One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Study Guide

Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn follows a long tradition of Russian critical realists - a school which includes nineteenth-century Russians Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Goncharev. In fact, Solzhenitsyn's style of writing and subject matter follows far more closely the tradition of those pre-Revolutionary Russians than the writers, men who wrote at least forty or fifty years before him, than those writers of the 1940s and '50s Soviet Union. In Stalin's Soviet Union, the pervading mode of literature was that of socialist realism. Writers of that period were forced to be responsive to Party dictates - for literature that differed with the Party line was barred from publication and often not even made public through the process of samizdat, or self-publishing, for fear of retribution against the writer by the government. Therefore, the decades preceding the publication of Solzhenitsyn's first short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, consisted primarily of socialist realist literature designed to serve as Communist propaganda, through optimistic and positive depictions of workers' contentment on collective farms and in government factories.

Nikita Khrushchev's succession to the position of Premier of the Soviet Union paved the way for the publication of Solzhenitsyn's first book and ultimately to a rebirth of critical realism in Russian literature. After a three year struggle with Stalinist hard-liners in the government from 1953 to '56, a so-called "liberal" faction emerged victorious, positioning Khrushchev for emergence as the new leader of the Soviet Union. In 1956, Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress in which he condemned Stalin's personality cult and the abuses of his adminstration. Placed in the tenuous position of heading a government which was composed of many men who had served as loyal members of Stalin's regime, Khrushchev did not make public that denunciation of Stalin until five years later, in 1961. The public process of "destalinization" which began in 1961 created a venue in which Solzhenitsyn's One Day, a book detailing the suffering and abuses of Stalin's forced labor camps for political prisoners, could finally be published.

After going through four or five drafts, Solzhenitsyn had arrived at a finished version of One Day in 1958 or '59. The novel, which details the experience of a simple peasant imprisoned in the Siberian gulag as the result of an unjust conviction for political crimes, was based in large part on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences, serving four years of an eight year sentence at Dzezkazgan in the province of Karaganda in Central Kazhakhstan. Though Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the protagonist of One Day, rather than an intellectual like the university-educated Solzhenitsyn, his experiences and those of other characters in the book are most certainly based upon Solzhenitsyn's own life in the prison camps.

Like Shukhov, Solzhenitsyn worked as a foundryman and bricklayer during his sentence. Like Shukhov, he was the member of the 104th squad. Tiurin, Shukhov's sympathetic squad leader, is almost certainly based upon a man of the same name with whom Shukhov served in the real 104th squad. Captain Buinovsky, the naval officer and new prisoner who insults the guards for their perversion of Communist ideals and receives a sentence of ten days in solitary, is most likely based upon a Commander B.V. Burkovosky, with whom Solzhenitsyn served for three years. Burkovsky was released from the camps by 1964 and after his "rehabilitation" went on to serve as chief of a naval museum. In interviews, he confirmed that the characters of Tsezar and Alyosha the Baptist were also based on real men. Many other characters are composites of the variety of men that Solzhenitsyn knew in the camps. Notably, Solzhenitsyn's depiction of camp life includes a cross-section of Soviet people. Men of different nations and backgrounds - Estonians, Letts, Russians, peasants, workers, intellectuals - are all represented in One Day. This depiction of a cross-section of Soviet society would characterize Solzhenitsyn's later works.

In 1961, however, Solzhenitsyn had not published anything and had shared his manuscript of One Day with only a few people. On October of 1961, at the Twenty-Second Party Congress, Khrushchev openly denounced Stalin. Stalin's body was removed from the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square and collectives, streets, factories, and cities bearing his name were renamed. Stalingrad's transformation into Volgograd was one of the many name changes meant to symbolize Khrushchev's break with the former regime. At this point, Solzhenitsyn saw an opportunity for the publication of his novel. Though making it public was still a risk to his life, Solzhenitsyn was able, through his friend Lev Rubin, to get his manuscript to Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of the Soviet periodical Novy Mir. Tvardovsky read the work of this unknown writer that very night and later said he knew at once he was reading a new classic of Russian literature.

Knowing that Solzhenitsyn's subject matter could very well meet with extremely negative responses from members of the political establishment, Tvardovsky called in some favors and wrangled access to Khrushchev himself, seeking from the Premier permission to publish One Day. Deciding that this novel, which described the abuses of Stalin's prison camp system, would aide in his denunciation of Stalin and help strengthen his own regime, Khrushchev approved the publishing of the book. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in the November 1962 edition of Novy Mir. The 95,000 copies of the journal immediately sold out, as did a separate run of one million copies. Pravda and other Soviet publications praised the book, emphasizing its political rather than artistic dimension.

