Here’s the scene:
I travel back in time and pay my younger self a visit. He’s 12 years old, his religion is Star Wars, he’s into Marvel Comics and he reads pretty much nothing but sci-fi. I tell him that one day, in his late 40s in fact, he’ll discover the joys of Russian prison literature, and you know what he does? He looks at me like I’ve got two heads and he laughs. Worse than that, he points and laughs.
But guess what. I was right and he was wrong. Russian prison literature rocks!
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the third RPL novel I’ve read in recent months. As the title suggests, it’s the story of one man and one single day in a Siberian gulag, starting with ‘reveille’ at 5am and ending with lights out. In between, we follow our protagonist Shukhov (as Ivan Denisovich is known) as he negotiates his way around prison protocol and the machinations of his fellow inmates. It is a brutal way of life, rendered more so by the matter-of-fact prose of the book. There is no room for self-pity or reflection here, because time stands still for no man in prison. If you get knocked down, you pick yourself up again and you carry on, otherwise you die. And that’s it.
After their meagre breakfast, Shukhov and his fellow ‘gang’ members – prisoners are organised into gangs – are sent out into the fierce Siberian winter to do building work at a power plant site. Before they leave their barracks, they are all hoping and praying that the temperature has fallen to -40 as that means they won’t have to go. But no such luck. It is, we are told only -27. ONLY! So off to work they go.
Every single of minute of every day of Shukhov’s sentence is spent seeking advantage; spending an extra minute or two somewhere warm, burying his tools so no one else will find them, cadging food from fellow prisoners. The endless quest for extra food forms a large part of the narrative. Shukhov acquires an extra 200g of bread, so he sews it into his mattress to keep it safe, saving it for later. The prisoners here count every last gram of food as it’s the difference between life and death.
Also, to be caught breaking prison rules means a spell in the cells. There, you only get one piece of bread per day and one bowl of porridge every three. The extreme cold in the cells means that a 10-day sentence will probably mean TB. A 14-day stretch will mean your end. As I said, brutal.
Despite his sentence being ‘only’ eight years, Shukhov knows he will never return home or see his family again. Authorities can add extra years onto your sentence, double it even, on nothing more than a whim. And if he ever does see freedom again he’ll be sent into exile. Shukhov’s crime? He was taken prisoner by the Germans during the war. That was it. In fact, most of the people in the Russian prison system were guilty of nothing more than coming into contact with foreigners. That was enough under Stalin’s rule to get you packed off to Siberia.
Solzhenitsyn himself was sentenced to 8 years in the gulag for – and I swear I’m not making this up – making insulting remarks about Stalin. He was released after Stalin’s death in 1953 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was eventually published in 1963. It caused such a furore that the Russian authorities supressed his other works.
It’s a magnificently written book. Having the narrative unfold over a single day intensifies the sense of claustrophobia and frustration experienced by our protagonist as he scrabbles to make it from dawn until dark with his dignity intact. We are with him for every personal battle, every argument and every little victory. The knockout blow comes at the end with the realisation that Shukhov has to do all this again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. For years.
It really is powerful stuff.