of many innocent citizens and soldiers.

Solzhenitsyn effortlessly depicted the theme of the importance of cooperation in survival throughout the novel. Ivan explained the difference between those who survived and those who perished. “But even here people manage to live. “The ones that don’t make it are those who lick other men’s leftovers, those who count on the doctors to pull them through, and those who squeal on their buddies”(pg. 4). The prisoners had to work together to survive the camp. Those who squealed on their fellow inmates realized their mistake from the other prisoners. The prisoners also had each other’s backs. Ivan was sent to the guard house but he knew that his fellow squad members would keep his breakfast for him (pg. 8). While he is in the guard room, Ivan knew the secret to getting out quickly. “It was like a stick. When you worked for the knowing you gave them quality; when you worked for a fool you simply gave him eyewash. Otherwise, everybody would have croaked long ago. They all knew that”(pg. 12). This was one of the secrets to survival at the POW camp. If Ivan acted like he did not know how to do quality work then he would be let off as soon as the mediocre job was finished. Another key to survival was the squad leader. A good squad leader led to survival. A poor squad leader would land the whole squad in the Socialist Way of Life settlement which was the worst part of the camp. An excellent squad leader played up the amount of work the squad actually did to get their rations increased. They also bribed the planning department and other officials in the camp. In turn the squad members are at Tiurin, the leader of Ivan’s squad, are at his beck and call. They followed all of his orders and did not ask questions and Tiurin tried to get them the most out of their measly rations (pg. 37). The main goal of the prisoners was to survive their sentences. If they could make it through their sentences then they may have had a chance of escaping the camp once and for all.

The novel is set on a cold winter morning in a Stalinist labor camp in 1951. The main character is named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov and his goal was just to survive another day in the camp. The camp has strict rules and Shukhov stayed in bed past the wake-up call and he was taken to the guard house to scrub the floors. Shukhov used his survival skill to do the least amount of work to get to the mess hall in time for breakfast. One of his squad mate saved his breakfast for him and this emphasized the importance of cooperation in survival. After he ate Shukhov head to the sick bay but his fever was not high enough to get him out of work so he returned to his sleeping quarters. There were multiple body searches and body counts to make sure none of the prisoners escaped or had contraband. The prisoners were sent to work at a power station but instead of starting on the building, they worked to improve the warmth of the building. Hard work pays off in the camp and at dinner Shukhov was awarded 400 grams of bread for his work at the power station. Before he falls asleep Shukhov thanked God for having survived another day. The author Alexander Solzhenitsyn explained this had been one of the 3,653 days of Shukhov’s time in the camp. The monotony of the work and dinner schedule in the novel showed how the days moved quickly and repetitively but the years dragged on for Shukhov. It exemplified the strength it took for prisoners to survive the camps for as long as they did.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a great read but it had a few weaknesses. The book was written from Shukhov’s point of view. This makes the book very personal to Shukhov but it does not allow the reader to hear any of the other characters’ thoughts. However the story would not have encompassed Shukhov’s day so the point of view actually made the story more personal and it worked with the title. The story was a little bit confusing because the author refers to Ivan as Shukhov. I was really confused by this and thought that Ivan Denisovich and Shukhov were two different characters. I did not realize they were the same character until Pavlo addressed Shukhov when he was leaving for roll call. “So they didn’t put you in the guard house, Ivan Denisovich?” (pg. 20) Then I looked back at the beginning at the book and realized that they were the same person. I was also confused because in the novel the prisoners are referred to as zeks. I had to google it and I discovered that the word zek was an abbreviation for the Russian prisoners[Gra]. I think it would have been helpful if the author had a glossary in the back of the book that explained some of the different terms. I also had to look up what a kulak was. A kulak is “a landed peasant in Czarist Russia” [Gra]. Once again, a glossary would have been a helpful addition to this book. Other than the few hard to understand terms the story was very strong. The story had a good flow that kept it from being confusing. Shukhov was also a very strong character. He was very smart and looked for ways to survive the prison camp. Shukhov steals one of the best trowels and hides it in a new spot each day to help his work (pg. 53). He also keeps the crust of his bread to use as a spoon to get the most out of his mush. (pg. 50). These little things that Shukhov did showed his creativity and intelligence which were key elements to his survival. Shukhov was a well written character and he made the story enjoyable to read.

