1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 93; One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One_Day_in_the_Life_of_Ivan_Denisovich_coverOne Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, serves as a fuax, but revealing document of life in the gulag, a system of hard labour camps that were akin to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, only they were in Russia and didn’t target a specific ethnic group, oh, and rather than being in existent for a few years, it was in existence for a few decades (thirty years to be exact). Millions of people were sent to the gulags and forced to do hard labour in the cold elements of the Siberian north wearing nothing but tatters and surviving on a diet of bread and soup. Yeah. Its pretty grim. The work has some narrative problems in that it is at once written by an omnipresent narrator, and then speaks in the third person including the reader with words like “our” and “we”, then slipping into the first person and extolling the thoughts of the novel’s protagonist. And it wraps up by contextualizing the human suffering in a positive light. An extra soup ration, a quick work day, and a little hunk of meet makes for a good day in the gulag. The book, though, doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what life was like in the gulag. It doesn’t detail the beatings, or the deaths that commonly occurred. Some numbers estimate that as many as 3 million people died, some as low as 1.2 million, not to mention those who were excommunicated from Russia, never to see their families again. The work reminds me of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, but in comparison to that famous work, it is clear that Solzhenitsyn was not able to translate his personal experience in the gulag onto paper the way Levi was able to record his experience at Auschwitz, though in Solzhenitsyn’s defense, censorship may have been part of the issue. Solzhenitsyn simply does not describe the hunger pains of a human by drawing from experience in the way that Levi did.  The work is a great read and serves as an interesting historical document as well.


Quotable Quotes:

“You can’t expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold.”


If you like this:


If you want to know about the history of the gulag and get a more comprehensive understanding of its context, check out the monograph Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebuam.


If you like personal narratives centered on history, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man is kin to Solzhenitsyn’s work, and is perhaps even better.


If you are a fan of music and find this story compelling, check out “Red Army Blues“, by The Waterboys.






Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. One scene from that book has haunted me for years, for a lifetime. Meals of gruel and groats in wooden bowls – never enough for these gaunt, starving, exhausted men. Any prisoner in charge of cleanup would not be able to resist licking the bowls. It was the shock, when I was young, of realizing that there’s a kind of hunger beyond skipping meals and tightening one’s belt. For the rest of my life, I’ve measured all scenes of desperate hunger against that one. Some concentration camp memoirs and stories of life in Africa are comparable. A couple of scenes in Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt come close, like when the children figure out that if they add sugar to their stale bread and sour milk mixture, they will have breakfast. But that’s still not licking bowls already scraped clean by others, like dogs trying to get just another taste, just a taste …

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