About One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


The Gulag System

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich takes place in a "special" camp run by the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Settlements, better known by the Russian acronym: GULAG. The new rulers of Russia after the violent overthrow of the Czars dealt very harshly with their former, as well as with their new, political adversaries, and, rather than sending their enemies to prison, they began sentencing offenders to "corrective labor" soon after the revolution of 1917. In the following years, concentration camps were built and were combined with corrective labor camps in Siberia, under the administration of the secret police. It is estimated that by 1929, there were already more than 1 million prisoners in these camps, mainly for political reasons.

The establishment of the Five-Year Plans for the economic reconstruction of the Soviet Union created heavy demands for workers to achieve this drive toward changing the Soviet Union from an essentially agricultural society to an industrial society, and it was difficult to find willing and qualified workers for the construction of canals, railroads, highways, and large industrial centers. Thus, from 1929 on, the Soviet rulers began to depend more and more on forced labor. There were hardly any traditional jail terms handed out any longer; instead, criminals and political enemies were sent to labor camps. These sentences, initially for three-year terms, were based mainly on convictions for violations of the infamous Article 58 of the 1926 Criminal Code (see the essay on Article 58).

The first large wave of forced laborers consisted mainly of kulaks, disowned farmers who had resisted collectivization, but soon religious believers of all denominations, members of minority groups and nations, socialists, and engineers (who failed to perform their assigned industrial tasks and were classified as industrial saboteurs) followed them to the camps. It is estimated that in 1940, over 13,000,000 (thirteen million) people slaved in these forced labor camps. In 1937, when many Russians had believed that an amnesty would be declared to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution, Stalin instead increased the length of the sentences from ten years to fifteen and twenty years, a procedure which was repeated for the thirtieth anniversary of the Revolution, when the twenty-five-year sentences became standard, and ten-year terms were reserved for juveniles.

During World War II, many soldiers believed to be responsible for the initial Red Army defeats were sent to these camps — as were soldiers like Ivan Denisovich, who had allowed himself to be taken prisoner, and men like Solzhenitsyn who had made critical remarks about Stalin or the Communist Party, and many civilians who had lived "in contact with" the enemy during the Nazi occupation. After the war, they were joined by soldiers who had had contact with the Allies, now the enemy. Captain Buynovsky, whose crime was that he had been assigned as a liaison officer to the British Navy and had received a commendation for his services, is one such example in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In addition, members of former independent countries like Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, all of whom were now satellite republics of the USSR, as well as other ethnic and national minorities, were interned in these labor camps in large numbers.

Solzhenitsyn describes the history, the methods, and the structure of these forced labor camps in great detail in his long, multi-volume work, The Gulag Archipelago. While Article 58 was repealed in 1958 in the course of a complete revision of the Penal Code, Solzhenitsyn maintains that the GULAG still exists and has, with the addition of the sentences to psychiatric clinics, grown even more vicious.

Article 58

Article 58, which deals with what are described as counterrevolutionary crimes, is included in the part of the Criminal Code which deals with crimes against the state; offenders of this article are not considered "political" offenders, however. (These are dealt with in another section of the Code.) There are fourteen sub-sections, all of them formulated so broadly that practically any action (or even nonaction) could be, and was, interpreted as "a crime against the state."

Section 1: deals with any act designed to overthrow, undermine, or weaken the authority of the power of the state. This was applied to workers, even in prison camps, who were too sick or too weak to meet their quotas; it also covers Ivan Denisovich's "crime" of allowing himself to be taken prisoner. It should be noted that this particular section not only included proven acts of "treason," but, by way of another article of the Code, also included "intent to commit treason."

Section 2: covers armed rebellion, especially with the aim of forcibly separating any part or territory from the USSR. This was broadly applied to all members of annexed nations, such as the Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.

Section 3: assistance, rendered by any means whatever, to a foreign state at war with the USSR. This made it possible to send to a labor camp virtually any Russian who had lived in occupied territory during World War II.

Section 4: rendering assistance to the international bourgeoisie. This sent thousands of Russians to the camp who had left the country long before the Criminal Code was passed and who were captured by the Red Army or turned over to it by the Allies upon request.

Section 5: inciting a foreign state to intervene in the affairs of the USSR.

