One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the most distinguished Russian writers of the 20th century.  He has written many books, but his most famous work is called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  This work depicts the grueling conditions that prisoners had to endure in the Gulag prison camps.  Solzhenitsyn himself was a prisoner in one of these camps.  Originally a physicist, he became an army officer during the outbreak of WWII.  Despite honorable military service, he was imprisoned and sent to the Gulag for mildly criticizing Stalin in a letter that he wrote to a friend.  After spending eight years in the Gulag, he was exiled to Kazakhstan where he became a teacher and began to write.

Over the next few years he wrote numerous novels that launched him into stardom.  Some other novels that he wrote include The Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward.  Due to the controversies surrounding his works, Solzhenitsyn was eventually kicked out of the Soviet writer’s union and eventually exiled from the Soviet Union entirely.

Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970 for his work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  This work follows a typical day of the main protagonist, Ivan Denisovich.  The book starts early in the morning and follows the character throughout the course of the day.  He details his encounters with the Gulag guards as well as his fellow squad mates.  He depicts the grueling working conditions and the typical tasks that a prisoner would be assigned to do over a time-span of several hours.  To a normal person it sounds like Ivan Denisovich’s life is absolutely miserable.  However, by the end of the story, Ivan Denisovich describes his day as being “almost a happy day” (Solzhenitsyn 176).

**The following map marks the locations of the Gulag camps throughout the USSR

After the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union entered a period known as “The Thaw”.  This was a period of time lead by Khrushchev that involved the liberalization of institutions such as the Soviet press.  It was during this time that Ivan Denisovich was allowed to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich despite it being considered to be highly controversial and anti-Soviet.  Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union for publishing his works during this time period, so the question can be asked; why were his works allowed to be published in the first place if there was going to be such a huge uproar over them?

The answer to this question is fairly straightforward.  During “The Thaw” Khrushchev started another movement known as de-Stalinization.  This was a period in the Soviet Union where the Gulags were largely emptied out, and the state admitted to the atrocities that were committed by Joseph Stalin.  Reforms followed, and things got better within the Soviet Union.  As a result of this increase in freedom the government permitted Solzhenitsyn’s book to be published despite its gruesome depictions of the Gulag.  What better way to denounce Stalinism than to allow a book highlighting the atrocities of Stalin’s Gulags to be published?

This book is the perfect example of literature that was allowed to be published following Stalin’s death during the period of liberalization known as “The Thaw”.  Through this novel, Solzhenitsyn opens the readers eyes to the horrors of Stalin’s Russia.




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