1 May 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


           This book I bought for two reasons; firstly it was in my version of '1001 books to read before you die' and secondly because I knew that I would be studying the relevent period of Russian history this year. It lived up to my expectations and did more or less what it said it would; described one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, from the moment that he woke up until the moment he went to sleep.
             In history I've been studying Nazi Germany parallel to Russia, therefore I have a reasonable understanding of the Nazi Concentration camps whilst finding that the equivalent in Russia, the Gulag, are mentioned but never with any detail or depth. Because of the fact that they are in some respects described as being the same you find yourself making the assumption that they are Carbon copies of one another. However, after reading this book, you find that you can pick out a variety of differences, as well as similarities, between the two. It fascinated me.
            A year ago I read Primo Levi's 'If this is a Man', and I found myself drawing parallels with it as I read this book, this is unsuprising when you consider that one was written by a survivor of Auschwitz while the other was written by a survivor of a Gulag. I found a number of differences between the two; the first was that the prisoners in the Gulag's appeared to be valued more, possibly because they weren't classified as a sub-race, they were given more to eat. Secondly they appeared to be less supervised than in the Nazi camp except for when they were being moved to and from work-sites. Thirdly, a prisoner in Soviet Russia was actually able to fulfill his term, and go home, although it was likely to be to exile. One interesting quote I found was;

'Now he didn't know either whether he wanted freedom or not.'

          There were similarities to be found as well; Both camps apparantly had similar bartering systems between the prisoners; There was a similar hierarchy amongst the prisoners although the Gulag one was based more upon respect than the one in concentration camps which were built upon fear and hatred; and there appears to have been a similar attitude that you should live for the day but scrounge for the morrow and that above all you should keep your pride intact because that's what the camps were designed to drain.

Inside cover design

           My favourite thing about this book is the cover design which is striking. The pointing finger representing the Soviet power system and Stalin who simply had to point for you to be locked away. Open the cover and you're greeted by an equally striking image. A collage of pictures of prisoners and machinery, constructed in a way which best emphasises the clockwork nature of the Soviet superpower. I also loved the fact that when I bought the book from Waterstones it came plastic wrapped causing me to treat it with a certain amount of reverence, although not something I think would suit the majority of books it was perfect for this one.

          My least favourite thing about this book was that it had no chapters or divisions of any sort, beyond paragraphs, it was one long block of text from beginning to end. It made sense in the context of the book. Suited it even. But i really didn't like it. It made it hard to put down as there were no natural breaks and as a consequence I became reluctant to pick it up causing me to drag my feet whilst reading it.
          On the whole I found the book and informative, if slightly tedious read. I wanted to love it but I found it didn't quite equal other books of it's type; it didn't quite move me to compassion or tears.



  1. I liked the book. I think primarily because at each turn I was reminded (or at least reminded myself) that everything there was based on the author's experience. It wasn't great prose that moved me, but the bald simplicity of it, combined with the horrific facts. Reading it made me very glad of and grateful for my comfortable life. One bit that stuck was the ridiculously cold temperatures they had to work in with tiny amounts of food and thin clothing. I think it said if it went below -42F then they were allowed to stay indoors.

    1. I didn't dislike the book. It was very interesting to read and made you empathise with some points of the experience that a textbook can't get across. But I struggle to read something which isn't broken up, it makes my head hurt and it almost makes me feel guilty for reading it. And even if I'm really enjoying a book I like to know that there's a convenient point just around the corner where I can put it down to go make a drink or something even if I accidentally read past that point...
      It fascinates me the level of cruelty people suffered in these camps, and I'm in awe of the people who are able to put it into words. But I still struggled a bit with it :)

  2. Found your blog through Amber's tag. Just thought I'd stop by and say that I really like Solzhenitsyn. It's been a while since I read this book, but it was also my first. Cancer Ward is also one of the first quality pieces of literature I read as a kid.

    You should check out Solzhenitsyn's history - really fascinating the censorship, Nobel Prize, defection, and everything that he went through. For a while he was even living in, I think, New England, but then went back to Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.

    1. I checked out some of his history when I read the book. I know that he was imprisoned a first time due to the censorship of something he'd written, was released, published something else and was reimprisoned and then rereleased due to possibly international political pressure. At that point I think he left the country?

      I know that he had a rough life, much rougher than most people, at any rate. And he had the courage to make a stand and get knowledge of it to many many people.

    2. Yeah, he was announced as the Nobel winner for Literature, but the Soviet Union wouldn't allow him out of the country to get the award, 'cause they thought he wouldn't come back. He was always getting arrested and interrogated, and routinely would have his house ransacked and his writings taken or destroyed. Such an interesting thing for someone in his position to walk the tightrope of pushing literary boundaries without QUITE going far enough to get executed or imprisoned for life.

    3. He was an interesting person I think, and I think I'd like to know more about him, but then there's so much I want to know more about, and at the moment it's not a priority, so it'll probably get pushed back and I'll end up forgetting, or at least it'll be relegated for a while :S