“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is a Russian novel written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and published in 1962. It was originally published in a Soviet literary magazine called Novy Mir (New World).
The books release was a first in Russian literary history. At no point before had such an account of Stalinist repression been so openly distributed. Before the first part of the story was published, then editor of Novy Mir, Aleksandr Tvardovsky wrote an introduction preparing readers for what they were about to view. The introduction was entitled “Instead of a Foreword”.
The story of the book is a simple, but a powerful one. It is one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner in a Siberian Soviet Labor camp called HQ.
Ivan is an average Russian citizen who is nearing the end of his sentence of ten years in the freezing Siberian tundra. A normal day for Ivan includes being made to stand in temperatures with a high of eighteen below while he and his fellow prisoners are counted and recounted by guards, feeling lucky to get what small portion he does of a watery gruel for every meal and of course, working from sunup to sundown rebuilding a power station. Despite the harsh conditions, Ivan shares a few happy moments with his fellow prisoners and we find out many of the sentences of these men – including Ivan – are a result of them being falsely accused of crimes they didn’t commit.
At the end of the day, Ivan falls asleep in his bunk, thinking only of the present.
At the beginning of the story we are taken to a Soviet Labor camp called HQ in Siberia. A wake-up call is sounded and an inmate named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov begins to stir. Normally, we are told, Ivan wakes quickly but today he is experiencing illness and aches all over his body. He listens to the other inmates rising and going off to work and thinks about how his own crew, Gang 104 may soon be sent to the freezing wilderness to work on another project. Ivan reflects that in such a place the only way to stay warm is to dig furiously and never stop.
Ivan believes that the on-duty warden is one whom he is friends with and that he should be able to sleep in for a while without being thrown into the camp prison, which the prisoners call “the hole”.
However, Ivan is mistaken and a new warden comes in and pulls off his blanket, roughly. The warden informs him that he is to be punished for not getting up on time. He tells Ivan that his punishment will be three days in the hole. But soon Ivan discovers that the warden does not intend to put him in the hole but instead make him painstakingly wash the floors of the warden’s quarters. Though his shoes are very precious to him, Ivan removes them to keep them from getting wet. He finishes the job quickly and goes to the mess hall to eat before starting his regular work. He sees a new prisoner who crosses himself before eating and thinks that this man will most likely lose his religion before long.
Ivan takes out a spoon that is one of his few possessions and eats fish and gruel before going to the sick bay.
In the sick bay, and orderly named Kolya Vdovushkin is on call. He informs Ivan that the clinic is closed and he should have stopped by the night before if he wanted treatment. Ivan counters that he didn’t feel sick until that morning. Kolya takes Ivan’s temperature and then inattentively returns to writing poetry.
Sitting in sick bay, Ivan notices the silence around him. There are not even any mice to skitter around since the camp’s cat has already caught them. He also notices that the numbers depicting his prisoner number on his jacket have worn off and makes a mental note to get them replaced before he is punished for them.
Ivan dreams of getting two or three weeks off to simply rest but thinks that the camp’s new doctor, Stephan Grigorich would be unlikely to prescribe him this as the man believes that hard work is the answer to all of the life’s ills.
Kolya finds that Ivan’s temperature is 99 degrees Fahrenheit which are just a bit too low to excuse him from work. Kolya tells Ivan that he can stay in the doctor’s office if he wishes but that doing so will most likely get him punished and recommends that he go back to work.
Ivan goes back to the hut reserved for Gang 104 and is greeted politely by Pavlo his Ukrainian foreman.
Ivan finds his food rations of bread with a bit of sugar on the table and thinks about how the camps portions are always below regulation.
Ivan hides half of the bread in his jacket and the other half in the hole in his mattress so that it will not be found during bed checks.
At the same time, Ivan’s bunk mate Alyoshka, a devout Baptist Christian, hides a notebook in which he has copied half of the New Testament.
Gang 104’s bed chambers are searched and all of the prisoners are ordered to stay out of their room. Ivan takes the opportunity to find an artist to repaint the letters and numbers on his jacket.
A warden named Volkovoy, who is feared and dreaded by the prisoners conducts a body search and asks them to unbutton their shirts.
Ivan remembers a time when he saw Volkovoy use a leather whip to strike a prisoner for falling out of line. The prisoner merely wiped the blood from his neck and continued on.
The wardens search the prisoners, looking for hidden food rations or other contraband.
Ivan feels that he has nothing to hide. He notes that he only has regulation clothing and underneath that only has a chest with a soul inside.
