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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Yes, after months of letting membership choose a book I've decided to just pick something myself and let the cards fall where they may.

As some of you may or may not know I have a strong interest in Russian Literature and have been wanting to do a Russian Novel since the pretty successful reception of Bulgakov's the Master and Margarita.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Russian: Оди́н день Ива́на Дени́совича Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha pronounced [ɐˈdʲin ˈdʲenʲ ɪˈvanə dʲɪˈnʲisəvʲɪtɕə]) is a novel written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, first published in November 1962 in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir (New World). The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Its publication was an extraordinary event in Soviet literary history—never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed. The editor of Novy Mir, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, wrote a short introduction for the issue, titled "Instead of a Foreword," to prepare the journal's readers for what they were about to experience.

The themes of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich center on authoritative oppression and camp survival. Specifically discussed is the cruelty and spite towards the fellow man, namely from prison officials. Solzhenitsyn explains through Ivan Denisovich that everything is managed by the camp commandment up to the point where time feels unnoticed; the prisoners always have work to do and never any free time to discuss important issues. Survival is of the utmost importance to prisoners. Attitude is another crucial factor in survival. Since prisoners were each assigned a grade it was considered good etiquette to obey. This is outlined through the character of Fetiukov, a ministry worker who let himself into prison and scarcely follows prison etiquette. Another such incident involves Buinovsky, a former naval captain, who is punished for defending himself and others during an early morning frisking.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was specifically mentioned in the Nobel Prize presentation speech when the Nobel Committee awarded Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. With the publication of One Day Solzhenitsyn had also written four more books, three in 1963 and a fourth in 1966 which cataclysmically led to the controversy of his publications. In 1968 Solzhenitsyn was accused by the Literary Gazette, a Soviet newspaper, of not following Soviet principles. The Gazette's editors also made claims that Solzhenitsyn was opposing the basic principles of the Soviet Union, his style of writing had been controversial with many Soviet literary critics especially with the publication of "One Day...". This criticism made by the paper gave rise to further accusations that Solzhenitsyn had turned from a Soviet Russian into a Soviet enemy, therefore he was branded as an enemy of the state, who, according to the Gazette had been supporting non-Soviet ideological stances since 1967, perhaps even longer. He, in addition, was accused of de-Stalinisation. The reviews were particularly damaging. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union in 1969. He was arrested, then deported in 1974. The novella had sold over 95,000 copies when it was released throughout the 1960s.

Often considered the most powerful indictment of the USSR's gulag ever made, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich forced Western intellectuals to acknowledge their sins of omission in regards to the Soviet human rights record. A decade later at a US-Soviet summit a human rights agenda was created as a topic of concern. It appeared on the Independent newspaper's poll of the Top 100 books, which surveyed more than 25,000 people.

The Book itself is only about 160 pages and readily available. There are 5 English Language translations, if you can get the one by H.T. Willetts (New York: Noonday/Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991) it's preferred, but not essential.

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  • Carol P.

    I could identify with Ivan. I felt more grateful for my "good" day's after reading it. Good discussion always!

    August 30, 2012

  • Bill M.

    First read about Ivan a century ago in a Russian History course. Still amazed by the novels ability to both horrify and inspire. Lokking forward to hearing other's opinions.

    August 21, 2012

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