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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
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New School Classics- 1900-1999 > One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - SPOILERS

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Melanti | 2383 comments This thread is for a full discussion of our May 2018 New School Group Read selection, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Discuss any spoilers in this thread.


Melanti | 2383 comments I ended up listening to the audio of this a couple of weeks ago.

I recently reread Night, so when I was listening to this, some of the some of the similarities really struck me as horrible.

But at the same time, the people in this prison camp DO think they're going to get out someday. The guards still have a casual disregard for the prisoners lives, but even knowing that there's a theoretical date they'll be let go greatly changes the dynamics.


Rosemarie | 1580 comments I read the author's Gulag Archipelago a couple of years ago. I remember reading that the date of release kept getting changed, so a person with a ten year sentence might be there much longer, but they did eventually get out, if they survived all the hardships.
The corruption among the officials and guards was disgusting, especially the stealing of the prisoners' food.


Carlo | 206 comments The freezing weather was such a factor in the lives of these prisoners. I cannot comprehend how they could cope mentally and physically under such conditions.


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Zoe (bookfanatic66) | 241 comments Carlo wrote: "The freezing weather was such a factor in the lives of these prisoners. I cannot comprehend how they could cope mentally and physically under such conditions."

I was amazed as well at the freezing weather - being part undressed in a search during cold weather. Where I grew up never actually gets that cold, but I lived in Harbin in Northern China for a while. If I had been one of those prisoners I don't think I would have survived.


Laurie | 1700 comments The fact that people can survive such brutal conditions of cold and starvation as these gulag prisoners and the Holocaust concentration camp survivors did is a testament to the strength of the human body and spirit. When I read this, I was astounded that it was possible to live through even one Siberian winter with such scant clothing and blankets. These people were much more hardy than I am.


Josue | 9 comments The small things are the ones they get hold of when there is nothing but hopeness and deafeatist. Getting an extra slice of bread, being able to sleep(in their own bed) at the end of the day, those things provide an illusory hapiness to persons that have been through such conditions


Michele | 1012 comments Josue wrote: "The small things are the ones they get hold of when there is nothing but hopeness and deafeatist. Getting an extra slice of bread, being able to sleep(in their own bed) at the end of the day, those..."

That's what struck me as well -- the huge significance that tiny things assume when they are all you have.


MissFede (missfl) I can't comprehend how -41C is survivable when clothed only in rugs. Thinking about people forced to work outside in such temperatures is absolutely horrifying.


Rosemarie | 1580 comments And they were extremely undernourished as well as lacking proper clothing.


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Melanti wrote: "I ended up listening to the audio of this a couple of weeks ago.

I recently reread Night, so when I was listening to this, some of the some of the similarities really struck me as hor..."


I agree Melanti. Just finished this and it certainly bears similarity to Night. Yet where Wiesel adds colour to his characters, the starkness of Ivan's condition is frightening.
It sounds to me they were just pushing to see, perhaps one of their grotesque experiments, how far can the human body survive cold without dying. I live in a tropical country, even at 10 degress Celsius I have to have a jumper, -41C is beyond the pale for me.


siriusedward (elenaraphael) | 2058 comments I just started it.Reached the portion where he finished cleaning the warders place.
It does seem like a harsh ,bleak and cold read.
But the writing is good and I am liking the tone at around 10%.


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siriusedward (elenaraphael) | 2058 comments Josue wrote: "The small things are the ones they get hold of when there is nothing but hopeness and deafeatist. Getting an extra slice of bread, being able to sleep(in their own bed) at the end of the day, those..."

I think generally people try to find happiness and hope in whatever circumstances they find themselves in (until the situation becomes too much maybe?).Small adjustments..and we keep telling ourselves " just a little further..just a little more.."


Lalitha (falcon_) | 24 comments siriusedward wrote: "Josue wrote: "The small things are the ones they get hold of when there is nothing but hopeness and deafeatist. Getting an extra slice of bread, being able to sleep(in their own bed) at the end of ..."

I agree! Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment says "Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel". Says a lot. The basic instinct of a human is to survive.


BAM the enigma “It’s warmed up a bit. Eighteen below, no more. Good weather for bricklaying.”

Really put the weather in perspective for me. It’s miserable year round for these men. Feeling lucky for an extra slice of bread; finding something to burn for extra warmth but only if you can get close to the stove without melting your shoes. They are all like little engines who could who tell themselves “I think I can” one day more.


