I finally finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, liking it much better than I did at the beginning. It’s not easy to get into, either linguistically or as a story; Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is as barbed as the wire around the camp he writes about, full of nonstandard grammar and lexicon, both the “real Russian” words the author salvaged from the nineteenth-century pages of Dahl and the slang of the Gulag. If I hadn’t had Rossi’s The Gulag Handbook (which now, I see, costs $163.83 used—thanks for convincing me to pay $10 for my copy in Ojai in 2002, Eric!) and Carpovich’s Solzhenitsyn’s Peculiar Vocabulary (which isn’t available at all now—again, I paid $10 for my copy back in 2000)—and the unfailing assistance of frequent commenter mab, who checked with her Gulag-survivor friend when she didn’t know the answer to my recondite questions—I’d never have been able to hack my way through it. But I’m glad I did; once I got into the story (and got used to his sentence structure), it became more and more riveting, and I gobbled up the last twenty pages or so in a rush.

What makes the book work is the fact that it’s not (as one might have expected) a catalog of horrors, in which the protagonist suffers every sling and arrow the Gulag could toss at him. Instead, Shukhov (as the author calls him—he’s called “Ivan Denisovich” only by fellow inmates) has a good day; at the end he gives thanks for his extra bowls of soup, the bit of metal he smuggled into his barracks to use for shoe repair (by which he earns a little money on the side), and the fact that he had escaped punishment and his brigade hadn’t gotten sent to the freezing work they had feared. One man from his barracks, who had mouthed off to a guard, is given ten days in the camp jail, and Shukhov reflects: “Ten days! If you had ten days in the cells here and sat them out to the end, it meant you’d be a wreck for the rest of your life. You got TB and you’d never be out of hospitals long as you lived. And the fellows who did fifteen days were dead and buried.” (I quote the translation by Ronald Bingley and Max Hayward, which is truly excellent; unlike many of the translations I’ve seen lately, they never fake it or just skip the hard parts.) We learn about the worst aspects from stories prisoners tell, but our hero, who has learned the art of survival in his eight years in camps (the story is set at the beginning of the year 1951), makes his way through the obstacle course with aplomb, even wondering as he finally lies down for a night’s sleep whether he’d be any happier outside.

Observations on the mores of the camp occur in mordant asides like “Украинцев западных никак не переучат, они и в лагере по отчеству да выкают” (“They simply couldn’t teach Western Ukrainians to change their ways. Even in camp they were polite to people and addressed them by their full name”) and “Чтоб носилки носить — ума не надо. Вот и ставит бригадир на ту работу бывших начальников.” (“You didn’t need any brains to carry a hod. That was why Tyurin gave this work to people who used to run things before they got to the camp.”) By the end, you’ve learned some survival lessons you hope you will never need, and been thrilled by unexpected adventures involving trying to get bricks laid before the mortar freezes and discovering a bit of sharp metal you’d forgotten about just as your brigade is about to be searched. It’s not a cheerful book (and as usual with Solzhenitsyn, there’s hardly anything you could call humor), but I recommend it to anyone who wants to know what Gulag life was like but doesn’t want the grimness of, say, Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.

Incidentally, I asked here, “does anyone know if the film made from Aksyonov’s book [Звёздный билет (A Starry Ticket)], Мой Младший Брат, is any good?” I watched it on YouTube, and no, it’s not very good, but one actor, Oleg Dahl (who plays the bespectacled would-be writer Alik) is astonishing—when he’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off him. I was sad to learn from Wikipedia (English, Russian) that he hadn’t even made it to the age of 40. If any readers would like to recommend any of his other movies, I’d be grateful.


  1. Petrus Augustinus says

    I loved that book. I have it in Russian as well, though I only read it in Hungarian. I remember that I showed the Gulag Museum in Moscow to two Austrian girls and they didn’t have a single clue what Gulag was. They of course knew about Auschwitz.

  2. I read this book many years ago in English. I recall the protagonist overjoyed — so meager were the rations — when he found a fish eye in his soup.

  3. If Google Translate’s English version of the Russian Wikipedia entry is remotely correct, there’s a claim that the latter Dahl is descended from the former (and, thus, from a Danish doctor).

  4. The then-importance, now-oblivion of this short novel stems from the fact that the readers of the 1960s saw in it a factual account of what happened to their lost friends and relatives, how they lived and died. But of course it later turned out to be a part of a government-sponsored cover-up (into which Isayich, perhaps unconsciously, played)
    Twenty years on, it’s become clear that the Gulag was almost an exception, a footnote in the history of repressions. The victims were typically shot and buried in mass graves, under a ruse of a 10-year sentence followed, years later, by a fake death certificate “from natural causes”; they never had a fortune of experienced Gulag in the first place, and a chance, however meager, to return.
    In a sense, Solzhenitsyn’s prose only made the government lies appear more plausible 🙁

  5. While I take your point, and I realize that Aleksandr Isaevich became a tedious ranter long before his death, I don’t think you’re being remotely fair. He was, after all, drawing on his own experience (as writers tend to do), and he was, like it or not, in a Gulag camp, not shot and buried.

