How do you portray the horrors of a totalitarian state? One way is with statistics. Everyone is familiar with the number of people murdered by Hitler’s regime during the holocaust. And while data like that has its place, it’s sometimes difficult for people to relate to numbers. In One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chose to use the events of a single day in the life of an individual to expose the reality of life in Stalinist Russia. Like Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, this up close look at the impact of totalitarianism on a single person is more powerful than a nameless list of victims because you can imagine yourself in the shoes of the victim. What if this happened to me? How would I live under circumstances like that? Could I survive such an ordeal? As I read this book I asked myself all of those questions and more.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, committed the crime of being a POW during the Second World War. Stalin was extremely suspicious of all returning prisoners, especially ones who escaped from the Germans as did Shukhov. He was sure such men were not really escapees but spies, deliberately let go in order to return to the USSR and spy on their homeland.
The book opens in Siberia in the frozen pre-dawn hours. Prisoners are awakened by a hammer sounding reveille against a metal pipe. It ends several hours later at lights out in the same freezing barracks. In between we are introduced to life in the camp through the eyes of Shukhov. Shukhov is a decent, honest man. The kind who takes pride in his work laying bricks even while falsely imprisoned in a concentration camp. He is resigned to his fate but makes the best of it, finding happiness in the few pleasures available to him such as meal times and the occasional smoke. In short, Shukhov is the kind of citizen nations need in order to build a stable and successful society. As the day goes on we learn that very few real criminals inhabit the camp. There are instead men who fought bravely in the war, men who are deeply religious and men who are skilled professionals.
Though the book is about one man and one day, Solzhenitsyn shows us that the cost of totalitarianism is not just paid by individuals like Shukhov. The culture as a whole suffers when hard working, honest people are preyed upon by the state. He reminds us there is something wrong with a society when the criminals are in power and decent citizens are locked away, where the purpose of laws is to protect the government from the people and not the other way round.
If you’ve never read Solzhenitsyn, this is a great place to begin. It’s a short read (I finished it in just a few hours over a couple of evenings) but still gives you a sense of his skill as a writer. It was one of those books where the world faded away while I was in its pages. After finishing it, I felt as though I’d been to this camp. I could almost feel the cold and the hopelessness of the men. I was left wanting to know Shukhov more, to find out what happened to him. A writer who can do this, especially in translation, is skilled indeed. I can only imagine how powerful the book must be for those who can read it in the original language.
If you’d like to read One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, you can order the Kindle version here:
- Ivan Denisovich (heilworldwars.wordpress.com)