In praise of older books: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Week 26: Julie Parsons on her favourite books

This 1946 photograph shows Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system. Photograph: AP

This 1946 photograph shows Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system. Photograph: AP

 

It’s the “One Day” in the title that’s important. One day of the 3,653 days remaining in Ivan Denisovitch’s “stretch” in the gulag. Ten years. The three extra days for leap years.

The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote that Solzhenitsyn “was the first to cut the barbed wire of the camps. . . and let in millions of readers”. Let them in to the cold, the fear, the pain, the cruelty, the humanity. The resolve of men like Ivan Denisovitch. The resolve to survive.

Sentenced for high treason. His crime? To be captured by the German army in 1942. His further crime was to have escaped and told the truth. A truth unacceptable to Stalin. Like prisoner Senka who had been in Buchenwald. “There he evaded death by a miracle and now he was serving his time here quietly.”

Here “you live with your feet in the mud”. Reveille at five in the morning. Every ounce of energy required to drag yourself from your bunk. To queue for your bread ration, all 16 ounces. To eat it slowly because “food gulped down is no food at all”. To be counted and recounted, to march in the cold. Minus 41 degrees and you don’t work. But today it’s only minus 17. To work: dragging, digging, lugging, hauling. Men freezing, starving, dying.

But sometimes a conversation to remember. Tsezar, once a film-maker, discusses Eisenstein with prisoner X 123, “a stringy old man who was serving a twenty-year sentence”. “Ivan the Terrible,” says Tsezar, “isn’t that a work of genius?” X 123 disagrees. “It’s all so arty there’s no art left in it. Spice and poppyseed instead of everyday bread and butter.”

The day ends with a sense of triumph. “They hadn’t put him in the cells . . . And he hadn’t fallen ill. . . Almost a happy day.” And throughout Siberia, the size of Europe, millions of prisoners, like Solzhenitsyn himself, lay their heads on their straw mattresses. Another day in their lives. Another day gone.

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