One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Study Guide

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Context


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is fiction, but it is based on the author's experiences as a political prisoner in Soviet labor camps in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The Soviet Union under Stalin

While Ivan Denisovich is a fictional character, his experiences in a Soviet labor camp for political prisoners reflect the cruel policies of Josef Stalin, who assumed leadership of the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin in 1924.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution was successful in overthrowing the Russian monarchy and establishing a communist state in Russia. The leader of the revolution, Vladimir Lenin, became the first leader of the Soviet communist government in Russia. When Lenin died in 1924, there was a power struggle among the top members of the Communist Party, including Secretary General of the Communist Party, Josef Stalin. Although Lenin had not wanted Stalin to succeed him, Stalin managed to garner enough support to become leader of the party and Soviet Russia. His brutal regime began in 1924 and lasted until his death in 1953.

Stalin was a tyrant and a brutal dictator. Once he gained power Stalin undermined, and in some cases exiled or killed, those who opposed him, thus extinguishing the free exchange of ideas about policy, and nearly everything else, within the party. In the creation of the communist state under Lenin's leadership, the New Economic Program (NEP, begun in 1921) had allowed some progressive experimentation in economic organization and education. For example under Lenin the first NEP permitted private ownership of farms and small-scale industries. However, when Stalin took power, he abolished the NEP and ousted its supporters from the Communist Party.

In 1928 the first Five-Year Plan for economic development was enacted as a "revolution from above," meaning it was controlled by Stalin alone. The plan called for rapid industrialization, especially in heavy industry. Under Stalin's direction his ministers set unreasonable production quotas, leaving few resources for producing consumer goods and food, resulting in widespread shortages. In an attempt to end the shortages, Stalin ordered a reorganization of the agricultural sector. His collectivization of farms authorized the state's confiscation of agricultural land and mandated that farm laborers work together on collective farms (kolkhoz). Peasant farmers were prohibited from leaving the collective farms, and the state appropriated most of their products, leaving many people with little food—increasing the shortages. Most peasants hated collectivization, and some destroyed their produce and livestock rather than turn them over to the Soviet state.

This peasant rebellion against collectivization led to a brutal crackdown. Rebellious farmers were threatened and forced back to work collectively. Others were imprisoned as "enemies of the people." Stalin sought a scapegoat and found it in the kulaks, peasants who were perceived to have a little more than others. Stalin branded the kulaks "capitalist" enemies of the state and destroyed them through displacement, or arrest and deportation to Siberian labor camps. The state then seized and collectivized the kulaks' land. With Stalin's unrealistic demands for vast outputs, starvation became increasingly common in agricultural areas. Despite the obvious failure of the first Five-Year Plan, Stalin declared it a huge success. The five-year plans that followed placed more emphasis on consumer goods and set more attainable production goals.

By the 1930s the Soviet Union had become a dictatorship run by a cruel and paranoid leader. To cement his position, Stalin began purging the party of suspected subversives, beginning in 1934 when he started ordering the murders of party members he distrusted. He arrested thousands of supposed "enemies" and exiled them to Siberian labor camps. Stalin's secret police (the NKVD) increased general surveillance and encouraged informers to turn in "anti-Soviet" elements of society. Informers could be anyone, anywhere. Show trials conducted between 1936 and 1938 condemned many from all walks of life, including the military, to Siberian labor camps or execution.

During this period, known as Stalin's Great Terror, Stalin demanded unwavering loyalty to him and his policy of collectivization. All aspects of Soviet society were made to fit the mold Stalin created. Religion repression increased. Everyone from industrial workers to scientists to artists had to follow strict rules of behavior and economic production. Needless to say, dissent was prohibited and, if expressed, would lead to immediate arrest, imprisonment, or execution. In just two years at the height of the Great Terror (1937–38), experts claim about 1,570,000 people were arrested—one of every 20 citizens—and about half of these were killed. This number translates to about 1,500 people executed per day during this period. By 1939, when Stalin stopped most of these excesses, the purges had killed and imprisoned millions.

