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Survival and Grace in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


By A.E. Smith


The Montréal Review, October 2016



Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich begins as it ends – in the freezing darkness of a prison camp barracks, with a hundred sleeping men wrapped in every shred of clothing they have in a vain effort to escape the terrifying cold of a Siberian winter.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a convict, is lying in his bunk. This hour after reveille is usually the time that he gets up and busies himself looking for little jobs to do for other prisoners – perhaps in exchange for a bit of extra food or for an unspecified return favor somewhere down the line. But today he doesn’t feel well. He might be sick. Here, in a “special regime” camp in the late 1940s, that’s serious – by nightfall, he could be just another dokhodiaga, a “goner,” waiting to die.

It’s a different world here.

Shukhov could still hear the words of his first gang boss, Kuzyomin – an old camp hand who’d already been inside for twelve years in 1943. Once, by a fire in a forest clearing, he’d said to a new batch of men, just brought in from the front:

“It’s the law of the jungle here, fellows. But even here you can live. The first to go is the guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the infirmary, or squeals to the screws.”

So much for Marxist conceits around “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” So much for the dictatorship of the proletariat. So much, even, for workers of the world uniting to throw off their chains. Out here, it is social Darwinism at its most basic and its most brutal - seemingly the antithesis of every promise held out by the Soviet state.

Even worse, this is a country that, in 1943, was locked in a desperate struggle for its very survival. Yet it remained so fundamentally riven by paranoia that it continued to ship entire trainloads of its soldiers into the Gulag for imagined crimes against the state. Shukhov himself is here because in the chaos of the Nazi invasion of the USSR he was taken prisoner for a few hours, marking him – obviously – as a German saboteur.

If all of this seems too absurd to be believed, it is probably meant to. What Solzhenitsyn seems to be doing here is employing the Russian formalist technique of ostranenie, or “making strange.”

A useful technique in a literary culture that has struggled with the censor for as long as it has existed, ostranenie forces the audience (reader) to see familiar things in unfamiliar ways in order to force them to adjust their perceptions of what is familiar. In The Master and Margarita, when Mikhail Bulgakov dispatches Satan and his talking cat to determine whether or not Muscovites have “really changed,” he is using ostranenie to expose the emptiness and hypocrisy of Soviet life.

But Solzhenitsyn’s ostranenie is more subversive. Yes, Shukhov’s world is “strange,” grotesque, even horrifying. But it is also a world with which virtually every citizen of the USSR over the age of 11 or 12 is amply familiar, whether or not they admit it, to themselves or to others. How could they not be? Between 1929 and 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, an estimated 14 million people had been imprisoned in the Gulag system and another 15 million had been sent into internal exile or to some other kind of labor or penal colony. By the time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962 – the first time that the “secret history” of the Gulag had been openly discussed in Soviet society – there was barely a soul in the entire Soviet Union whose life had not been in some way touched by it.

What makes this all so “strange” is that Solzhenitsyn seems to be recounting the story of Ivan Denisovich, a sort of Soviet “everyman,” not so much to tell his readers what they don’t know, but rather to show themselves, reflected in a distant mirror. The Gulag is not a place, it is a metaphor for all of Soviet life.

Even Shukhov’s camp, a provincial backwater compared to Gulag metropolises like Magadan, Vorkuta and Norilsk, features a cross-section of types as diverse as the Soviet Union itself. There are Tartars and Estonians; Ukrainian “Banderist” nationalists and Evangelical Christians; simple Kolkhozniks like Shukhov, military officers, Moscow intellectuals and even a former bureaucrat “…who used to ride around in a car.”

There is bourgeois repartee, as a couple of zeks sit on a bunk sharing a food package: “Help yourself Captain, don’t wait to be asked. Have some of the smoked fish, and there’s some sausage here too.”

There are sadists, like Lieutenant Volkhovoy, the wolf in human form that frightens even the Camp Commandant, and mentschn, like Tyurin, Shukhov’s gang boss, “…who didn’t stand for any fucking nonsense in the gang, but kept them pretty well fed and was always worried about them getting a good ration.”

And despite what Shukhov learned in his early days about the law of the jungle, the collective is a necessity here, not just an ideological conceit. When they arrive at their worksite, a half-built cement factory, he reflects, “either they made the place warm within two hours or they’d all be fucking well dead.”

Even the guards are, to one degree or another, captives of the system. “It was no picnic for them either to kick their heels on top of watchtowers in this freezing cold.” And G-d help the guard who comes up short at roll call: “if there was one man missing…he’d soon be taking his place.”

And just as in the “outside” world, the only people who really seem to do well here are the criminals, “…the biggest bastard[s] of them all…in Ust-Izhma…the crooks always got back from work first and cleaned out all the lockers.”

