Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. trans. H. T. Willets, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2005, 182 pages.
The greatest conflict within human nature is the struggle for compromise between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Science and education are no sure hedge against a perilous loss of balance between the two, but the willing capacity for empathy, called humanity, has long been regarded as the key ingredient to stability and decency. When those characteristics are absent in either man or nation, neither may continue to exist with surety. Against the greatest adversity, all beliefs and convictions are tested. The question emerges, does the man live in the community? Or does the community live in the man? One novel way to explore such a question is to spend One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where all the pretenses of comfort and civilization have been ripped away with extreme prejudice, leaving only hopeless, desperate, and broken wretches, gun-shy, hungry, and cold. It is the story of a man among such men in whom all the noblest virtues still abide, though the hearts of so many men have frozen around him. When everything else is taken away, what is left but the man? Indeed, it is perhaps only then that the community can be truly seen.
The hallmarks of social chaos and tyranny are entombed in this dystopian tale of a prisoner, Shukhov, eight years into a ten year stretch in one of the worst hellholes of human deprivation and suffering and ruin ever contrived by God or man. In Medias Res, he awakens from dreams unshared to another nightmarish day as a slave to a broken system. The worth of a man in a Soviet Gulag was less than his weight in ashes. But his labor earned him bread and gruel, each so conservatively distributed as only to keep him alive, but never strong enough to escape or fight. He had no voice, no rights, and no authority to who he might appeal for his own salvation, which depended solely on his compliance, so long as he lived within those insurmountable walls. Cut off from family, friends, and opportunity, on a bogus charge from a corrupt government, and rotting in a barren wasteland of snow and ice with hundreds of other enemies of the state, he is herded along each day in rags through blistering wind by angry men with guns, to work or to die. The work was ruthless, and for many, death became an appealing option. Ivan himself dreamed of illness as a reprieve from work, a sure sign of vanquished humanity. But Ivan survives.
Solzhenitzyn's anti-hero presents a unique glimpse into the culture and values that sustain life when all other forms of nurture are removed. It is more than just an epic story of human persistence, and it lacks the altruistic artificiality so prevalent in the many romanticized mockeries of prison life. It does not glamorize brutality as a counterpoint to liberal platitudes. It is not a work of propaganda. There is no deliberate subtext and no calculated appeal to a preconceived demographic. It is a demonstration of truth. The characters in this story are not merely kind to each other for kindness' sake. Their very friendships are rooted in the abject scarcity which restrains them. Ivan is noble for his appreciation of bread, for his modesty, his even temper, and for his courage, but in such a prison, a deficiency in any of these qualities is tantamount to a death sentence. Whether it is adaptation or innate character, his success depends on absolute, infallible humility. How can a man thus enslaved endure?
It is not bravery, or cleverness, or even joviality which preserves this character. It is certainly not charity, not from guards who would sooner shoot him dead than hear him speak out of turn, and not from fellow prisoners just as impoverished as he. It is acceptance, the most dangerous and ignoble characteristic of all, which insulates this broken man against the impossibility of his fate. With so many prisoners and so few guards, Ivan isn't impervious to the irony, but as all the men understand, to rebel is to starve. If they murdered their overlords, isolation would condemn them all. Supplies would simply stop coming, and they would resort to cannibalism or die. There was nowhere to escape to, and no one waiting with kind hearts and warm blankets. Nothing short of obedient acceptance of his fate, certainly no brilliant and convoluted plan or brazen uprising or articulate speech or desperate plea for mercy, nothing else would be his guarantor.
But even in the depths of this abhorrent suffering, the staples of humanity are clearly evident. There is trade. There are haves and have-nots, meaning that even when all their identities have been whitewashed and replaced with numbers, some will still inevitably serve others, working harder so others can work less, just to earn a few more crumbs or a pinch of smoke. Nature divides humans along economic lines, and organizes them as such, without regard to status or ability, but according to access to resources. Ivan must hide everything of value, yet he possesses nothing. He must subordinate himself, not only to guards, but to other prisoners as well, hoping only for scraps in the end, which he himself will never be able to provide, having accepted that to be remembered and cared for by his own wife and child, if they even still existed, was to burden them unnecessarily.
Beyond skin and bones, what made Ivan human? After ten years of such exposure, what could have been left of the man to release? Anger, frustration, grief, loneliness, fear, and paranoia were his daily companions, living in a starkly antithetical world where silence and submission were the cornerstones of hope and prosperity. Ivan Denisovich is no hero for the civilized world, which pretends to champion liberty even over life itself. His story serves as a bulwark against that delusion. Sometimes, only survival matters, not the how or the why. It cannot be called cowardice or compromise by the on looking bystander who has not felt the whip in darkness, who has not watched the summary executions of innocents, friends, for the crime of merely wanting more.
Solzhenitsyn delivers a disturbing tour of a hell with which Dante could not contend. Within these pages are the echoes of a terrible time and place which must never be forgotten if it is to never be revisited. Somehow, real humans survived unimaginable circumstances. As a story, its happy ending is only a blank and brief prelude to another day just like it, and another and another to the point of tedium for any reader, but was cold reality for those who survived. Real history is seldom preserved in novel form, but something of Denisovich's experience remains in-tact for the careful reader. For this, Solzhenitsyn attains the status of literary legend, and the figure of Denisovivh is deified, while so many others remain anonymous but for the pages of history which consumed them. In these pages, their humanity lives on.
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