History must be written of, by and for the survivors. – Anonymous
Do you remember the first book you ever bought? I don't mean the first book you ever read but the first one for which you parted with cash you had earned? I do. I still have it. It's survived a dozen or so house moves and I fully expect to have it till the day I die. I've read it four times, seen the British film adaptation and recently listened to a radio play based on the book. That book is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is a mere 144 pages long. I bought it in a little newsagent across from the statue of Robert Burns in Ayr; I paid 35p for it and read it on the train over the next few days.
The book was first published in 1963 and describes a single day, "almost a happy day" from all accounts, in the life of an ordinary prisoner called Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, in a Soviet labour camp during the 1950s. It is old history now; that regime has fallen and is being steadily forgotten; people have enough to worry about these days without wringing their hands over the mistakes and injustices carried out in the past. And, in part, that's true.
I didn't read an awful lot of fiction growing up. There was none in the house for starters but there were encyclopaedias, books of quotations and dictionaries. In one of the books of quotations, a book I still own that is probably older than I am, I read the following quote: "The one thing history teaches is that man learns nothing from history." It's by Hegel of course. Of course I had no idea who Hegel was when I read it but it was one of those quotations that stayed with me; that rang a bit of sense out of a world that was starting to make less and less sense to me at the time. Perhaps my holding that quote dear explains in part something about my general lack of interest in history as a subject.
I did watch programmes about the past, All Our Yesterdays and The World at War in particular. It was actually a bit of a family event; as I recall they were both shown on Sunday afternoons. I could never understand my parents expressing nostalgia for what looked like a very unpleasant time in which to live and yet I now finding myself looking back to the bleak mid-seventies in much the same way.
Solzhenitsyn's book has become a benchmark for me. I go back to it about every ten years or so and each time it makes a bit more sense which I find odd because I'm moving farther and farther away from the times Solzhenitsyn is writing about. The reason I find myself getting closer to the book is the fact that it's about people, about the human condition; the setting is not nearly as important as one might expect. Of course as a sixteen year-old reading about life in the camps for the first time that is what I took away with me and I went on to read a couple of his other books, The First Circle and Cancer Ward although The Gulag Archipelago was more than a bit on the long side and I've still never read it. I'm not sure I need to any more.
There are plenty of places online where you can read summaries of the book so I'm not going to spend a great deal of time telling you what happens because nothing that much happens, indeed monotony is a major theme of the book and it is to Solzhenitsyn's credit that he makes the little that does happen as interesting as he does.
Most novels revolve around extraordinary events, the day when everything went pear-shaped and I have no doubt there were times during Solzhenitsyn's own imprisonment that he could have drawn on but this is not The Bridge on the River Kwai. He himself was imprisoned from 1945 to 1953 for writing a derogatory comment in a letter to a fellow officer about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called "the whiskered one". The sentence seems harsh but there are examples of the same happening today. I wrote about one a while ago, highlighting the case of Saw Wai:
On January 22, 2008, Saw Wai was arrested by Burmese authorities for publishing a poem that secretly criticized Than Shwe, the head of Burma's ruling military junta. The poem, titled "February the Fourteenth" was published in the Rangoon-based Achit Journal (Love Journal). If the first letters of each line of the poem were put together, they read "Power Crazy Than Shwe" in Burmese. – Wikipedia
He was sentenced to two years. I'm sure the Soviet government in Solzhenitsyn's day would not have been as merciful.
The simple and rather sad fact is that with a few name changes this book is absolutely relevant today. That it shouldn't be is neither here not there. It is.
Although I was young there was one scene in the book that struck me on my first reading. It concerns a scene in the mess:
Shukhov took off his cap and put it on his knees. He checked one bowl, then the other, with his spoon. Not too bad, there was even a bit of fish. The skilly was always a lot thinner in the evening than in the morning: a zek had to be fed in the morning so that he could work, but in the evening he'd sleep, hungry or not, and wouldn't croak overnight.
He began eating. First he just drank the juice, spoon after spoon. The warmth spread through his body, his insides greeted that skilly with a joyful fluttering. This was it! This was good! This was the brief moment for which a zek lives.
For a little while Shukhov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday. For the moment he had only one thought: We shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we'll see the end of it!
Shukhov finished off his skilly, not taking much notice of those around him — it didn't much matter, he was content with his lawful portion and had no hankering after anything more. All the same, he did notice the tall old man, Yu-81, sit down opposite him when the place became free. Shukhov knew that he belonged to Gang 64, and standing in line in the parcel room he'd heard that 64 had been sent to Sotsgorodok in place of 104, and spent the whole day stringing up barbed wire — making themselves a compound — with nowhere to get warm.