For Solzhenitsyn, the Gulag is Soviet reality. And the Soviet Union itself? To echo Anna Akhmatova’s characterization of the city of Leningrad in 1941, the entire country is little more than “a useless appendage, dangling from its prisons.”

There are some curious features to Solzhenitsyn’s Never-Never Land, however. For one thing, its citizens have had so much taken from them that there is virtually nothing left to take. Ironically, they have fetched up in the only Soviet space that can truly be said to be “safe.”

In the barracks, just before lights out,

Somebody in the room was yelling: “You think that old bastard in Moscow with the mustache is going to have mercy on you? He wouldn’t give a damn about his own brother, never mind slobs like you!”

The great thing about a penal camp was you had a hell of a lot of freedom…you could yell your head off about anything you liked and the squealers didn’t even bother to tell on you. The security fellows couldn’t care less.

This is far more subversive than we think. The “old bastard with a mustache” – Stalin – is a direct allusion to Solzhenitsyn’s own arrest. As a Red Army artillery officer in the final push toward Berlin, Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 and sentenced to ten years of hard labor after he referred to Stalin as “the mustached one” in a letter to a friend. And “his own brother” may allude to Stalin’s son, Yakov Dzugashvili, who was taken prisoner by the Nazis at the beginning of the war, prompting his father to dismiss him as a coward and a traitor. Yakov eventually died, a suicide, in Sachsenhausen.

The notion of the Gulag as a sort of parallel universe may be a way into Solzhenitsyn’s thinking. While his experience of the Gulag turned him away from Marxism, Solzhenitsyn was much more than a polemicist and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (the only one of his works to be published in the Soviet Union) much more than simply an expose of the Soviet penal system. As a writer and, just as importantly, as a thinker, Solzhenitsyn, like Tolstoy, was deeply concerned with the human condition and the survival of the inimitable Russian spirit.

In its exploration of the outer limits of privation and what it does to the human soul, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich leads us towards a consideration of the world in Epicurean terms. Epicurus, a 3rd Century BCE Greek philosopher, taught that “pleasure” was the greatest good (and, incidentally, is the origin of the Mishnaic term for an apostate, “apikoros”). This has given us the modern sense of the word, but what Epicurus meant by pleasure was rather different.  For the Epicureans, pleasure is defined as a freedom from fear and bodily pain that can only be achieved through modest living and the limitation of desire. Through reduction to life’s essentials, we understand what it is to be truly alive.

One way of understanding Shukhov is as a cipher, utterly ground down by his life as a zek. His identity has been reduced to a number, he has not seen his home since the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. He has no contact with family.

Writing now was like throwing stones into a bottomless pit. They fell down and disappeared and no sound came back…Now you had more in common with that Latvian Kilgas than with your own family.

His material possessions have been reduced to a bare minimum, a simple spoon that he carries around inside his boot.

He was very fond of this spoon, which had gone with him all over the North. He’d made it himself out of aluminum wire and cast it in sand. And he’d scratched on it: “Ust-Izhma, 1944.”

And in a place where time has no meaning – “the prisoners never got to see a watch or a clock, and what good would it do anyway?” – Shukhov’s life consists of little more than reveille, roll call, work, meals and lights out.

And yet somehow, in this place that seems to exist purely to destroy the human soul, Shukhov finds that he is content.

He’d had a lot of luck today. They hadn’t put him in the cooler…He’d finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon. The boss had gotten them good rates for their work. He’d felt good making that wall. They hadn’t found that piece of steel in the frisk…He’d bought some tobacco. And he’d gotten over that sickness.

Nothing had spoiled the day…

Far from being ground down, Shukhov is very much alive. His existence, moreover, is strangely rich. Through modest living (admittedly, beyond his control) and limiting his own desires, he seems to have become a sort of “accidental Epicurean.” And this may be the key to his survival.

By contrast, the Captain, a new zek, is only just learning the lessons that Shukhov long ago absorbed. At lunchtime, he tries to stay for as long as possible in the warmth of the dining hall, “…the sort of thing that was changing him from a…loudmouth naval officer into a slow-moving and cagey prisoner.” But in the meantime, Shukhov looks out for this innocent: “The time would come when he’d learn the ropes, but as it was he didn’t know his away around yet.”

The Captain may never get the chance. Still deeply invested in his previous identity and authority, the Captain seems unable to adopt Shukhov’s stoicism. He confronts Lieutenant Volkhovoy, telling him that he and his men are “…not Soviet people…not Communists!” and succeeds only in earning himself ten days’ solitary. This may end up being a death sentence, because “…if you had ten days in the cells here and sat them out until the end, you’d be a wreck for the rest of your life.”

To the end of his life, Solzhenitsyn was a Christian believer and, like Tolstoy, had huge faith in the innate wisdom and nobility of the simple Russian people. This means that his Gulag Epicureanism manifests itself in ways that Epicurus might not have anticipated.