Immediately, Solzhenitsyn, who had until then been an unknown math teacher, was world famous. In retrospect, Khrushchev's permission for the novel's publication can be seen as a gross miscalculation. Though that novel and Solzhenitsyn's next work, a play called The Love-Girl and the Innocent, which he had written while in exile after his prison sentence, condemned Stalin's prison camp system, they also provided him with a world stage on which to express his views on more than just Stalin. Khruschev had ensured an enormous publicity campaign for One Day and the translation and publication of the book in the West. Ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, from 1962 onward Solzhenitsyn was recognized and revered throughout the world. That visibility allowed him to continue to write and express his opinions - opinions which, were he not protected by global opinion, would have without a doubt resulted in punishment, imprisonment, and even death within the Soviet Union.

Soon after the publication of One Day in 1962, Khrushchev faced a struggle with hard-liners within the Party. Though he regained full power in 1963, he was never again able to pursue such personal policies, and his role as patron to Solzhenitsyn ended. Without this official sanction, Solzhenitsyn faced a criticism, in official Soviet publications, of his forthcoming novels and a backlash against One Day throughout the 1960s. Though clearly undeserving, third-rate novelist Oles Gonchar, rather than Solzhenitsyn, who had also been nominated, was awarded the Lenin Prize for literature in 1964. The Love-Girl and the Innocent was never produced. And except for a short story, Zakhar Kalita, published in Novy Mir in 1966, none of Solzhenitsyn's other books were published in the Soviet Union. Instead, Solzhenitsyn was forced to resort to publication of his novels in Paris and London.

In 1963, a writer named Boris Dyakov published They Endured, a novel that was in reality an undisguised polemic against One Day. Whereas Solzhenitsyn's characters draw only upon their own humanity and inner virtues to survive, Dyakov's characters were able to bear the prison system because of their faith in Communist ideals and Soviet power. For these Communists, who adhered to the school of socialist realism, Solzhenitsyn's novel was too universal. While in many ways, the hopeless life in the Shukhov's prison camp is a microcosm for the hopeless life of the Russian people, nominally free, in villages under Stalin's system, it also provides a universally accessible depiction of human suffering, humanity in extremis.

This concern with human suffering is one of the significant traits which links Solzhenitsyn with his predecessors in the field of Russian - rather than Soviet - literature. In fact, One Day was published exactly one hundred years after Dostoevksy's novel Notes from the House of the Dead, detailing his own four years in a Siberian penal colony. Additionally, Solzhenitsyn's choice of a peasant as his protagonist echoes the fascination of nineteenth-century Russian writers. Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Nekrasov idealized peasants in their early- and mid-nineteenth century writing, and Chekhov and Bunim, at the end of the century, sought to depict harshly accurate examples of peasant life.

In many ways, Chekhov is Solzhenitsyn's closest literary predecessor. The isolation of the Soviet Union meant that Soviet writers were not influenced to the literary developments of Modernism and Post-Modernism ongoing in Western literature. Rather, Solzhenitsyn, when writing One Day, chose a very Russian tradition, characterized by its realism and its moral dimension. Whereas the Communist writers of the 1940s and '50s had sought to glorify the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn, like his nineteenth-century predecessors, assumes the role of writer as moralist. Those nineteenth century authors had felt it to be their duty, as Russian writers, to explore and offer solutions to the problems plaguing Russia. After a hiatus of fifty years, Solzhenitsyn took that same burden upon his shoulders, providing a moral dimension in his depictions of the abuses of the Stalinist system.

Finally, Solzhenitsyn follows in the path of the nineteenth-century Russian writers because of his love of Russia. In his reverence for peasant life and village traditions, in his sorrow for the fate that has befallen Russian, and in the role he assumed, against the threat of punishment and death, as spokesperson for Russia's ills, Solzhenitsyn bore a political role as much as a literary one. The debates in the Soviet literary world and press which surrounded his books were debates about a political system and ideals as much as they were debates about a single writer. Solzhenitsyn's deportation from the Soviet Union in 1974 was a result of a profound combination of the political and the literary with his publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a multi-volume work which sought to detail and describe in full the Soviet prison camp system. Solzhenitsyn's return, in 1995, to Russia illustrates the significance his homeland consistently had as his motivation and in his emotions.