Section 6: espionage. This was interpreted so broadly that it included not only proven acts of transmitting information to enemies of the state, but also included "suspicion of espionage," "unproven espionage," and "contacts leading to suspicion of espionage." Any person who knew or had recently talked to a person accused of espionage could be arrested under the provisions of this sub-section.

Section 7: subversion of industry, transportation, trade, monetary exchange or the credit system. Failure to meet agricultural quotas, allowing machines to break down, and allowing weeds to grow too high were also crimes punished under this section.

Section 8: terrorist acts. This included hitting a party member or a policeman and was also broadened by "threat of" or "expression of intent."

Section 9: sabotage — that is, the destruction of state property.

Section 10: This was the most often and most broadly used section of Article 58. It covers "propaganda or agitation containing an appeal to overthrow, undermine, or weaken the Soviet regime, or to commit individual counterrevolutionary crimes, and also the distribution, the preparation, or the conservation of literature of this nature." Such propaganda and agitation included not only the printing and dissemination of subversive material, but also conversations between friends, letters, and private diaries. Solzhenitsyn's letter to his friend about the "Whiskered One" was such "subversion."

Section 11: This section covered and aggravated any of the previous activities when they were found to have been committed not by individuals, but by "organizations." The minimum number for an organization was two people, as evidenced by the exchange of letters between Solzhenitsyn and his friend. Both were sentenced under Section 11.

Section 12: failure to report reliable knowledge of preparations for, or commission of, a counterrevolutionary crime. Denunciation was elevated to a duty to the state.

Section 13: crimes committed in the service of the Czarist regime, particularly as a member of the Czarist secret police.

Section 14: counterrevolutionary sabotage — that is, deliberate nonfulfillment by anyone of duties laid down, or the willfully careless execution of those duties with a view to weakening the authority and functioning of the state. Many prisoners received second and third terms under this provision.

Virtually all the inmates of the "special" camp described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich have been sent there because of a violation of some provision of Article 58. It is obvious that even the most innocent word or action could have been and, when convenient, was found to be a "counterrevolutionary crime," or, as Solzhenitsyn puts it, "Wherever the law is, crime can be found."

Preface to the Original Edition

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had been completed in manuscript form in 1958, but Solzhenitsyn did not submit it for publication until 1961, when Nikita Khrushchev's continued policy of "de-Stalinization" gave the author some hope that the political climate was right for getting his short work printed. He sent the novel to Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor-in-chief of the influential literary magazine Novy Mir, who made the bold decision to bypass the official Soviet censorship authorities and to submit the work directly to Premier Khrushchev. This astute politician immediately recognized the potential propaganda value which the novel could provide for his "de-Stalinization" policies and had twenty copies of the work sent to the members of the Politburo of the Communist Party.

Khrushchev later claimed that it was his personal decision — against some so-called "opposition" in the Politburo — to let Novy Mir proceed with the publication of the novel. Thus, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in the literary journal on November 21, 1962, in an edition of 100,000 copies. It created a literary sensation and sold out on the first day, as did a second printing a short time later.

In spite of the limited scope and the relative simplicity of the novel, Khrushchev — through the persona of Tvardovsky — did not want to leave any reader in doubt about the intention and meaning of the work, and so the editor of Novy Mir added a preface to the first edition, entitled "Instead of a Foreword," which has been reprinted in almost all editions of the novel.

Tvardovsky explains that the topic of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is unusual in Soviet literature because it describes the "unhealthy phenomena" of Stalin's personality cult (Stalin's name, however, is never mentioned explicitly) — thus saying, in effect, that it is now possible to deal with any and all aspects of Soviet reality "fully, courageously, and truthfully."

Tvardovsky also says that it is the purpose of the novel and of its mentor, Nikita Khrushchev, to "tell the truth to the Party and the people" (note the order of importance of the two terms), in order to avoid such things from ever happening again in the future.

Tvardovsky goes on to affirm that the novel is not a "memoir," or a recounting of personal experiences by the author, but a work of art which is based on personal experience, and which, since it is based on "concrete material," conforms to the aesthetic theory of Socialist Realism.

