One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

From 1950 to 1953 Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the forced-labor camp of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan. Prisoners here were stripped of their names and were addressed by the identifying number inscribed on patches sewn to their caps, chest, back, and knee. The writer was assigned to a masonry brigade, then to a foundry, and this is the camp described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

On one long winter workday in camp, as I was lugging a handbarrow together with another man, I asked myself how one might portray the totality of our camp existence. In essence it should suffice to give a thorough description of a single day, providing minute details and focusing on the most ordinary kind of worker; that would reflect the entirety of our experience. It wouldn’t even be necessary to give examples of any particular horrors. It shouldn’t be an extraordinary day at all, but rather a completely unremarkable one, the kind of day that will add up to years. That was my conception, and it lay dormant in my mind for nine years.

In May 1959, when Solzhenitsyn was living in Ryazan, he finally sat down to write Щ-854 (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). He wrote it and put it away. He risked offering it for publication only some two years later, after Khrushchev’s vociferous attack on Stalin’s “cult of personality” at the Twenty-second Party Congress. He sent the manuscript, still titled Щ-854, to the Moscow journal Novy Mir in the fall of 1961. The editor of the journal’s prose section, Anna Berzer, was quick to grasp the significance of the unusual submission, and passed it on to Novy Mir’s editor-in-chief, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, with the remark that it was about “a prison camp though the eyes of a peasant, a very national kind of work.” Once Tvardovsky had joined battle for One Day, he began gathering appraisals of the work from the most authoritative writers of the day, in order to pass their testimonials to the powers-that-be. Kornei Chukovsky titled his review “A Literary Miracle” and wrote that Shukhov exemplifies the character traits of a simple Russian man: "he is steadfast, resistant to evil, hardy, cunning but kind, and a jack-of-all-trades to boot. . . . This story marks the entry of a powerful, original, and mature new writer into our literature. … I shudder to think that such a wonderful tale might remain unpublished."

And Samuil Marshak added this to his review: “Judged by the criteria of clarity and courage, the author can perhaps be compared to Archpriest Avvakum. . . . In his work the Russian people themselves have begun to speak.” Asked her opinion of the manuscript, Anna Akhmatova responded by emphasizing each syllable of her verdict: “Every single citizen of the two hundred million inhabitants of the Soviet Union has the duty to read this text and commit it to memory!”

And so, a year after the uncivilized-looking typescript had turned up at Novy Mir and after eleven months of Tvardovsky’s efforts, maneuvers, and alternating periods of hope and dejection, the story appeared in the November 1962 issue of the journal, which then had a circulation of a little over 100,000. It was a miracle. As Solzhenitsyn put it in an interview twenty years after One Day’s appearance in print, “the 1962 publication of my tale in the Soviet Union is akin to a phenomenon defying physical laws, something like objects falling upwards of their own accord or cold stones becoming red hot without any external stimulus.”

Khrushchev’s “thaw” proved to be short-lived, however, and by the second half of the 1960s libraries were withdrawing their copies of One Day from circulation in accordance with secret instructions, and soon enough (January 1974) the Central Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press issued an administrative order banning all works by Solzhenitsyn published in the Soviet Union. But by then One Day had of course been read by millions of our countrymen and had been published in dozens of languages all over the world.

What mattered above all was that the publication of One Day seemed to have broken a dam. The writer was stunned by the response.

There were letters to me, hundreds of them! Endless packets of letters were being forwarded by “Novy Mir”, others were brought in daily by the Ryazan postal service—some of them had been sent simply to “Ryazan” with no indication of the street address. . . . It was an explosion of letters from the whole of Russia, one that could not possibly be contained in any single breast. It provided a vantage point for an overview of zek lives, a subject previously quite beyond reach. Biographies, events, and episodes kept unfolding before me one after the other.

Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Solzhenitsyn came to look upon the writing of The Gulag Archipelago as an ineluctable moral duty, and went on to become the acknowledged chronicler of a nation’s misfortune.

– By Natalia Solzhenitsyn, excerpt of introduction to Russian high-school edition of The Gulag Archipelago, translated by Alexis Klimoff, published in The New Criterion, Sept. 2012


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The definitive and authorized translation of One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, by H.T. Willetts, was published in English in 1991 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Published again as recently as 2014, the Willetts edition is significantly superior to other available translations. 

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