Book Review: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I think I’m obligated to give this book five stars first because of its impact.

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I think I’m obligated to give this book five stars first because of its impact.

About the Book

Title: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Published: 1962

Series: (standalone)

Genre: classics, fiction

My Rating: 5/5 stars

The Premise

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

“First published in the Soviet journal Novy Mir in 1962, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich stands as a classic of contemporary literature. The story of labor-camp inmate Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, it graphically describes his struggle to maintain his dignity in the face of communist oppression. An unforgettable portrait of the entire world of Stalin’s forced work camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one of the most extraordinary literary documents to have emerged from the Soviet Union and confirms Solzhenitsyn’s stature as “a literary genius whose talent matches that of Dosotevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy”–Harrison Salisbury”

My Thoughts

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich , first published in 1962, was the first book that openly talked about life in the Soviet gulag system. It was only able to be published due to Khrushchev’s inclinations towards de-Stalinization at that time.

The story is very simple; simply following one single day in the life of a former Russian solider, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, now serving 10 years hard labor in Siberia after being falsely accused of treason.

Yes, he’d surrendered to the Germans with the intention of betraying his country and he’d returned from captivity to carry out a mission for German intelligence. What sort of mission neither Shukhov nor the interrogator could say…. Shukhov had it all figured out. If he didn’t sign he’d be shot. If he signed he’d still get a chance to live. So he signed.

The thing about this book that struck me was that it is so calm and almost emotionless.

Contrary to what you might expect, the titular character reveals almost no discontentment of his situation at all. He just goes through the motions of his day, the same day he had thousands of times before, laying bricks in -20 degree weather.

In fact, he’s happy at the end. What else should he bother to be, when there is no escape and no telling when or if his sentence will ever end? Disturbing.

It is also impossible while reading to not think about how millions of people were disappeared to spend years or even the rest of their lives in these places. Solzhenitsyn writes from personal experience: he spent eight years in the gulag (for criticizing Stalin in a private letter to his friend).

His other famous book is The Gulag Archipelago which is an expose of the entire system; he had to leave the Soviet Union after publishing it in 1973 because the KGB was not too fond of it. That’s another one of the books I’ve been meaning to read for a really long time

The Verdict

Overall I would highly recommend this book, and it is an important piece of history to boot.

Have you read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? If so, what did you think of it?

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