  6. Try “Плохой хороший человек” by Iosif Heifetz with Dahl and Vladimir Vysotsky (film adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Duel”)

  7. Language, I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Solzhenitsyn. It’s hard to say how much he knew at the time about the death machine as opposed to the Gulag, and how much he would be allowed to speak up if he knew. The ones dead and buried, as a rule, don’t leave behind novels drawing from these experiences, anyway. I just wanted to underscore the one crucial distinction between the Soviet labor camps and Auschwitz.

  8. Thanks very much, Denis; YouTube has the whole thing, and I’m looking forward to it.

  9. I found МОСКВА’s comment very enlightening. I was still living with obsolete knowledge of Gulag and the rest. The idea that it was tidier to dispose of these people on the spot that to go to all the trouble of sending them off to a prison camp didn’t even occur to me. Of course it all makes sense.

  10. It’s hard to say how much he knew at the time about the death machine as opposed to the Gulag, and how much he would be allowed to speak up if he knew.
    He wasn’t aware of camp massacres, summary executions of people before they even got to the camps, and so on? Have you read the Gulag Archipelago?

  11. Mockba, you lost me here. You don’t mean to say that the camps didn’t exist, do you?
    I wouldn’t call it a “cover up.” It was printed in a Soviet literary magazine, approved by Khrushchev himself. While it was shocking at the time, it wasn’t the worst of the camp stories by any means. (His worst stories got him exiled.)

  12. mab: He’s not saying the story was covered up, he’s saying (or suggesting as a wild-eyed hypothesis) that the story itself was a cover-up—that Solzhenitsyn was (or might be theorized to have been) carrying water for the government, getting the public to think people were “only” sent to the camps rather than being shot. I think it’s a ridiculous idea, but that’s what he’s saying (or suggesting).

  13. Oops. I didn’t realize that my two-paragraph note could be misconstrued in such a big way 🙁
    The Gulag was huge and very important, and Solzhenitsyn was breaking important new ground when he published his “One Day”, based on his valid first-hand experience.
    But it is also true that the existence of Gulag, and the innocence of many of its prisoners, has by then already been widely acknowledged by the government. What the government kept secret for another quarter century was the fact that huge masses of supposed prisoners of the Gulag never went to any camps. They were shot right away, their “10 year w/o privillege of correspondence” sentences were a smokescreen, their post-dated death certificates were phony, and their “posthumous rehabilitations” just perpetuated the lies.
    It is a grandious ruse which closely parallels the intent of the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” entry gate to Auschwitz. Imagine if the Nazi regime lasted another 15 years, and that after Fuhrer’s death they would condemn his “worst excesses”, issue phony certificates of natural death to the relatives of the gas chamber victims, and publish first-hand accounts of the inhumane conditions and forced labor in the camps – all the time denying that people were killed there.
    That’s what the USSR almost succeeded in accomplishing. Admitted to a lesser charge of brutal mistreatment of the innocent. Denied that it murdered the innocent.
    It was this brytally efficient denial, I argued, which made “One Day” such an influential book at the time. Because the readers were looking for the revelations about the fate of their dear ones, who they thought persished in the Gulag.
    An unscientific survey of my own extended family shows 1 Gulag survivor vs. 4 victims of the regime who never got into the labor camps. Two shot, at different times, at Butovo Proving Grounds along with tens of thousands of fellow sercet victims; one died of torture even before conviction, with the body apparently incinerated by the secret “graveyard” (Sic!) shift at Donskoye Crematory; and one is simply missing.

  14. One of Dahl’s most memorable parts is the Fool in Kozintsev’s “King Lear”, which is relatively well-known in the West. And I second “Плохой хороший человек”.

  15. Great, thanks! (I may even have seen “King Lear” forty or so years ago…)

  16. Ah, I knew that name sounded familiar. Surely the best Lear film ever, and Dahl’s performance as the Fool is amazing. I first saw it only a year or so ago (if seeing it on Youtube counts).

  17. Hmm. Well, I sort of see what you are talking about, Mockba. It’s true that since One Day… was officially published, supposedly as part of the anti-Stalinism campaign, it was a less horrible account than others. After all, Ivan Denisovich was having a pretty good day, as days went in the camps. So I can see how it raised false hopes. Okudzhava wrote (can’t think where) about going to the KGB after his father had been posthumously rehabilitated and asked for family photographs that had been conficated when he was arrested. He thought they’d still be in the case file. The man said: “My dear young man. There were no case files. There were just lists of names.”
    So yes, the Soviet govt in 1962 (was it?) published a shocking account of the camp system but did not admit to the worst of it. But I’m not sure I’d call that a ruse or think that AIS was in on it. After all, he was just getting warmed up with One Day… He didn’t stop writing about the camps.

  18. Hello Sir,
    Firstly, I love your blog! I would like to share a website of world literature (Russian as well, of course) translated in English for readers’: http://wordswithoutborders.org
    Thank you,
    a regular of your blog

  19. Yes, I wrote about it here.

  20. I finally watched “Плохой хороший человек” (I’d been saving it as a reward for finishing the huge editing job I’ve been slaving over), and it’s excellent—thanks to all who recommended it! In fact, I liked it better than the Chekhov story it was based on, which struck me as too long and somewhat implausible. Both Dahl and Vysotsky are superb, in fact all the acting is great, and I love the director’s use of animals to counterpoint the (frequently absurd) human activity. That group of cows that interrupts the final duel is a brilliant touch.

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