History: This book was first published in November 1962 in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir (New World).
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience in the Soviet labor camps called the Gulag, having been imprisoned from 1945 to 1953 for writing a derogatory comment in letters to friends about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he referred to by epithets such as "the master" and "the boss". He used the epithet "old man whiskers" in his novel, where it is translated as "Old Whiskers" or "Old Man Whiskers". The name was considered offensive and derogatory; however, prisoners were free to call Stalin whatever they liked "Somebody in the room was bellowing: 'Old Man Whiskers won't ever let you go! He wouldn't trust his own brother, let alone a bunch of cretins like you!"
After being released from the exile that followed his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn began writing One Day in 1957. In 1962, he submitted his manuscript to Novy Mir, a Russian literary magazine. The editor,Aleksandr Tvardovsky, was so impressed with this detailed description of life in the labor camps, that he submitted the manuscript to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish it, because until then Soviet writers had only been allowed to refer to the camps. From there it was sent to the de-Stalinist Khrushchev, who, despite the objections of some top party members, ultimately authorized its publication with some censorship of the text. After the novel was sent to the editor, Aleksandr Tvardovsky of Novy Mir, it was subsequently published in November 1962.
The labour camp described in the book was home to Solzhenitsyn for a while as he served his term, located in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan.
Plot: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been sentenced to a camp in the Soviet gulag system, accused of becoming a spy after being captured by the Germans as a prisoner of warduring World War II. He is innocent but is nonetheless punished by the government for being a spy. The final paragraph suggests that Shukhov serves ten years.
The day begins with Shukhov waking up sick. For waking late, he is sent to the guardhouse and forced to clean it—a minor punishment compared to others mentioned in the book. When Shukhov is finally able to leave the guardhouse, he goes to the dispensary to report his illness. Since it is late in the morning by now, the orderly is unable to exempt any more workers, and Shukhov must work regardless.
The rest of the day mainly speaks of Shukhov's squad (the 104th, which has 24 members), their allegiance to the squad leader, and the work that the prisoners (zeks) do—for example, at a brutal construction site where the cold freezes the mortar used for bricklaying if not applied quickly enough. Solzhenitsyn also details the methods used by the prisoners for survival; the whole camp lives by the rule of survival of the fittest. Tiurin, the foreman of gang 104 is strict but kind, and the squad grows to like him more as the book goes on. Though a "morose" man, Tiurin is liked because he understands the prisoners and he tells them a lot and does a lot to help them. Shukhov is one of the hardest workers in the squad and is generally well respected. Rations at the camp are scant, but for Shukhov, they are one of the few things to live for. He conserves the food that he receives and is always watchful for any item that he can hide and trade for food at a later date.
At the end of the day, Shukhov is able to provide a few special services for Tsezar (Caesar), an intellectual who is able to get out of manual labor and do office work instead. Tsezar is most notable, however, for receiving packages of food from his family. Shukhov is able to get a small share of Tsezar's packages by standing in lines for him. Shukhov's day ends up being productive, even "almost happy": "Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day."
Those in the camps found everyday life extremely difficult. For example, one rule states that if the thermometer reaches −41 °C (−42 °F), then the prisoners are exempt from outdoor labor that day—anything above that was considered bearable. The reader is reminded in passing through Shukhov's matter-of-fact thoughts of the harshness of the conditions, worsened by the inadequate bedding and clothing. The boots assigned to the zeks rarely fit, in addition cloth had to be used or taken out, for example, and the thin mittens issued were easily ripped.
The prisoners were assigned numbers for easy identification and in an effort to dehumanize them; Ivan Denisovich's prisoner number was Щ-854. Each day, the squad leader would receive their assignment of the day, and the squad would then be fed according to how they performed. Prisoners in each squad were thus forced to work together and to pressure each other to get their work done. If any prisoner was slacking, the whole squad would be punished. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn shows that a surprising loyalty could exist among the work gang members, with Shukhov teaming up with other prisoners to steal felt and extra bowls of soup; even the squad leader defies the authorities by tar papering over the windows at their work site. Indeed, only through such solidarity can the prisoners do anything more than survive from day to day.
Review: Solzhenitsyn is a 44-year-old mathematics teacher in the old Russian town of Ryazan who spent eight years in Stalinís concentration camps. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is his first literary work, the simple story of one day in a Soviet concentration camp.
There is hardly a detail in Solzhenitsyn's story which, in itself is new. The cruelty, the falseness of the charges, the animal fight for survival, the debasement, the cynical grafting, the brutalizing, the sentences stretching into infinity (or death), the hunger, the suffering, the cold--all this is familiar.
The themes of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich center on authoritative oppression and camp survival. Specifically discussed is the cruelty and spite towards the fellow man, namely from prison officials. Solzhenitsyn explains through Ivan Denisovich that everything is managed by the camp commandment up to the point where time feels unnoticed; the prisoners always have work to do and never any free time to discuss important issues. Survival is of the utmost importance to prisoners. Attitude is another crucial factor in survival. Since prisoners were each assigned a grade, it was considered good etiquette to obey. This is outlined through the character of Fetiukov, a ministry worker who let himself into prison and scarcely follows prison etiquette. Another such incident involves Buinovsky, a former naval captain, who is punished for defending himself and others during an early morning frisking.
Opening Line: “At five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters.”
Closing Line: “The three extra days were for leap years.”
Quotes: “The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow.”