Just reading about the Soviet Gulags will make anyone feel relieved not to have lived in Russia during the early to mid part of the Twentieth Century, where individuals would be imprisoned, punished, and then penalized with an extra ten years for doing hardly anything at all. Alexander Solzhenitsyn discusses in detail the Soviet Gulag system, the politics behind it, as well as the philosophical complexities involved when one loses freedom in his great and masterful work for which he is most well known: The Gulag Archipelago. A thick and thorough work, I recommend it highly. Yet One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a bit different — in some sense, it is a light work in comparison to The Gulag Archipelago, if such a thing is possible.
The tale involves a single day of a single man within the corrupt prison system, and, ironically, it is a good day, or as Alexander Solzhenitsyn notes at the end: “The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.” In the book, Ivan gets past inspections, fights yet again the freezing cold, mediocre food, and endures yet again another day hoping that his prison sentence will not be extended for some petty reason. Set in 1951, Solzhenitsyn immediately pulls the reader in with this intrusive observation: “The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside the camp HQ at five o’clock as always.”
In the Gulag camps, one is never comfortable, but rather, suffers varying degrees of discomfort. And those days that are better than others merely means that one experiences less discomfort than usual. The tale begins with Ivan’s oversleeping and being threatened with punishment for it. Likewise, prisoners who steal food not only suffer the brunt of the guards if they are unlucky enough to get caught, but they must also endure their own feelings of worry and panic: What if I get caught? Will they extend my sentence another ten years? The narrator argues that in many ways, for these reasons of anxiety, stealing food or other goods make the act not really worth it.
Compared to The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a very fast and easy read. The book offers a good introduction into the Gulag system via the individualisms of a single man on a single day. In many ways, these individualisms offer a personal advantage as far as gaining readers’ empathy, though One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich lacks some of the more intense, philosophical and brilliant depictions that are present in The Gulag Archipelago. In other words, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not as deep, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It is just that it is easy to get spoiled when reading the more complex work first, though this slim tale, (finishing at 182 pages with large font) is certainly not without its merits.