A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

S’s survivor is the man ardently in love with his people and their cause; the man who stood against the Nazi onslaught only to find himself thrown into a Siberian labor camp; this same man, helpless but fiercely unreconciled to victim hood, who is determined to remain a human being, innocent and unbroken, under conditions specifically devised to crush out life and spirit. His energies burn with the pointed fury of an extreme tension between the will to live and the will to remain pure–between an almost mystical appreciation of life, on the one hand, and on the other an unwavering refusal to capitulate, sells out, or in any way become accessory to a system which reduces men to puppets and meat. This is the survivor’s predicament, and from it, with the intimate authority of one who has fully suffered his subject, S draws an image of man for whom the struggle to keep a living soul in a living body becomes the sine qua non of moral being–and in this stark sense the definitively human act.

S’s world has all the marks of extremity, with the concentration camp, terror’s source and reference point, as the navel of the totalitarian nightmare. It will not do, either, to say that the camps and prisons are metaphors for society; they are the reality behind appearance, the dark heart within the body of life’s business. The practice of terror connects surfaces with the thing itself, and man may fall–one day a diplomat, the next a prisoner–as easily as picking up the phone. In this world, ways of life and the moral attitudes which attend them are measured against a standard that derives from the experience of the survivor. S’s heroes have undergone the "apprenticeship" of the camps, and their authority comes straight from the fact that they survived. And when human beings are made to accept and service an order maintained by murder and deliberate dehumanization, the survivor’s uncompromising moral vision is no more extreme than the conditions he opposes. In extremity there is a point after which compromise becomes complicity; after which irony becomes duplicity; and after which the survivor’s purity takes precedence over other claims to moral authority.

The intention of totalitarian methods is control of man in the mass, and therefore destruction of individual autonomy, which is to say, elimination of the intractable human element from social organization. Men are to live on schedule, and if the human spirit will not be programmed–not for the good of the cause, the war effort, or increased production–well then, it will have to be removed. Russia is not unique in this respect, but only, after Nazi Germany, the worst example of a universal practice.

For everywhere men set as their goal the systematic intensification of a tendency, as old as the human condition, to subordinate human ends to technical means, which in our time becomes the attempt of governments to subject whole populations to kinds of super-organization which more efficiently serve the means, to ends of war, production, and organization itself.

Hannah Arendt has remarked:

It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives. (The Origins of Totalitarianism 51)

The ethos of the survivor applies only to the latter, for a powerless man may still refuse to accept his place as victim; he may reject the benefits of abdication and, powerless, choose not to compromise–and by the fact that he exists become a reproach to the system, a sliver in the throat of power. Given the gigantic forces he confronts, his act will be painful and on a very small scale, but thereby he becomes, in his own body human spirit will not be broken. He acts to keep faith in himself, but like the saint his example is invested with a power that moves other men to thought and inspiration.

Shukhov, the simple-hearted hero of One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is this kind of man. He has been unjustly imprisoned, and has lived years of days of sub-zero weather without decent clothing or a warm place to sleep, rising each day before the sun to twelve hours of heavy labor on a starvation diet. He steers his life through sickness and exhaustion, through the random cruelty of camp procedure and the betrayal of fellow prisoners ready to sell their souls or another’s life for a few ounces of bread. And yet he is not broken: " even eight years as a convict hadn’t turned him into a jackal–and the longer he spent at the camp the stronger he made himself.’

Shokhov is willing to give way to other zeks, to perform services for men he respects, but will not make a deal with power or authority, never inform, never do a favor for the cooks or ask one of them. Through it all he maintains an elementary sense of self-respect. Due to his situation as much as his character, Shukhov has come a long way in the wisdom of simplicity. He has learned to extract immense satisfaction–a sense of animal well-being which saves him from self-pity and despair–from slight and infrequent moments of pleasure. Working with his squad to build a wall, Shukhov in inspired to delight by the rhythm of the work and the interplay of skills; he enjoys the warmth which spreads through his body, and later, the deeper joy of a job well done. He has, in short, learned to fully appreciate every inch of life that transcends pain and hopelessness. In this respect, by far the most important event in his life is food; Shukhov has developed an extraordinary attitude toward the watered-down soup and black bread which sustain him. To eat becomes a ritualized experience in which the resurrection of bodily joy–or rather, since he never gets enough, the heightened tension of desire on the verge of fulfillment–becomes the physical ground of faith in the value of life. Soup time becomes a "sacred moment" a revelation deep in the body’s pleasure that at bottom and in spite of everything life is strong and worth its pain. Extremity intensifies experience, purifies it, forces men to the essence of their encounters with reality. Shukhov eats his soup, and bliss wells up like a visitation, like an extravagant blessing, as though this second bowl, tricked from the cooks, were the fullest beneficence of God. Shukhov attains that rarest of moments, when a man is simply, and against all evidence, happy to be alive.

What Solzhenitsyn means is clear: You have not beaten us down. The whole point of A Day is that yes, such a man exists in such a place. If we miss this we miss everything the survivor is about. Surrounded by the combined inhumanity of man and nature, this small simple man has made a life for himself, with its grossly handicapped balance of pain and pleasure, risk and victory, deprivation and fulfillment. And to a slight but all-important degree, it is his life, each act in violation of camp regulations, each moment of pleasure, lifts him anew above the sheer necessity which the agents of dehumanization thought to impose upon him. We may find it difficult to comprehend, but this hero lives on the edge of happiness. Shukhov suffers, we cannot forget that this day was uncommon for luck and that pain is the substantial element in which he lives, as present and cruelly persistent as the Siberian winter. But he has come tot terms with the temptation to hope for anything but life itself, and then gone on to find what goodness he can in the life he has. Deprived of ordinary possibilities, he is also free from the tangle of responsibility and failure which yokes and bends other men. And unlike those of us who enjoy the benefits of civilization, Shukhov has only one problem, essential and clear cut: how to survive without losing his innocence and essential humanity.