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A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-2006 was a Russian writer, intellectual, and Nobel Laureate, also a decorated officer with the Soviet Army during the Second World War. He was arrested in 1945 for comments he made in a letter to a friend in which he criticised the prosecution of the war, and Stalin’s part in it. Although he counted himself a patriot and was loyal to the revolution, he was betrayed as a subversive and spent the next eight years in a prison system that amounted to slave labour, one in which millions perished. Solzhenitsyn survived and wrote about it, an act for which he was eventually exiled.

His magnum opus, a three volume work called the Gulag Archipelago, appeared in 1973. It was not intended as a political work, though it certainly earned him the rank of political dissident, and made him a fresh target for the Soviet authorities who even tried to poison him. It was more an historical expose and a careful analysis of the Gulag system, also a study of mankind, and of himself.

The work is important because Solzhenitsyn teaches us the Gulag and the system that gave rise to it is not a peculiarly Soviet thing, rather it’s something at the heart of us all. Call it a weakness or an inherent tendency, given the right circumstances, the Gulag can occur anywhere. Also, not only can we all fall victim to it, but – important point this – we can all fall in as perpetrators and accomplices.

Solzhenitsyn observed that evil could not simply be identified in a small percentage of the population, because then the bad people might easily be isolated from the rest of us, then destroyed and evil along with it. But it doesn’t work like that; evil persists throughout time; the camp-guards, the interrogators, the torturers, they could be any one of us, and the trick of evil is to prevent us from imagining a scenario whereby we might indeed be drawn into committing those extremes of harm to our fellow beings.

The Gulag system was a vast network of camps spread across the entire Soviet Union, and from which no one was safe. If labour was needed, quotas would be sent out, the state security apparatus would then pursue the necessary arrests, and victims would be found, guilt concocted as needs be and verified by confession signed under torture. Incarceration would then last eight, ten or twenty five years. Terms were nominal though and in reality many were worked to death in unimaginably harsh conditions.

We learned of the camps in 1966 on the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s first book, “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch.” This is a short book, but sharp, like a lance through the brain, and tells, as the title suggests, of just one day in the camp-life of prisoner Ivan Denisovitch. The men wake, they march out to work on building a power station, then they march back. Falsely accused of being a German spy, Denisovitch has lost everything, or has he? What is it that defines a human being and grants him purpose, and meaning? What is it that redeems him?

The story could merely have been a raging indictment of the system, which in part it is, but in the main it’s an observation of humanity, of its adaptation to extraordinarily harsh circumstances and how small things can take on a massive significance in a man’s life. On his return march, Denisovitch comes across a scrap of broken band-saw blade and smuggles it into camp. It’s a triumph, one that lights up his day, and he will spend the coming weeks painstakingly grinding it on a stone to fashion a knife – not to harm others, or to facilitate his escape, but merely because a knife is a useful tool to have in camp life, and under such reduced circumstances, it bestows more dignity on a man than a fancy car or a beautiful house.

Remarkably , “A day in the life” was published in Russia, with permission of the State. But by then Stalin was dead, and there was a change of mood, a certain rapprochement between the State and its people. But Solzhenitsyn was already working secretly on his next book, the altogether more explosive Gulag Archipelago.

The three volume, unabridged version is perhaps a little too much for the average reader, though an important source for scholars, in that it goes into great detail. It names names, places, dates. But there is also an “approved” abridged version, and this is more suited to the general reader. The book documents Solzhenitsyn’s own confinement, the horrors and the humiliations he both suffered and witnessed, also what he learned by a process of self reflection and from the observation of his fellow prisoners, how they coped, how they held body and soul together, how they protected their dignity. His conclusion was as profound as it was unexpected, that he could not view the Gulag as an alien system, one that had been unjustly imposed upon him by some external agency, that indeed he was in some way responsible, not only for his confinement within the system, but for the very existence of that system in the first place.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, warned us that man himself was the danger, not just some men but all men – that we carry within us the seed of our own destruction, that evil follows us around because we are unable to see it in our own hearts, and that without at least a rudimentary process of self reflection that dark seed will grow to do untold damage either to us, personally, or to those around us.

In the absence of religion, we think we can entrust the development of the psyche and the control of our excesses by a secular ideology, be that Marxism or Free Market Capitalism, but there’s something in us that seeks what, for want of a better term, we must call spiritual growth. There is a religious function within us that seeks knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. If ignored, we fall prey to the shadow forces within us; we are easily seduced, easily manipulated by the darker archetypal patterns of behaviour; a newspaper headline screams “death to the traitors”, and we see red, and wish death upon all traitors, however loosely they be defined. Only reflection bids us pause, bids us think, and grants sufficient space for the better side of our nature to win through.

Religion once fulfilled that role, but given the mess of the last few centuries it’s clear it didn’t do a very good job in sparing us from ourselves. In the absence of religion, psychoanalysis and various self help movements offer an alternative, but we’ve had a century of those and things only seem to be getting worse. Perhaps then evil is like any other pestilence that circles the world. It’s simply a fact of nature and, like Solzhenitsyn achieved, by a process of strenuous and unrelenting self analysis, all any of us can do is recognise the potential for evil in our own hearts and find the best way of subverting it, even if it takes us to the end of our days.

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