Alyoshka, Shukhov’s bunkmate and a Baptist, sees his sentence as a gift from G-d. Invoking the Apostle Paul, Alyoshka admonishes Shukhov to “Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul.” And when Shukhov wonders what G-d has done for any of them lately, Alyoshka tells him that he must pray, not for material things, but “…for the things of the spirit, so that the Lord will take evil things from our hearts...” Alyoshka’s faith seems to have helped him find a degree of Epicurean “pleasure” that in turn allows him not only to make peace with his fate, but also, perhaps, to achieve a sort of equilibrium, even contentment.

Given Solzhenitsyn’s “Slavophile” tendencies, it may be no coincidence that Alyoshka’s namesake is Alyosha Karamazov, the youngest of the brothers in Dostoevsky’s eponymous novel. A devout Christian who is a novice in a monastery at the beginning of the novel, Alyosha’s belief sets him apart from the other characters, especially his atheist brother, Ivan.

There is a sainted quality to both Alyoshas, not unlike the old time yurodivy, or “Holy Fools” that wandered the Russian countryside, testifying to the sanctity of God and calling out hypocrisy and apostasy. And while neither Alyosha is in the end able to prevent the suffering of those around them, they bear witness to that suffering and seem able to rise above it, borne on the purity of their faith.

For Shukhov, the belief that underlies an Epicurean worldview is at once Christian and rooted in his own peasant traditions, predating the Russian church by many centuries. In one of the most lyrical passages in the novel, he explains his belief in the immanence of G-d to the Captain.

“The old people at home used to say God breaks the old moon up into stars.”

“What ignorance,” the Captain…laughed…”Do you believe in G-d then, Shukov?”

“And why not?” Shukhov said. “When He thunders up there in the sky, how can you help believe in Him?”

“And why does G-d do that…Break the moon up into stars,” the Captain said.

“Don’t you see? (…) The stars keep falling down, so you’ve got to have new ones in their place.”

Solzhenitsyn tends to romanticize the Russian peasant – the very same Russian peasant, of course, that gleefully participated in countless pogroms over the years, all the while invoking the name of G-d. That said, Shukhov’s affinity for the natural world – later in the novel, he alludes to the old Russian belief that wolves come out at night to warm themselves in the light of the moon – is clearly a source of enormous strength to him.

Shukhov’s corporeal being exists in the camps, perhaps never to escape. But his inner connection to some deep and ancient vein of belief – much stronger than, say, the pretensions of the camp’s Muscovite intellectuals, their noses buried in an ancient newspaper – is a key component of the Epicureanism that sustains him.

For Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet Communism was a monstrous cruelty inflicted upon the Russian people. And while he devoted his life, and his considerable genius, to exposing that cruelty to the world, he was – again – more than just a counter-propagandist. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is really an early attempt at developing a philosophy of survival – survival not just in the Gulag, but in the everyday perversity of Soviet life, of which the Gulag is just a particularly egregious reflection. This is a theme that runs through all of his greatest works, from Cancer Ward and The First Circle to The Gulag Archipelago.

For Solzhenitsyn, the answer did not lie in Western institutions, or Western systems. While he often expressed admiration for the American tradition of personal liberty, he was critical of Western culture. In a 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, he famously excoriated America for its spiritual weakness, its materialism and its vulgarity; its “TV stupor and intolerable music.”

As a Slavophile, Solzhenitsyn thoroughly rejected any Western solutions for Russia or for individual Russians living the Soviet nightmare. Instead, he believed that to survive, whether as individuals, as a people or as a nation, the Russian people had to return to first principles, ancient Russian folkways and, particularly, faith in G-d. Indeed, he once summed up his understanding of the root cause of the “ruinous revolution” that, to him, had destroyed Russia: “Men have forgotten G-d. That is why all this happened.”

Solzhenitsyn is a complex, often maddening figure. His intense Christian belief, coupled with his Slavophile convictions around the nobility of traditional Russian attitudes and Russian life often make him seem like the worst kind of 19th century Russian chauvinist, with all that implies. And in his later years, he was taken up by various Russian nationalist and right wing groups, and often expressed views that seem rooted in traditional Russian anti-Semitic tropes.

Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn’s Epicureanism is fundamentally life-affirming. You may be a prisoner with no hope of reprieve; you may have been reduced to the barest essentials of human survival. But if you embrace the essence that is left and find Epicurean “pleasure” in the midst of the whirlwind then survival – principled, dignified survival – is possible.

When the film version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was released in North America back in the early 70s, nobody quite knew what to make of it. The trailer featured a stentorian voiceover that assured us: “This movie will make you feel better about your own life.”

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not meant to make us feel better about our own lives. It is meant to teach us how to live.





June 2016


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