Wednesday 23 February 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Until I read this book, Russian literature and I just didn't get on.  I tried to read Crime and Punishment back in secondary school but can't even remember anything about it now - I read it just to finish it and didn't enjoy it.  This book has changed my mind and persuaded me to read more Russian classics.

Synopsis: This novel, as it says in the title, is all about one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, sentenced to ten years in the gulag for escaping from a German camp (they assumed he was a spy).  Solzhenitsyn follows him from waking up to going to sleep through the harsh working conditions, bribes and other features of camp life.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

I thought this was a very clever book, especially the format of focusing on just one day in Denisovich's life.  It really emphasised how every day in Denisovich's life was the same, how everything had blurred together to him and how he could only think about the camp.  At one point he even wondered if he wanted to be free anymore, because having all the major life decisions made for him was in a way easier than going back to looking after himself and being responsible.

It was also very clear how harsh the gulag was to live in - at one point some of the prisoners had to strip for an inspection in temperatures of minus 27 Celcius.  The amount of food was very little.  They were inadequately protected against the winters.  One of the characters was a baptist who had been sentenced for 25 years just because he was a baptist.  Everyone got the same sentence regardless of crime and freedom was a carrot dangled in front of them to be removed at the last moment when sentences were extended.  All links between the crime and the convict's punishments had long been lost, making most of the prisoners apathetic.

But what I found most powerful was when Denisovich complained: "A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is, they worry about the same thing continuously.  Will they poke around in my mattress and find my bread ration?  Can I get off work if I report sick tonight?  Will the captain get put in the whole or won't he?  How did Tsezar get his hands on his warm vest?".  For me it really showed how the gulag took over the whole being of the prisoner - Denisovich admits that he never though about his family back home or about the outside world at all.

I found this book easy to read and the translation (by H.T. Willets) was very clear and understandable.  I don't think I'm quite up to War and Peace yet, but I will be looking out for more of Solzhenitsyn's books.


  1. Thanks for reviewing this. I read Crime and Punishment last year and liked it enough to seek out other Russian authors. But which one? I don't think I'm up for War and Peace either . . .

    I'll give Solzhenitsyn a try.

  2. i read this book for a project in high school and liked it although i was bored with parts, but i think that was the point at times and i found it eye-opening as well. lovely review.

  3. I had the exact same reaction to this one. I keep trying Russian literature and none of it ever works out for me, but I loved this one! I think it's because it was written so much later than the other Russian classics I've tried. Perhaps I should stick to 20th century Russian authors and avoid those 1800s books...

  4. Thanks for posting. I have his "Gulag Archipelago" and haven't finished it yet.
    I read about ternty pages and just felt like humans were irredeemable.

    I'll get back to it one day...

  5. I have never read any Russian Literature before. I've just finished reading The Invisible Bridge, a story about a Hungarian-Jew during WWII who served at labor camps in Hungary & Ukraine. It's a subject that I'm currently interested in reading.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Nice review. thanks for the post.
    Nice blog.

  7. This is a nice review. I am slightly obsessed with Russian literature, and I remember reading this one in high school. You get such an intense sense of the dehumanization the prisoners undergo in this novel.

    You should try reading Dostoevsky's THE GAMBLER. It's a lot shorter than his other books but you still get a taste of his brilliance. Dostoevsky wrote it in one brutal month after procrastinating on a publisher's deadline. He ended up marrying his typist at the end. It's a great story.

  8. I brought this for my husband for christmas but it seems I might have to steal it back for a read myself!

  9. Neat. I've never had the guts to try Russian literature, it seems so lofty. Sounds like I should tear down those walls of prejudice and get reading :)

  10. Stephanie, I agree, I think it is supposed to be boring in parts although I found the paxing OK myself. The only bits I didn't really enjoy were the bits about how hard work can save your soul.

    Amanda - I think 20th century Russian writing might be better for me too. I know more about that time period as well, because I studied the revolution and after-effects in school.

    Playing Librarian - I am in no way an expert on Russian Lit but I think this one would be a good place to start.

    Jessica - definitely steal it back! :P

    Noiashui - This is a good one to start with as it's short and very simply written. I haven't got the guts for War and Peace yet though!

  11. I've been trying to get into Russian lit. It sounds like this is a good place to start!

  12. great review, i've been meaning to read this for ages. as others have written, i think there's a pretty big difference between 20th c. russian writing and 19th c., so reading and enjoying something from the 20th c. doesn't mean you're going to like older russian works. i've only read "anna k," for older works, and although my favorite author is vladimir nabokov he's more russian-american. i haven't explored russian lit beyond those two, and i think "ivan d" might be a good place for me to start, like brenna wrote.

    -- ellen

  13. I read this one back in high school and enjoyed it a lot. I agree that sticking with the events of one day allowed is part of what made Ivan Denisovich so compelling.

    I'm a huge fan of Russian literature, lol.