Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Posted January 23, 2017 by Michael Kitto in Classic / 0 Comments

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynTitle: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Goodreads)
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Translator: Ralph Parker
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 142
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the most important works of fiction to come from the Soviet Union was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was this novella that informed the world of the harsh realities of the gulag under Stalin’s reign. The reaction from the world even lead to Solzhenitsyn’s most important piece, The Gulag Archipelago, a seven volume exposition into the gulag; it was part oral history, part personal account and a political statement. The Gulag Archipelago has become an important piece of literature, and it is taught in Russian high schools, while One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is sometimes assigned reading in classrooms around the rest of the world.

The novella follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov for one day in 1951, exploring life as a prisoner in a Stalinist labour camp (known as the gulag). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sent to the gulag in 1945 for criticising Joseph Stalin in a private letter. He would have been left there to die but when Nikita Khrushchev became the first secretary of the Communist party after Stalin’s death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released in 1956 due to his poor health. Most of his writing is autobiographical in nature, in particular One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (about life in the labour camps) and Cancer Ward (which is about his battle with cancer that lead to his release from the gulag).

The significance of this novel is far reaching, not just on giving the reader an understanding on life in the labour camps but also as a political statement on Stalin. The book looks at the struggle to keep human dignity in such harsh treatment. From constantly being treated inhumanely to the removal of their identity by referring to everyone by a serial number (Shukhov being SHCHA-854). While the guards are constantly trying to discourage camaraderie, we still get a glimpse into the interactions between the prisoners. It is here that we get an idea on just how temperamental Stalin could be. Although getting into the tyrannical reign of Stalin requires more research, you get an idea of unjust punishment while reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

There is a lot to explore in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ranging from the constant struggle with privacy to the vivid descriptions of the cold weather. However, the one thing that stood out for me is the parcels that Tsezar was selling. Not just tobacco but a range of desirable items. For me he became a symbol of worldly pleasures in a place where everyone had nothing. This turns the novella into something so much deeper. You might notice that the name Tsezar is similar word to Tsar, in fact both are Russian words for Caesar. Keeping this in mind we now have a motif for the events that lead to the Russian revolution and it begins to explore the corruption of power under Stalin. Rather than working towards the socialist utopia that the Bolsheviks dreamt of, Stalin rewarded the people that had his favour while punishing everyone else. This idea stuck with me and I think it transformed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work into something far greater. Although this is what I have come to expect from this author.

This is only my second Solzhenitsyn book (the other being In the First Circle) but I am constantly surprised with the depth he goes to in order to explore his ideas. His books were often published as samizdat (Russian for self-published but referring to the illegally published and distributed literature of the Soviet era) but he still has a unique ability to hide a deeper idea in his novels to avoid serious repercussions from the government. One of my favourite parts of Soviet literature is the way the authors often use satire, motifs and symbolism to explore their true message. I always get a thrill from these books, as if I am understanding some hidden secret. I do think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an essential read for anyone interested in Russian literature and I am a little ashamed I put if off for so long.


In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Posted January 9, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Classic / 0 Comments

In the First Circle by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynTitle: In the First Circle (Goodreads)
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Translator: Harry Willets
Published: Harper Perennial, 1968
Pages: 784
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Moscow, Christmas Eve 1949; a man makes a phone call to the American embassy to warn them about the Soviet Atom Bomb project. This call was caught on tape and quickly disconnected by The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). A brilliant mathematician named Gleb Nerzhin, was taken as a sharashka (known as zeks) prisoner and ordered to help track down the mystery caller. The zeks know that they have it better than a “regular” gulag prisoners but they are faced with the moral dilemma; to aid a political system they oppose or be transferred to the deadly labour camps.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a Russian author as well as a historian; he was also a critic of Soviet totalitarianism which found himself in prison much like Gleb Nerzhin. He was accused of anti-revolutionary propaganda under Russian SFSR Penal Code (Article 58 paragraph 10) which is a ‘catch-all’ criminal offence that could be used against anyone that might threaten the government. During the period of Stalinism, the crime of “propaganda and agitation that called to overturn or undermining of the Soviet power” jumped from a six month prison sentence to seven years of imprisonment, with possible internal exile for two to five years. On 7 July 1945, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp for comments he made in private letters to a friend. After his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was then internally exiled for life at Kok-Terek, which is in the north-eastern region of Kazakhstan.

The First Circle was self-censored before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn even attempted to get it published in 1968. Originally the book was 96 chapters long but the censorship turned the novel into 87 chapters. Some changes included the man telling another doctor to share some new medicine with the French instead of warning the Americans about the atom bomb. All mention of the Roman Catholics and religion was also removed. It wasn’t till 2009 a new English translation (not sure of the details on the Russian editions) saw the book restored and uncensored; now with the title In The First Circle.

The title alone is fascinating and it allows the reader to pick up on the whole metaphor before starting the novel. Looking at Dante’s Inferno, it is easy to find that the first circle of hell is limbo. In the epic poem Virgil introduces Dante to people like Socrates, Plato, Homer, Horace and Ovid. The time between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is often referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, in which he descended into limbo and brought salvation to the righteous. However in Dante’s Inferno this meant that Christ saved people like Noah, Moses, Abraham and King David, but a lot of the intellectuals where left. This is metaphor for the penal institutions, making reference to all the intellectuals and political thinkers arrested under Stalin’s Russia.

This novel made me feel a lot smarter than I actually am, there is a lot of information within In The First Circle however Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn presented them in accessible way. Going into the book I knew a little about Solzhenitsyn’s life and the metaphor in the title was explained in the Goodreads synopsis. So I was able to witness how everything came together without doing any research. The book sometimes goes into Russian history; I was fascinated with everything I learnt.

I have read so many books set in Cold War Russia but I don’t think there have been many actually written by a Russian. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has lead an interesting life and I am keen to read more of his novels before attempting The Gulag Archipelago, his three volume book on the history of a gulag labour camp. If you have paid attention to my best of 2014 list you would have noticed that In The First Circle did make the list. This was a wonderful book that was both thrilling and educational, I would recommend it to anyone interested in Russian history, especially the Cold War era.