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MissFede (missfl) Might be only me but here's the thing...

Historical importance aside, my problem with this book was the writing (or maybe the translation). It felt like reading a lifeless article without any fluidity. I do get how that could have been the author's way of showing how desensitised Ivan has become to his life in the camp, but in my opinion it made for a slow and a bit uninteresting read. Made me enjoy this book less than I had hoped.

Sorry for the unpopular opinion.


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Pink | 6554 comments No problem Fred, we can't like every book we read. Maybe the translation was partly to blame, or perhaps it just wasn't for you.


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siriusedward (elenaraphael) | 2058 comments allowed two shirts—shirt and undershirt; everything else must come off. That was the order from Volkovoy relayed from rank to rank. The teams that had gone past earlier were the lucky ones. Some of them were already through the gates, but for those left behind, it was “Open up!” All those with too much on underneath must take it off right there in the cold.

What difference did the number of clothes on the prisoners make to Volkovoy?
Simply being cruel. ... torturing them..and for what?


Rosemarie | 1580 comments I think that the numbers were both a way of keeping track and controlling the prisoners by taking away their individuality and humanity. It also gave those in charge another reason to punish those whose number was not clear.


siriusedward (elenaraphael) | 2058 comments It feels so stifling..so suffocating the way they are treated. .threatening them with a shooting if they take a step wrong..inhuman..


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Kait | 5 comments The weather is also what gets me. I live in a fairly hot climate so below 20°C is cold to me so -18°C let alone -41°C is more or less beyond my comprehension. I really don't understand how anyone could bear being strip searched in that. Or could work in that for that matter. Even after they seal the windows in the building where they were working it's still so cold that they worry about the mortar freezing.
Ivan's narration this all seem to routine, in fact it's a good day because he gets to work inside. It just amazes me that he's not completely demoralised by all of this and that he can still take pride in his work.
And yet there's still ways that it could be worse for these men. Like the cells. Never has a dorm of like 40 men (I can't remember exactly how many) where people have recently been murdered in their sleep sound so appealing than the alternative.
Needless to say that after I finished this a appreciated my life a little bit more.


Marilyn | 803 comments One of the things I liked was finding out why the men were in the camp. Before reading this I thought the reason for being sent to a labor camp was actively working against or speaking out against the government. It didn't take that much. For example, having contact with foreigners during the war, including working with allies or being a POW, turned you into a spy risk and off you go.


siriusedward (elenaraphael) | 2058 comments It was really horrible..you never know how you will offend them...the reasons seem so not a reason at all..


Melanti | 2383 comments Marilyn wrote: "One of the things I liked was finding out why the men were in the camp. Before reading this I thought the reason for being sent to a labor camp was actively working against or speaking out against ..."

That was one of the things I found so terrible... These people were Russia's own citizens, jailed for something so minor as being a POW or knowing a foreigner and getting a compliment/gift from them.


siriusedward (elenaraphael) | 2058 comments Just think, though—it was five days’ work and four days’ eats

so very unfair.unjust.cruel.I want to smack all their heads together ... labour camps.seems a bit of understatement..


Nente | 780 comments Read this just now, and while I still find Shalamov much superior from the literary and emotional viewpoints, I think this is a valuable book.

Marylin & Melanti - as far as I understand, the "systemic" reason for all those people being sent to the camps was even more terrible than you think... for one thing, in a plan-based economy even the KGB had a "plan" and had to arrest so many people each month; naturally it was easier to grab some poor guy on a trumped-up charge than uncover real conspiracies - if there even were any. For another, as these were labor camps, it seems that pretty soon the government started to include the forced labor into the general planning, so they couldn't really afford to cut down on the number of prisoners. And so it went, with each change of top brass in KGB half the old staff were sent the same way and the "plans" were increased...

As for the weather, I was perhaps impressed a little less than many of you. The greater part of Russia (in terms of actual area, at least) has a continental climate with pretty nearly 9-month winter, and people do live and work there; I've read plenty of books about geologists looking for mineral deposits, etc., who were pretty well paid but had to endure quite a bit of hardship for it. Even found it romantic, but of course they weren't forced and hadn't to contend with malice on all sides.


