Russia: One Day in a Gulag

Quite often I have the problem of finding even one book translated into the English from an exotic country, or if I find one, I might have a problem getting hold of it. Russia is a totally different story. There are more than enough books to choose from, old and new. The problem for me is that I do not enjoy reading tomes of detailed information about harsh times, war, and other similar subjects. I was looking for a Russian mystery, and there are several books I would happily read, but I could not get my hands on them. I then went through lists of “must read Russian classics” and ended up reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

So, yes, it is a Russian classic set in a gulag. Exactly what I was trying to avoid. However, I cannot judge a book by its cover or even its back cover. On the other hand, for a Russian classic the book is short. It would probably be one or two chapters in one of the famous Russian tomes. It does not however diminish its value. As the title says, it is a book about one day in a man’s life. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner in a prison camp in the 1950s.

What makes this book special is that it is the first account of Stalinist times distributed in the Soviet Union, published in a literary magazine. This is quite extraordinary since freedom of speech is not something Russia is famous even today. Ivan is innocent, but accused of being a spy for the Germans, because he was captured by them during World war II. He got sentenced for ten years to a gulag, a forced-labour camp.

Since the book is about a day in his life it starts with Ivan waking up. He wakes up late, because he is sick, but he is however forced to work, because he woke up late. I do not know what the other options are in a forced-labour camp than work. I guess there is work, and then there is work. Ivan belongs to the 104th squad, and the book mainly deals with issues regarding his squad. The mentality in naturally “survival of the fittest”, and everyone’s priority seems to be to get some extra food on top of the daily ration. Knowing the right people, doing them favours, and generally being a well-respected and hardworking member of the squad will get you some perks.

It is a surprisingly easy read, and not as dreadful as a book about a gulag could be. This is probably the reason it was openly published to the public. It deals with oppression as well as cruelty, but it is still far away from the horror stories we have all heard. Survival, as mentioned before, is still the most vital point of every day life in a gulag. Solzhenitsyn definitely knows what he is writing about since he spent eight years in a gulag himself. I read up a bit about gulags, and indeed, it seems like millions of people died in them, but there are no accurate numbers available. Personally, I would have preferred the book to be about a longer time period to get a better grip of what actually goes on there.

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