But another prisoner, Buynovsky complains that it is illegal under the Criminal Code to undress prisoners in the cold. Buynovsky then accuses Volkovoy of not being a true Soviet citizen.
Volkovoy is angered by this and punished the prisoner harshly.
In a biting cold wind, the members of Gang 104 march off to the power station where they are to work. They are told that anyone falling out of line will be shot without warning.
At first, the guards loudly criticize the prisoners as they march but soon their need to keep their mouths covered up and warm quiets them. Ivan thinks that the job of the guards must be a hard one.
At this point, the narrator of the story reveals some insight into Ivan’s character. We are told that the story takes place in 1951 and that Ivan was arrested ten years earlier in 1941 around the time that the Soviet Union entered World War II. Ivan wonders about his family and how they are doing without him. He is legally entitled to write two letters per year but reveals that he has given that up long ago as he sees it as futile.
He considers his fellow inmates as family and reflects on his wife’s letters that are filled with news that he doesn’t care about.
His wife has suggested that he become a carpet maker after he is freed from the camp and Ivan acknowledges that this is a practical idea since carpet making is a booming industry and not government controlled but that he has no interest in participating in it.
He is not comfortable with the bribery involved in the business and thinks that he may be middle-aged and balding but he still has too much integrity for that.
Soon, Gang 104 reaches the power station. Ivan notices Alyoshka smiling and thinks about how the camp has not broken the man’s religious faith. Though they are sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor, Alyoshka and the other Baptists in the camp appear to always be in good spirits.
Ivan awaits orders from his foreman, Tyurin. Tyurin is a large, ugly man who nevertheless inspires respect in the prisoners for his strength.
Ivan says that even one twitch from his eyebrow is enough to send a prisoner off to his task.
Tyurian informs that gang that they must block off the windows in order to keep any heat in the building at all. Ivan leaves to fetch some tar paper and meets with another gang who is digging holes for fence posts in the frozen ground.
He returns and the tar paper is mounted over the windows.
The narrator notes that all of the inmates work not only for themselves but for each other since they would all be punished for any failure.
Next, the gang begins to wall up the second floor of the power station so that when they begin work they will be able to keep the room at a temperature at which they can survive. Ivan remembers that he has hidden a trowel nearby and that it would help him in his work but he does not reach for it as he would then lose it to his coworkers.
As he continues to work, Ivan empties his head of every though except the task in front of him.
Ivan sends a young man of 16 named Gopchik off to fetch wire for the pipes that he is working on. Gopchik returns shortly and the two hide a bit of wire away to make a spoon later.
The narrator tells us that Gopchik’s crime was only delivering milk to starving Ukrainian rebels.
Ivan begins to work again and before long realizes that is almost lunch time. He is amazed that time has passed so quickly. He notices that the sun is at it’s highest point in the sky and therefore it must be twelve o’clock. Buynovsky jokes that the Soviet government may have willed that the sun be at it’s highest point at one o’clock instead of noon.
Pavlo, another foreman allows the prisoners to rest before eating by the stove. A Latvian inmate named Kildigs points out that Ivan’s ten-year sentence is almost over. Ivan says that he cannot be sure that the government will really let him go and not extend his sentence.
At this point, the narrator reveals that Ivan’s crime was treason. He was in the army and was captured by the German army in 1942. Later, he escaped and the Soviet authorities failed to believe his story and assumed he was a German spy.
Ivan was ordered to sign a confession of treason or be killed. He signed and then was imprisoned right away.
The men are called to their lunch meal, on the way they talk about a few different prisoners who have snitched to the guards about fellow prisoners and what became of them.
Two of them were murdered in their beds and a third prisoner was killed who later turned out to be innocent. Apparently the murderer got confused about whom he was supposed to be killing.
Another snitch now lives in the warden’s quarters for protection.
Ivan notices that the weather has warmed up to eighteen degrees below zero, a temperature that he considers balmy.
During lunch, Ivan manages to cleverly deceive the cook into giving him and the rest of the gang extra rations. Pavlo notices but does not admonish Ivan. He tells him to give out the extra rations to Buynovsky, who is looking pale and a man named Tsezar who always eats alone.
Ivan brings the rations to Tsezar who is eating in the camp office, chatting with someone about the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and his film ‘Ivan the Terrible’.
Ivan thinks that he would like to be offered a drag on Tsezar’s cigarette for his kindness, but he does not ask and leaves quietly.
When he returns to the power station after lunch, Tyurin has been complimented for the crew’s work and everyone is in good spirits. This means that they will get good rations for five days and Ivan considers this a huge boon.