Nente | 780 comments The one thing I got from Shalamov (I'm talking about Kolyma Tales) and didn't find so much of here was the general maliciousness and unwholesomeness of the camp life. Solzhenitsyn paints it as if people do find some valuable lessons, learn to value life more, or what have you - Shalamov says repeatedly that no one, no one who came into contact with the rotten system on any side, emerged whole and untarnished. I believe the latter.


Michele | 1012 comments Nente wrote: "Solzhenitsyn paints it as if people do find some valuable lessons, learn to value life more, or what have you - Shalamov says repeatedly that no one, no one who came into contact with the rotten system on any side, emerged whole and untarnished. I believe the latter. "

Both of those things could be true. It's possibly to be severely damaged, and yet come out of the experience with a life lesson that one turns to good purpose.

Or maybe "unchanged" is a better term than "untarnished." One can be badly hurt and changed by a terrible experience, but it doesn't necessarily follow that one is inevitably tarnished by it.


Nente | 780 comments The point, for me, was that the labor camps were not just any terrible experience. That life there taught people to constantly distrust others and use any opportunity of swindling, stealing, or otherwise doing them down.
For example, in this one when Shukhov hides his preferred tool for the duration of the break, he thinks at once that his mate could steal it - despite their mutual respect it seems natural and to be expected.


Marilyn | 803 comments Nente wrote: "Read this just now, and while I still find Shalamov much superior from the literary and emotional viewpoints, I think this is a valuable book.

Marylin & Melanti - as far as I understand, the "syst..."


Thanks for the insight. Kolyma Tales has been languishing on my bookshelf.


Marilyn | 803 comments Nente wrote: "The point, for me, was that the labor camps were not just any terrible experience. That life there taught people to constantly distrust others and use any opportunity of swindling, stealing, or oth..."

Was the distrust only in the camps or was it endemic throughout Soviet society?


Nente | 780 comments Well, you understand, I was born at the very end of the Soviet times, and it isn't exactly the kind of thing you can reliably get from the history lessons. Or even from relatives, who may be reasonably reluctant to recall the whole thing.
I'd say not distrust but a kind of hypocrisy became widespread - no one believed in official stuff retailed on television, but equally no one criticized, and whenever an opinion was requested in any non-intimate circle, people just rehashed the same stuff, not necessarily even in their own words.


Melanti | 2383 comments Nente wrote: " for one thing, in a plan-based economy even the KGB had a "plan" and had to arrest so many people each month;..."

Wow. You're right, that is worse, in a way. Not just that they were arresting people for stupid reasons, but that they were arresting people because they had to arrest someone and why not them.

Nente wrote: "The one thing I got from Shalamov (I'm talking about Kolyma Tales) and didn't find so much of here was the general maliciousness and unwholesomeness of the camp life. Solzhenitsyn pai..."

My interpretation of that is that Solzhenitsyn didn't get into it because his point was to show the best day possible, and let the dismal parts of that speak to how bad the average day must have been.


Thank you for chiming in, Nente! I was hoping you would.


siriusedward (elenaraphael) | 2058 comments Nente wrote: "The one thing I got from Shalamov (I'm talking about Kolyma Tales) and didn't find so much of here was the general maliciousness and unwholesomeness of the camp life. Solzhenitsyn pai..."


I too think both versions maybe true.
To some degrees.Everyone won't be malicious nor will everything be so good.

But, Melanti maybe right that , it was the best day and the best day after his arrest was still very terrible.
He did say thise about snitches and those snitches being killed. .and the worst thing is all the injustices and the terrible things were written as if it was normal...thè tone suggests a sort of acceptance of the whole system(which ,again is natural- a new normal)..that is the saddest thing for me.

Its just... people maybe the worst enemy of people but at least some can be the best of us.If not we would be in even a qorse place than we are.I think.


Nente | 780 comments Oh sure, some people stayed nice, didn't want to let go of the good principles, humanity, etc. The sad thing is that it's precisely those people who died off first.
And there was a shocking death rate, believe you me.


Nente | 780 comments Melanti wrote: "Solzhenitsyn didn't get into it because his point was to show the best day possible, and let the dismal parts of that speak to how bad the average day must have been."

Agree with that, yes. And thanks for the kind word =)


BAM the enigma Fred wrote: "Might be only me but here's the thing...

Historical importance aside, my problem with this book was the writing (or maybe the translation). It felt like reading a lifeless article without any flui..."