The Gulag System

Gulag is an abbreviation of the Russian name GULAG for the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps, the primary governing board of the bureaucracy that ran Soviet labor camps. The gulag system was created by Stalin's official decree in 1930. After Stalin's death the gulag remained in a much-diminished form until 1988, when President Mikhail Gorbachev freed the remaining political prisoners. The majority of prisoners in some camps were common criminals, but others were political prisoners. World War II prisoners of war were suspected of spying for the West and condemned to the gulag. The gulag—and the fear of it—was by far the most important tool of political control and repression in Soviet history.

The gulag had a ripple effect throughout Soviet society. Families of those arrested and condemned might be suspected of being "contaminated," and so they, too, were imprisoned. Wives of gulag prisoners bore a stigma that left them unable to get jobs, especially as the atmosphere of fear was so great no one wanted to associate with someone related to a "political." Children's lives, too, were ruined. In a single year during the Great Terror, 15,347 children of the condemned were taken from their homes and sent to live in orphanages.

Many of the labor camps of the gulag were deliberately located in remote and isolated areas, especially those where contact with the outside world was difficult, if not impossible. Locating labor camps in Siberia successfully eliminated opportunities to escape because death in the frozen waste of the far north was certain for anyone who attempted to flee. Of the thousands of labor camps in the gulag system, some locations were chosen for economic reasons. Many camps were near forests, which prisoners logged. In other camps prisoners grew cotton; mined ore; built roads, highways, or railways; processed fish; or constructed canals.

Camp conditions were horrific. As one letter (1938) to NKVD chief Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov stated: "Among the prisoners there are some so ragged and lice ridden that they pose a sanitary danger to the rest. These prisoners have deteriorated to the point of losing any resemblance to human beings." The dehumanization of prisoners resulted from lack of food, poor nutrition, insufficient clothing, overcrowding in cold barracks, and inadequate or nonexistent health care.

From Samizdat to Novy Mir

Beginning in 1956 at the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's terror and his crimes against the Soviet people. In 1961, at the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev said, "It is our duty to gain a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the nature of the matters related to the abuse of power ... This we must do so that such things never happen again." Khrushchev's words stunned the Soviet people and initiated a gradual relaxation of the paranoia and control that had permeated the earlier Stalinist era.

To a certain extent this greater openness liberated literature, including nonfiction works written by those who had lived through Stalin's terror. The manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had been sent to the premiere literary journal, Novy Mir (New World). After reading it, the journal's editor, Aleksandr Trifonovich Tvardovsky, wrote to Khrushchev defending the novella and urging him to permit its publication. Eventually Khrushchev allowed Novy Mir to publish the novella. Hard-liners denounced it, but many Soviet citizens were electrified by its appearance.

Yet, Solzhenitsyn's monumental Gulag Archipelago remained in samizdat for years in the Soviet Union, finally published first in France in 1973. After Khrushchev lost power in 1964 and was succeeded by the more conservative hard-liner, Leonid Brezhnev, openness and honesty were once again discredited, and literary works about Stalin and his crimes were condemned. Life in Russia became impossible for Solzhenitsyn, who had to leave his beloved country and live in exile.

Note on Style

This novel is written in a uniquely Russian style called skaz (based on the Russian word skazat, meaning "to tell"). The style derives from Russian folktales, in which main characters are usually peasants. To bring these often illiterate and unsophisticated characters to life, skaz adapts colloquial peasant speech in both the dialogue and narrative. Slang (such as the word zek for prisoner, used in this book) or dialect often appear in the writing to convey the backgrounds of the characters. Thus the styles of the dialogue and narrative are blended to create a cohesive tale that enhances the immediacy of the characters' experiences. The effect is one of a spontaneous oral narrative or spoken tale rather than a more polished work of literature. Yet it is the masterful use of this style that lifts the book to a level of literary greatness. The authenticity of the language and point of view arises from the author's experience as a political prisoner in a Stalin-era labor camp. Thus his use of slang and deep understanding of characters came to him firsthand.
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