One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a Russian novel written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and was published for the first time in November 1962 in a Russian magazine which translates as ‘New World’. It tells about a day of a prisoner in the Soviet labor camp in 1950s. Never before, had anyone openly written about the repressive policies of Joseph Stalin. Solzhenitsyn after studies enrolled in the army but was arrested for sending a private letter to Stalin criticizing the policies. He was in various prisons for 8 years. Only after Stalin’s death he was released as the regime of Nikita Khrushchev was a little liberal. It was his experiences in the prison that are reflected in the book. He continued to write after his release.

A Day

There are five English translations to this novel and the first one was published in 1963, one year after the original was published. This book has also been made into a film. In 1994 after the breakup of Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn came back to his country and settled in St. Petersburg. Though he was opposed to communism he did not favour western system and democracy. He wanted an authoritarian government with Christian values.

As the title suggests the novel is about one day in the life of the political prisoner – Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. There are no stories or incidents of torture but the events of the day are written in great detail. The character of some of the inmates and the guards are elaborated. Past life or how some inmates came into the prison is also described in the book. The Gang 104 is the group Shukhov finds himself in and all the members of the group work in tandem for the good of the group thereby being in the good books of the guards.

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Fever Not An Excuse To Shirk Work

That morning Shukhov wakes up with fever and aches all over and cannot reach on time for the roll call. He eyes a friendly warden and continues to sleep but he soon realizes that it is a new warden who pulls off his covers and punishes him to three days in the hole. For some reason he changes the punishment to cleaning his quarters which Shukhov does gladly and well too. He soon joins his gang for food and then is off to work. Before that he goes to the sick bay but the nurse is not sympathetic and he has to go to work.

The work first assigned is on the second floor and the cold was too hard to bear for it was minus thirty two degrees. Two of them find a tar paper to cover the window and get on with the work. While this is on each one has something to say and the work goes on well. They get to rest before lunch and after that a watery brew is served for lunch which is considered quite good by the inmates because it is this brew that keeps them alive. They have this and back to work. Now their work is to build a wall.

Gang 104

Gang 104 is very quick in their work, especially Shukhov. His focus is completely on the brick and mortar and his team mate Alvoshka, a devout Christian works as fast as Shukhov and they complete a large portion of the wall. After work there is a count again and one from another gang is found missing. They soon find him; he had fallen asleep while working. All this delays their trip back to the cell and increases their duration of staying out in the cold. Then back in the cell Shukhov rests in his cot without mattress thinking it was a good day.

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The flesh and substance to the plot is the explanation of the lives of some inmates and the events in the day. Shukhov all through the novel comes across as someone who wants to eat well and helps Tsezar with small things and he gets to take his share of ration. Tsezar receives a parcel which has food, therefore he is willing to forego his ration. For small favours Shukhov gets food and a puff.

Each Day As It Comes

Shukhov also has a small metal piece to hide; any wrongful object found on the inmates was punishable. Shukhov wanted to make a knife out the metal scarp and exchange it for something, maybe food or puff. None of the inmates had any hopes or ambitions of anything outside the prison, they were a contented lot. Tyurin, the foreman of the gang, calls their prison his new home for he had no one back home and nothing to look forward to. The guards of the prison are also considerate to some extent.

For waking up late Shukhov would have got a few days in the hole. The hole was a cell with cold walls. According to Shukhov 15 days in the hole meant death and 10 days would mean pneumonia. Though he woke up late that day he was spared from the worst punishment. At another time in the day a prisoner calls Stalin ‘old man whiskers’ but none of the guards react. Shukhov states that in the political prison camps there is freedom of speech and the guards could care less when compared to other prison camps. However, the nurse in the sick bay is totally indifferent to Shukhov’s sickness and there are guards who are not kind and considerate.

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Gang 104 do their work correctly and try to humor the guards and authority. The weather is described in detail and it is cold. The weather is likened to the heartless attitude of the guards and all yearn for warmth, better times in the prison. A little more understanding of the hardships they go through can make the prison a little warmer. Cold and warmth symbolize captivity and freedom and monotony and change. One day in 365 days of Shukhov ends with no untoward incident and he ends the day with a hope that all the remaining days would be like that too.