This story was very relatable to my Modern Western Civilization class. We learned in class that Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union during and after World War II. Stalin’s paranoia lead him to imprison millions of innocent veterans and citizens as political prisoners. Ivan was a soldier during World War II. He and his fellow soldiers were captured by the Germans. While they were being rounded up, Shukhov and four other soldiers escaped. Two of the escapees where shot and killed and one died of wounds before they reached the Russian line. When Shukhov and his companion arrived at their own front they made the mistake of telling the other soldiers that they were escaped POWs. Shukhov was sentenced for high treason and he testified that he surrendered himself to the Germans and had returned to the Russians with a mission from German intelligence. Shukhov agreed to the bogus charges because he realized that “If he didn’t sign he’d be shot. If he signed he’d still get a chance to live. So he signed” (pg. 55). Shukhov was innocent but paranoia led to his imprisonment. Many of Stalin’s supports also either wound up dead, or they found themselves in forced labor camps like the one Shukhov was in.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11th 1918 in Kislovodsk. His father studied at Moscow University but his studies were cut short when he enlisted as a volunteer in 1914 when war broke out. Solzhenitsyn’s father died in 1918, six months before Solzhenitsyn was born. Solzhenitsyn was raised by his mother and he spent most of his childhood in the town on Rostov. As a child, Solzhenitsyn knew he wanted to become a writer and in the 1930s he started to try and get his writing published but he had trouble finding someone who would accept his manuscripts. He did not have the money to study literacy so he studied at the Department of Mathematics in Rostov University[Ale70]. This skill in mathematics helped save Solzhenitsyn’s life later down the road. Solzhenitsyn was later able to study literacy at the Institute of History and Philosophy and Literature in Moscow [Ale70]. In 1941 war broke out again and Solzhenitsyn’s poor health landed him a job as a driver of horse driven vehicles during the winter. His mathematics knowledge got him a place in an artillery school and he was then put in command of a company that was tasked with finding artillery. This allowed him to serve on the front line until he was arrested in February 1945 on the grounds of censorship. From 1944-45 Solzhenitsyn had been corresponding to an old school friend and had made disrespectful remarks about the countries leader, Stalin. He received eight years in a detention camp. The first four years were spent in different correctional camps and in 1946 Solzhenitsyn’s mathematics skills got him transferred to the scientific institute of MVD-MOB, which stands for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security. In 1950 he was sent to one of the “special camp” which were intended for political prisoners [Ale70]. Solzhenitsyn preformed physical labor until he developed a cancerous tumor. The tumor was operated on but the cancer would come back for him later in life. One month after his eight year sentence, Solzhenitsyn was released but exiled for life. Solzhenitsyn served exile from March 1953 until June 1956. During the beginning of his exile Solzhenitsyn’s tumor returned and he was slowly approaching death. He was able to visit a cancer clinic at Tashkent in 1954 where he was cured. Solzhenitsyn also taught physics and mathematics during his exile. He wrote prose in secret that he took with him to the European countryside. Until about 1961, Solzhenitsyn was convince that none of his work would ever become printed. However Solzhenitsyn decided to emerge from secrecy by showing his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This risky move paid off and a year later, Solzhenitsyn was able to print his novel. However the printing was stopped almost immediately and the authorities seized his papers from the past year and his plays. Solzhenitsyn offered this piece of advice for his readers, “It is almost always impossible to evaluate at the time events which you have already experience, and to understand their meaning with the guidance of their effects. All the more unpredictable and surprising to us will be the course of future events” [Ale70]. Shukhov explained how no one will know the effect of an action at the time and that the future is unpredictable.

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