Book of da Week: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
One of Solzhenitsyn’s most powerful works.

When you come across an author whose name is even daunting, you know you’ve hit a cultural high. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was one of the great writers of the 20th century, right up there with luminaries such as Sartre, Camus, Orwell, Ōe, Woolf, de Beauvoir, and Hemingway. His genius saw him pen allegorical tales such as Cancer Ward, whilst the First Circle followed the tradition of the great Russian novel – it’s a text of relentless brilliance.

Solzhenitsyn could also make his point in the form of concise novellas. The most notable is this 140 page tale of freezing cold, near starvation, and brutality. Yes, it’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) – the author was imprisoned in a Gulag camp from 1945 to 1953 for criticising Stalin, with this firsthand experience of Stalinism fueling many of his works. Consequently, at the time this made the novella an outstanding literary event for the world as it candidly portrayed an unflinching account of what Joseph Stalin’s regime brought about.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Whilst this certainly isn’t a cheerful book, it is nonetheless an important one. Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist of sorts, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, is in a Soviet gulag camp after being accused of spying (a legacy of Stalin’s insanely ineffective and paranoid system of denouncing enemies of the state – simply diss out anyone you don’t like and watch them get shipped off).

Innocent, the man nonetheless finds himself committed to 10 years of hard labour. In his particular squad, he spends his time battling with his gang for food and fending off the harshest of working conditions. They are only allowed time off if conditions drop below −41 °C, but the rest of the time the men left to battle through whatever the weather throws at them.

This is essentially the basis of the novella – it’s about Ivan Denisovich attempting to scrape through another day. Despite the situation, Solzhenitsyn shows the prisoners find solidarity with one another and this ensures they can survive over months on end, which is certainly a rally cry for overcoming adversity.

More overtly, this is a damning indictment of a fascist regime. It’s harsh, brutal, uncompromising, and pretty unnerving, but its semi-autobiographical nature means it can’t be taken lightly. Subsequently, due to its somewhat anti-Soviet message, Solzhenitsyn’s later works began to struggle under severe censorship and outright bans (Cancer Ward being the most notable offender).

He won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1970) but was expelled from Russia in 1974. He returned 20 years later and, happily, lived out a long life back in his home country, dying aged 89 in 2008.

Addendum: Sadistic Socialism!!

We include this end section simply as, particularly in England right now following on from Brexit, the right is getting bolshie. Papers such as the Daily Mail, Sun, Telegraph, and Express are flamboyantly pursuing their nationalistic agendas, with their respective online comments sections alight with right wingers raving about the end of progressivism, interspersed with perpetual ranting about immigration. Oh well, at least we can still all enjoy cucumber sandwiches and a cup of tea.

We’ve seen (and engaged with) many right wingers who have used Stalinism as the perfect example as to why socialism is pure evil, conveniently ignoring it stands as the antithesis of Marxist principles. It was a fascist, autocratic dictatorship and not the way the “loony left” wishes the world to be run.

They tend to forget (or ignore) socialism is fundamentally about giving everyone an equal footing in society, so when everyone works, everyone can reap the financial rewards. This is opposed to current affairs, where one individual can earn £500,000 per annum whilst another struggles intensely on £12,000. In other words, socialism is about ensuring everyone has a good life, although some people appear to believe it’s simply an opportunity for freeloaders to have an easy time of it (a misguided argument, given how many tens of millions of people work their asses off for little reward or security).

We’re surprised anyone can have such a violent opposition with this concept – it takes a concerted effort, but ultimately some empathy and a magnanimous outlook would make for prosperous living and working environments. Apparently, for some, this outlook of ours is the delusional, insane ranting of halfwits.

The oddness continues. We’ve seen right wingers happily claim Adolf Hitler was rampantly left wing. Here’s an example, a verbatim extract from louderwithcrowder.com:

“Actually, Yes, Hitler Was a Socialist Liberal. A favorite tactic employed by leftists is to describe the Nazis as “right wing,” with Adolf Hitler, their leader, as the grand leader of this “right wing” movement. Rewriting history is pretty common for leftists, as their history is littered with injustice. But thanks to this nifty thing called “history” in combination with “the internet,” we can bust this myth once and for all. Thoroughly. Or until a leftist insists on ignoring it. Then we’ll hold them down and tape their eyes open. Just kidding, that’s only what a leftist would do.”

Worryingly, this article has been shared some 396,000 times on social media, although some of the commenters have pointed out the brazenly provocative (and slightly irrational) nature of the writer: “You can tell when reading the article by its use of dialogue that it was written by an uneducated, almost extremist right-winger … People, just because you read an article on the internet does not make it fact! Research yourself and try to only rely on scholarly sources. And no, Wikipedia DOES NOT COUNT!”.

George Orwell, of course, lampooned politics from the time of Stalinism in his brilliant allegory Animal Farm, which again many right wingers inexplicably claim is an anti-socialism text (Orwell was a Democratic Socialist who championed workers’ rights). There seems to be a tremendous amount of confusion going on here as political ideologies battle to dismiss and claim whichever individuals don’t sit awkwardly with their leanings, and the resultant mess means even cucumber sandwiches may one day be poisoned turf unfit for hungry bellies. Just as well Brits love curry, then.

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