“A man who is warm cannot understand a man who is cold”.
Survival is hard enough. It gets harder in a gulag. Someone once said to me that I have to live one day at a time, with little future plans and a forgetful attitude towards the bad elements in my past. I can’t help but think that the person in question served a little time.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the story of a single day of surviving the brutal, unrelenting conditions of a gulag work camp, where work is only stopped if the temperature drops below minus 20 Celsius. For those of you living in temperate climes, minus 20 feels like someone is throwing handfuls of nails in your face, particularly when it’s windy. It is physically painful to endure.
Ivan Denisovich spends the day trying desperately to get sick leave, and failing to do so, is forced to engage in the kind of nonsensical make-work projects that were the hallmark of the labour camps. In this case, it’s building a new jail in the middle of the tundra.
There is very little in the way of the American-styled prison experience. There are no gangs. No rape. There’s a vague sense of camaraderie, as everyone is on the same horrible boat, but basically the prisoners are simply fighting to survive, one day at a time. It shapes them of course; aside from a few fresh fish that have just arrived and maintain some semblance to their former selves, the prisoners are twisted into the human equivalent of starving donkeys.
Meals consist of the absolute bare minimum to keep people alive. Denisovich is delighted when he finds extra meat in his bowl of watery soup. That’s a key element of the novel itself: taking pleasure in minutiae which would otherwise be meaningless in civilian life. As grim as the surroundings are, as unforgiving as the elements are, this book is essentially a celebration of life, as taken one day at a time.
The Brits attempted to make a film based on this book, which was definitely hit and miss. The fact that every “Russian” had a midlands British accent didn’t help matters. And these are actors – naturally photogenic people with a bit of dirt on their faces. They lack the terrible physical effects of working in the perpetual cold, day after day, year after year, on what amounts to starvation rations.
Every character in the book suffers from some ongoing disease, ranging from low-level TB, gout, pneumonia, and of course frost bite. Those lucky, lucky prisoners who are assigned indoor jobs don’t have to deal with any of that, and there’s a clear dichotomy between the indoor and outdoor slaves, but for the most part none of these men will be the same, assuming they live long enough to serve their time.
However, with all of that taken into consideration, the book is galvanizing and ultimately positive, a tribute to humanity’s ability to survive and even achieve happiness in the worst possible conditions. This was a literary sensation Russia, particularly during the thaw following Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s not so secret denunciation of Stalin and the “cult of personality”. Voices like Solzhenitsyn can and must be heard – that’s the importance of prison books, regardless of how rote they may seem. Guantanamo Bay is still open for business, and there are currently one million people behind bars in America alone (with an 80% black population). Voices need to be given to the voiceless, no matter how deep the system has buried them.