He'd heard that this old man had been in prison time out of mind — in fact, as long as the Soviet state had existed; that all the amnesties had passed him by, and that as soon as he finished one tenner they'd pinned another on him.
This was Shukhov's chance to take a close look at him. With hunched-over lags all round, he was as straight-backed as could be. He sat tall, as though he'd put something on the bench under him. That head hadn't needed a barber for ages: the life of luxury had caused all his hair to fall out. The old man's eyes didn't dart around to take in whatever was going on in the mess, but stared blindly at something over Shukhov's head. He was steadily eating his thin skilly, but instead of almost dipping his head in the bowl like the rest of them, he carried his battered wooden spoon up high. He had no teeth left, upper or lower, but his bony gums chewed his bread just as well without them. His face was worn thin, but it wasn't the weak face of a burnt-out invalid, it was like dark chiselled stone. You could tell from his big chapped and blackened hands that in all his years inside he'd never had a soft job as a trusty. But he refused to knuckle under: he didn't put his three hundred grams on the dirty table, splashed all over, like the others, he put it on a rag he washed regularly. – trans Willets
'Dignity' is one of those dictionary words, if you know what I mean by that, at least it was for me in 1973. I knew what it meant, I could define it, but I don’t think I really understood it. It was just a word. It was the same with 'labour camps'. I knew what they were – I'd seen pictures on the tele – but knowledge is a far cry from understanding. I didn't understand and you would think that seeing stuff on TV would have helped but it didn't. It was this semi-fictionalised account that made it real for me. I had never been hungry (although there were times in my childhood I would have sworn I was starving) and I'd never been cold (although as far as I was concerned, Scotland was the coldest place on Earth) and I'd always been free to do what I wanted (even though I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that my parents never let me do anything). Well you don't know, do you?
I read that section in the mess a number of times especially the bit about the old zek.
The story is Ivan's without a doubt but through his eyes and his recollections we get to see a more rounded picture of life in the camps. Ivan is the optimist of the bunch but one thing that comes across very clearly is the need to accentuate the positive. There is also a strong group mindset. They all support each other and even share their scraps.
It's not a bad day. Under the circumstances it's quite a good day. He gets to work in a sheltered place. He even ends up with two bowls of food at the end of the day. Solzhenitsyn could have been a lot crueller to him. He could have made it a week, a month or even a year in this man's life. He could have had him punished more severely than he does – all Ivan has to do is wash a floor to pay for his tardiness. At the end of the book, Ivan is lying in bed thanking God for the good day he had. Yes, the day he had at the prison camp. The day where he got up in 17° below weather, marched for miles, worked all day, and received almost no food. This day is like most of his others, but he is still thankful.
[T]hey hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent the team to the settlement; he'd pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled that bit of hacksaw-blade through; he'd earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he's bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He'd got over it.
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. – trans Parker
There was a lot I didn't notice on that first read, the religious commentary for example. When people quoted from the Bible or prayed or crossed themselves this all felt like background stuff – my family said grace so what of it? The scripture says: “Men do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, spirituality is nowhere near the top, however. Or the bottom actually since it's often represented as a triangle with physiological needs as the base. After taking care of ones physiological and safety requirements (I hardly need illustrate how these come into play) the chart moves onto love and belonging and it is clear that friendship and this artificial 'family' they now find themselves a part of is important. A good example of this is Senka Klevshin: one of Ivan’s squad members, a "quiet, luckless fellow" who happens to be deaf. The other members of the squad protect him somewhat, like they might do with a little brother, by accommodating for his weaknesses.
The next level on Maslow's chart deals with self esteem and we can see in the book how respect is a major thing here. There is an example where Tsezar, another member of Ivan's squad, is smoking a cigarette: Shukhov walks over to Tsezar and stands next to him, staring past him. Fetiukov, a man with little pride, stares right at Tsezar's mouth and finally actually demands a puff. Because of that Tsezar gives the butt to Shukhov.
The top of Maslow's chart is self-actualisation and spirituality isn’t actually included by name but Maslow regarded it as a basic component of our biological life. He even wrote an entire book on the subject called The Further Reaches of Human Nature. I have seen triangles where others have felt the need to add on a sixth level but I think that's just picky. It is sufficient to say that once a human's needs are stripped down to the bare essentials on every level perhaps then people become more sensitive to spiritual matters. Or it could simply be that what we are seeing are people at a certain time and place in history where religion was of far greater importance that it is nowadays.
The simple fact is that this is not as simple a book as you might imagine. Yes, Solzhenitsyn provides us with all the character types that would have populated the camps, but they are not cardboard characters and it is amazing how much depth of character he manages to imbue each and every man with; there are no women in the book other than those the inmates choose to remember.
"Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?" Solzhenitsyn asks. It's a good question. I've known what it's like to be cold but knowledge is only the first step towards understanding. Which is why I find myself returning to this book over and over again. I don’t think Solzhenitsyn has failed because I need to keep coming back. Far from it. Far from it.
A word on translations, as there are a number available. The one I own, the Penguin edition, was the earliest, translated in 1963, by Ralph Parker. It uses a lot of Russian and Yiddish expressions like valenki (knee-length felt boots for winter wear) or oprichniki (a member of an imperial Russian police force) but my copy has helpful footnotes. That said I didn't struggle understanding it because the context goes a long way to defining the words. There is a translation by Max Haywood and Ronald Hingley where they use American slang expressions such as 'can' and 'cooler' for solitary confinement and unpolished diction in expressions like "Let em through" and "Get outa the way." Russian swearwords, never before printed in the Soviet Union, have been for the most part translated into their English equivalents. I haven’t read it so I shouldn't criticise but that would bother me I think. The translation by H.T. Willetts, and the only one actually authorised by Solzhenitsyn, was published in 1991.
Let's compare two translations. I'm going to use part of the section we read above.
He sat tall, as though he'd put something on the bench under him. That head hadn't needed a barber for ages: the life of luxury had caused all his hair to fall out. The old man's eyes didn't dart around to take in whatever was going on in the mess, but stared blindly at something over Shukhov's head. He was steadily eating his thin skilly, but instead of almost dipping his head in the bowl like the rest of them, he carried his battered wooden spoon up high. He had no teeth left, upper or lower, but his bony gums chewed his bread just as well without them. His face was worn thin, but it wasn't the weak face of a burnt-out invalid, it was like dark chiselled stone. You could tell from his big chapped and blackened hands that in all his years inside he'd never had a soft job as a trusty. But he refused to knuckle under: he didn't put his three hundred grams on the dirty table, splashed all over, like the others, he put it on a rag he washed regularly.
Translated by H.T. Willets
He held himself straight – the other zeks sat all hunched up – and looked as if he'd put something extra on the bench to sit on. There was nothing left to crop on his head: his hair had dropped out long since – the result of high living no doubt. His eyes didn't dart after everything going on in the mess-hall. He kept them fixed in an unseeing gaze at some spot over Shukov's head. His worn wooden spoon dipped rhythmically into the thin skilly, but instead of lowering his head to the bowl like everybody else, he raised the spoon high to his lips. He'd lost all his teeth and chewed the bread with iron gums. All life had drained out of his face, but it had been left, not sickly or feeble, but hard and dark like carved stone. And by his hands, big and cracked and blackened, you could see that he'd had little opportunity of doing cushy jobs. But he wasn't going to give in, oh no! He wasn't going to put his three hundred grammes on the dirty, bespattered table – he put it on a well-washed bit of rag.
Translated by Ralph Parker
My preference is the Parker myself despite the fact that Solzhenitsyn approved the Willets version. Now, if I only read Russian.
After going through what he did you might imagine that Solzhenitsyn would do anything for a quiet life and for a while he did. But is a writer truly a writer without an audience? I'll let him explain:
During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky's speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. – Nobelprize.org
It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it and declared at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publishing, "There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil".
If you haven't seen the film version staring Tom Courtenay I would recommend it. I could only find a trailer online with an awful voice over and it's worth watching just to ask yourself who in their right mind thought this was the way to sell this film? Courtney as one would expect is excellent but hats really need to be tipped to Sven Nykvist's cinematography. A fresh translation of the novel by Gillon Aitken appeared at this time as a movie tie-in edition.
Solzhenitsyn was one of the leading dissidents in the Soviet Union, and was active against the Soviet Communist regime. His main work Gulag Archipelago (1973), being inspired by the academic work of Anton Chekhov titled Sakhalin Island (1895). After the publication of Gulag Archipelago abroad in 1973, he was arrested again, and charged with "anti-Soviet" treason, then exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He lived mostly in Cavendish, Vermont, USA, until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then he was invited by the new Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his Russian citizenship was restored. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994 and was granted a suburban house in Moscow. His wife and three sons remained American citizens.
Back in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn enjoyed full recognition and wide publication of all his works. He was an active and important figure in Russian society, because of his independent position and sharp criticism of the declining state of affairs in Russia. He refused to receive an award from the Russian president Boris Yeltsin. His novel First Circle was made into a TV-movie and shown on the Russian national TV in 2006.
Solzhenitsyn died at age 89, on August 3, 2008, at his home near Moscow. His death caused a considerable mourning in Russia, especially among the Russian conservatives and Orthodox Christians. Solzhenitsyn received a state funeral and was laid to rest in Donskoy Convent cemetery in Moscow, Russia.
This is an expanded version of the original post that appeared on the Canongate website on March 18th.