My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Here lads, we live by the law of the taiga. But even here people manage to live. D’you know who are the ones the camps finish off first? Those who lick other men’s left-overs, those who set store by the doctors, and those who peach on their mates.”
Ever wondered what life was like in a Soviet gulag? Then you’ve come to the right place. Solzhenitsyn tells it like it is in this gruelling account of survival in a Siberian labour camp, where having to work outside in -21 degrees is considered nothing. Meet Ivan Denisovich Shukov, better known as S854. Having already spent seven out of his ten-year mandatory sentence at the camp; he has, like others, been reduced to a feral, instinctive state of mind. On the outside he is as inert and passive as can be, because it’s the only way to survive. Those who do not close off their souls, those who show their spark and their fight are the first to die.
From the first clang of the rail for reveille to the last clang at night, Ivan treads the fine path between obedience and rebellion; of pushing the limits and tempting fate. In these twenty-four hours we learn about the hardships of camp life and the complex relationships between the guards and the ‘zeks’. We learn that one good turn for an inmate has its’ profits and that the phrase ‘no man is an island’ is not just a proverb, but a lifesaver. The true enemy of a ‘zek’ is the tell-tale convict, the bitter cold and a three-day sentence in the cell if you are caught smuggling more than your share of thin, cold gruel.
In order to get by, palms have to be ‘greased’ and favours done, and this account reads like a ‘how to’ guide on the finer points of deceiving the regime by the skin of your teeth. In many ways, this is a thinly veiled autobiographical work, as Solzhenitsyn himself spent eight years in a Soviet camp for writing derogatory statements against Stalin. Therefore the parallels between him and Shukov are many.
I especially liked the details of prisoner politics and how the hierarchical system worked among convicts as well as guards. Power in prison was a fickle thing. You had to be useful, you had to somehow ‘indebt’ yourself to others, be indispensable in a way. Those without practical skills were often considered the bottom of the barrel. As a character, Ivan is quick-witted and lucky to be a mason which gives him some kudos in his circle.
Despite being quite a short read, most of the characters are well-formed. They all have a back story of sorts that Solzhenitsyn allows to filter through the narrative in indirect ways. His method allows the reader to glean information without departing from the main story. Despite the sub-human conditions, the starvation, cold and back-breaking work, Solzhenitsyn’s biggest lesson is about how the survivors pulled through due to the ‘small victories’ against the brutal regime they were under. It is no doubt that Solzhenitsyn, like Shukov, often risked his life for an extra lump of black bread during his own seven-year stint.
The best part of this book is at the end. For all those who grow to care for Shukov and his welfare is a few lines that tell us he did make it out after all:
“There were three thousand six hundred and fifty three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
The three extra days were for leap years.”
- Fifty Years After ‘Denisovich,’ Traveling Back To Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag (rferl.org)
- Two Gulags: A second warning to the West by Arthur Topham (radicalpress.com)
- The book which shook the Soviet Union (bbc.co.uk)
- A Russian Legacy – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (twicemodern.wordpress.com)
- Musing Mondays (November 12) (wcs53.wordpress.com)
- Aleksandr I Solzhenitsyn: A Prophetic Warning for the U.S.A. ? (therightofway.net)
- “One story shook the Soviet Union.” (themillions.com)
- Solzhenitsyn: ‘There’s Plenty of Freedom, But Little Truth’ | @ActonInstitute PowerBlog (palamas.info)