Because the theme of the novel is limited by the realities of time and place — a Siberian labor camp of the 1950s — Tvardovsky insists that the main thrust of the work is not a critique of the Soviet system but that, instead, it is a painting of an exceptionally vivid and truthful picture about the "nature of man." The novel, the editor stresses, does not go out of its way to emphasize the "arbitrary brutality which was the consequence of the breakdown of Soviet legality," but instead, it describes a "very ordinary day" in the life of a prisoner without conveying to the reader a feeling of "utter despair." Thus, Tvardovsky claims, the effect of the novel is cathartic — that is, it "unburdens our mind of things thus far unspoken [and] thereby strengthens and ennobles us."

It may be unfair to call this preface "political hackwork." Evidence indicates that Tvardovsky was sincere-both in his belief in Khrushchev's liberalization policies and in his disgust at Stalin's personality cult. It is clear, however, that he avoids any outright critique of the Soviet system by insisting that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich does not level any criticism at the Soviet social and political realities, but rather, it attacks only the excesses of the Stalin regime, a temporary "breakdown of Soviet legality."

This contention was certainly expedient at the time of the publication of the novel, but it does not hold up under close scrutiny. Solzhenitsyn was, and still is, a firm critic of the Soviet system of government, regardless of the regime in power, and he has reaffirmed this conviction countless times since the publication of this novel. In fact, as late as the 1980s, the author commented that the passing of the Stalin era did nothing to do away with the GULAG system. Indeed, it is the author's contention that the prison camp system has been expanded rather than phased out, and that it now envelops more people than ever before.

It is interesting to note that Tvardovsky, at the end of the preface, apologizes to his readers for Solzhenitsyn's use of "certain words and expressions typical of the setting in which the hero lived and worked" — in other words, for Solzhenitsyn's use of some rather vulgar language, which was typical of the language used in such labor camps. Obviously, the editor feared that he might offend some readers. Authoritarian regimes, both left-wing and right-wing, are notorious for their puritanical prudishness, particularly as regards the descriptions of bodily functions and sexual activity. The prolific use of profanity and the vivid descriptions of sexual activity in modern Western art and literature are seen by many Soviet critics as yet another sign of the increasing decadence and the impending decline of the West. It is ironic that Tvardovsky decided to print the offensive words and phrases, whereas many English editions, in fact, edit or omit them entirely.

Tvardovsky's preface is of interest to the Western reader not so much for its critical astuteness, as it is for its revelation of the political difficulties surrounding the publication of the novel. The editor attempts to justify the critical picture of Soviet life by insisting that the novel focuses on a "temporary aberration," thus trying to steer readers into a very limited interpretation of the work.

Political reality, however, has shown that Khrushchevs liberalization and de-Stalinization policies were a temporary aberration and that the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich coincided with the end of the "great thaw." Immediately following the publication of the novel, Khrushchev came under pressure from the conservative, pro-Stalin wing of the Communist party and had to make large concessions to this group in order to survive politically; one of these concessions was the withdrawal of his patronage from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the eventual exile of the author in 1974.

A Note about the Book's Format

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is difficult to classify in terms of traditional literary genres. Solzhenitsyn himself has remarked on the disappearance of the traditional boundaries between genres and the lack of interest in "form" within contemporary Russian literature. Commenting on the form of the work, he states that it is a mixture, something between a short story (Russian: rasskaz) and a story (Russian: povest). A povest is defined as "what we frequently call a novel: where there are several story lines and even an almost obligatory temporal expanse." One Day, on the other hand, is more of a short story in the sense that it concentrates mainly on one protagonist and on one episode in his life, but the fact that this one day is seen as being typical of a large segment of Ivan's life, as well as being a description of a number of different human fates, also places the work in the genre of the novel.

In keeping with its short story form, there is no formal subdivision into chapters, but we can distinguish twenty-four distinct episodes which make up Ivan's day. These episodes have been given "titles" in this set of Notes for the sake of easy reference to any of the twenty-four episodes.

The episodes are arranged thematically around the three main areas of concern for a typical prisoner: food, work, and the eternal battle against the cruel camp authorities. Formally, the episodes — one might properly call many of them vignettes — are arranged in such a way that scenes describing the harsh camp environment which is a threat to Ivan's survival alternate with episodes which depict his overcoming these threats, showing Ivan's small triumphs over the inhumane prison system.

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