The men begin to apply the mortar for bricklaying. Four men are needed to do this and Tyurin and Pavlo agrees to help. The narrator notes that a helpful, kind foreman that one can respect is a great motivator for work. The men first must chip away all of the ice on the freezing walls before applying the mortar.
Ivan sets to work once again with complete concentration, focusing on nothing but his task.
A supervisor named Der stops by and scolds Tyurin for the covered windows. He cautions Tyurin that this could mean another sentence for him and Ivan feels bad.
Gang 104 continues to work quickly and efficiently. Alyoshka delivers more cinder blocks, quietly and Ivan again wishes that all of the other workmen could be like him.
Buynovsky brings in another load of blocks and Ivan mentally compares him to a horse he once owned that died after a collective farm took over his care.
After the sun sets, Tyurin checks the men’s work and is gratified to find it well done. He instructs Ivan to throw away the rest of the mortar before returning to camp.
Ivan and Senka, another member of the gang, continue to work after the others leave. After the quitting signal, Senka concludes that they should stop and Ivan realizes that he will need to hide his trowel so that it will not be taken by the other prisoners.
He tells Senka to go on ahead.
When he finishes hiding the trowel, Ivan finds that the prisoners are all readying for their daily count.
The guards find that one prisoner is missing. Tyurin wonders if it is one from Gang 104. Soon they find that all members of the gang are accounted for. The missing prisoner turns out to be a member of Gang 32, a Moldavian who is rumored to be a spy.
The prisoners are restless, no matter the cause of the Moldavian’s disappearance, he has caused them all to have to wait out in the cold for a recount.
The Moldavian shows up before the recount is over and says that he accidentally fell asleep at the job site. The prisoners are upset by this and some of them begin to beat him. The guards begin the recount and Ivan feels angry that half of the evening has been wasted.
However, he realizes that after a day of work he doesn’t feel as achy anymore and chooses not to go back to the sick bay but to get dinner instead.
Before dinner, the inmates undergo a body search. Ivan remembers a small bit of metal blade that he picked up earlier to trade with a fellow prisoner for bread. He hides the blade in his mitten and thankfully the guard lets him through without checking them.
The men are made to enter the mess hall two at a time as a result of an order from the officers to do so. A bit of a stampede ensues, and Ivan, who is at the back of the crowd, worried that he will not be able to get in to eat at all.
Finally, he breaks through the crowd and get’s into the food line. Ivan picks up the meals for his whole gang. The cook serves him watery gruel and Ivan makes a note to keep the thickest bowl for himself. Though the gruel is disgusting, it tastes wonderful to Ivan after a hard day of work.
After dinner, Ivan decides to buy some tobacco from the Latvian. Nearby he overhears prisoners shouting insults and criticism about “old man whiskers” or Joseph Stalin. In a prison camp, unlike regular prison, you can say whatever you want as the officers don’t care.
Ivan pulls off his boots and lays down on his bunk. He looks over his bit of steel and thinks about how he will make it into a knife. At that moment another prisoner, Fetyukov comes into the room bloodied and beaten. He tells Ivan that he was punished for licking out the gruel bowls in the mess hall.
Ivan feels bad for him.
A warden named Snub Nose summons Buynovsky for his punishment, ten days in the hole. Ivan reflects that in the unsanitary and freezing conditions of the hole, fifteen days would surely kill a man. Ten days will mean tuberculosis.
The prisoners stand through another count and Ivan lies back down on his bare mattress and thanks god for another day done.
Soon after, Ivan falls asleep, perfectly content. He has a full belly, a small bit of metal to fashion into a knife, some tobacco and isn’t in the hole. He feels that this is a successful, almost happy day.
At the close of the story, the narrator notes that this is just one of the 3,653 days of Ivan’s sentence.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov – the main character of the novel, a common man who was arrested mistakenly for being a spy. He is now serving out his ten-year sentence in a Siberian prison camp called HQ.
As a poor, uneducated man, Ivan is a strange choice of hero for nineteenth-century Russian literature. Most literary heroes of the time were aristocratic and refined but Ivan is not rich nor is he overly concerned with his own suffering.
Ivan is a peasant and, though it is not mentioned in the text, it is implied that he may also be illiterate. For instance, when he sees the poem that the doctor, Kolya is writing he notes that he does not understand the strange way of coping one line after another.
Ivan is amazed by men in the camp who have lived in Moscow like Tsezar and considers it an exotic, cosmopolitan city.
Ivan is also not an emotional, empathetic soul. He shows almost no leftover affection for his long-abandoned wife and children. He appears to have no dreams of escaping the camp and no nostalgia for his days before it.
It is possible that he has either been brainwashed by the officers or simply, after nine years at the camp, forgotten what it is like to be free.
Ivan is meant to be the portrayal of an average, ordinary Russian. Thus, the usage of ‘Ivan’ for his name, a name that is the Russian equivalent of the popularity of the name ‘John’ in the US. Solzhenitsyn intentionally made Ivan a “normal” man in order to represent the average, uneducated peasant to the bulk of Russian society.
Ivan’s intent focus on his work (for example, when he is laying the bricks for the wall) is a product of his need to control some aspects of his world. Although he is indentured to his country, he is still the leader of his own little world.
Tyurin – a foreman at the camp. Tyurin is very strong and respected while also being kind to his charges. At the beginning of the novel, Tyurin is a fierce and unforgiving figure, meant to represent authority and the unknown. By by the end, he is painted as more sympathetic, due in part to his telling his life story by the fire in the power station. Tyurin’s change from an unassailable authority figure to a friendly comrade by the end of the book shows that humanity can be found even in the most desperate places in the world.
Tyurin’s character is another example of Russia’s poor state of justice since, like many others in the story, he has been imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit.
Tyurin tells Ivan that he is a prisoner because his father was a kulak or rich peasant. A social class that Stalin was looking to do away with.
Tyurin is, like most others in the camp, a good person who was unfairly condemned to years of drudgery. Perhaps this is why he chooses to be kind to his fellow inmates. In showing up glimpses of Tyurin’s life, we see that although he is on friendly terms with the prisoners, he is not considered one of them in the same way that someone like Ivan is. This suggests that contrary to popular belief, the life of a guard is perhaps not better than the life of an average prisoner. Tyurin is still feared as an authority figure, but not respected by the guards because he still a prisoner.
Alyoshka – one of the Ivan’s fellow prisoners and bunk mates. Alyoshka is a devout Baptist Christian and is well thought of in the camp if not a bit looked down on.
Alyoshka is meant to represent a Christ-like figure. He perseveres in the face of total hopelessness and continues to be cheerful and do good deeds for people even when he receives nothing in return.
Alyoshka seems to consider his life of work and drudgery as the best thing for his spiritual fulfillment. He is more concerned with feeding his spirit and his soul than his body and his eagerness to hand over what little he has to offer represents the resiliency of human beings in desperate conditions.
Tsezar – a cultured, well-mannered prisoner who Ivan finds dazzling and who comes to represent worldliness and abundance to him.
Tsezar is treated a bit differently from the other prisoners. He get’s to eat his meals in the officers quarters, he is allowed to wear non-regulation clothes. This is perhaps the result of the fact that he is more cultured than the others and therefore more trusted. Tsezar comes from Moscow, a glamorous city that average commoners like Ivan can only dream about.
Tsezar’s sophistication is compounded by the conversations he has with Buynovsky and others about Russian filmmakers.
Tsezar’s name is a Russian form of “Cesar”, a title that multiple Roman emperors adopted. For Ivan, Tsezar represents the worldly pleasures that Alyoshka urges him to give up at the end of the novel.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was a Russian writer born in Kislovodsk in 1918. He was the son of a Cossack land owner and teacher and was educated at the University of Rostov. From 1941 to 1945 he fought in World War II in the Soviet Army and afterward was sentenced to eight years in prison for anti-Stalinist remarks that he wrote in a letter to a friend. Exiled to central Russia, he taught mathematics and wrote. His prison experiences were the background for his first novel, ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ (1962).
In 1969, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union for speaking against the government censorship that had suppressed some of his writings. Many of his novels have since been given English translations and in 1971, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his works.
Continuously harassed by Soviet authorities, Solzhenitsyn was deported to West Germany and deprived of his Soviet citizenship in 1974. After this, he settled in the US. His massively documented expose of the Soviet prison system, terrorism and secret police, first published in France appeared shortly afterward in English as the Gulag Archipelago.
In 1990, Solzhenitsyn’s Russian citizenship was restored to him and shortly after he returned to his home country with his wife, Natalia while their three grown sons stayed behind in the US.
From then until his death in 2008, he lived with his wife in west Moscow. Solzhenitsyn expressed much distaste with the state of post-Soviet Russia and how he felt that it had gotten away from traditional Russian culture.
Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure at the age of 89 in August of 2008. He was buried in the cemetery of the Donskoy Monastery in a place that he had chosen. World leaders from Russia and many other countries paid tribute to the author after his death.