I appreciated the simple writing style. It made it easier for me to empathize with the situation. No fancy feelings or frills. It was stark and dark, and I could put myself in that situation and feel freezing, hungry, exhausted, yet hopeful for one better day.


Marina (sonnenbarke) I finished reading a couple of days ago. I liked it, would have given it 3.5 stars if that was possible on GR, but ended up rounding up to 4 even though I was a bit unsure. The historical importance of this book as a sort of document is what convinced me to round up.

It's true that it has similarities with Night, but while I loved that book, I didn't love this one. I can't put my finger on exactly what it is that didn't make me like it more.

It is certainly an important book. We should all read it. But I can't help but think that there must be better testimonies (whether fact of fiction) of the gulag in literature. I haven't read much about the subject, so I can't really say. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize after all. Perhaps I might like The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 better.

I recently read a memoir by Sandra Kalniete, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows. She was born in Siberia, where her family had been sent for vague reasons - but they didn't live or better survive in a gulag, they were "free" in a Siberian village. They did have to do hard labor, though, and survive terrible hardships such as hunger and extreme cold, as well as the illnesses this all brought about. It was very interesting, if different from Solzhenitsyn's book.

Sorry, I don't think I have very organized thoughts on this short novel as yet.


Gem  | 20 comments I read this book in high school and recall being fascinated by it. I don't remember exactly what I found so fascinating especially since when I read it again (about two years ago) if found the human misery and suffering so overwhelming. I didn't enjoy the writing itself and would like to read something else by Solzhenitsyn.


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Kathleen | 4200 comments Fred wrote: "Might be only me but here's the thing...

Historical importance aside, my problem with this book was the writing (or maybe the translation). It felt like reading a lifeless article without any flui..."


I'm having lots of trouble getting into this one. I've only read about 50 pages, and came here for a little encouragement, but find I agree with Fred that the writing feels very lifeless. I think translation might be everything with this one.

Not sure if I'll continue, but Nente, I really appreciate the insight you've shared.


Rosemarie | 1580 comments There is a film version of the book starring Tom Courtney, who also played Antipov in Doctor Zhivago. I saw it when it was first released in the 70s and got a real idea of the hardships they suffered.


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Sara (phantomswife) | 6113 comments Mod
I just finished reading the book and all your comments. I agree that perhaps the saddest thing is that they become used to this life and come to value the small bits of joy they can squeeze from a crust of bread. And yet, that is what speaks to the spark of humanity that even these kinds of conditions cannot stifle...where there is hope there is life, without it how could any of them endure even a "good" day.


Thorkell Ottarsson First regarding the cold. I'm from Iceland and I live in Norway so I have experienced my share of cold. Yes -18°C or -41°C is cold but maybe not as cold as you might think. Once it has been freezing for some days the humidity in the air goes away and once that happens you get dry cold which does not feel as cold as when there is humidity in the air. It's the same rule as when it is warm and humid. It becomes much warmer. In short, humidity amplifies cold and hot. The main danger in -41°C is the cold air you breath down into your lungs. It can kill you. Especially if you take deep breaths because of hard labor or if you run. This is why most people don't run in the winter if it is far below 0°C.

Well to the book. I thought this was a brilliant book. Horrifying, heartbreaking and beautifully written. I especially loved the part when the packages arrive and our protagonist talks about his hope of receiving a package, and disappointment of not getting one even though he has asked his wife not to send any. Somehow I felt this captured the essence of the whole book. Logic and hope constantly crashing against each other.

The Russians really know how to write about physical and psychological pain! :)


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Sara (phantomswife) | 6113 comments Mod
Thorkell wrote: "First regarding the cold. I'm from Iceland and I live in Norway so I have experienced my share of cold. Yes -18°C or -41°C is cold but maybe not as cold as you might think. Once it has been freezin..."

Thank you so much for that information. I had never thought about the humidity situation, but being from the Southern US I could completely relate to the comparison you made.

And, "logic and hope constantly crashing against each other" is a perfect description of this book.


Marina (sonnenbarke) Thorkell wrote: "I especially loved the part when the packages arrive and our protagonist talks about his hope of receiving a package, and disappointment of not getting one even though he has asked his wife not to send any."

Yes, I liked that part, too. I agree with what you say.

Regarding the cold, I remember once meeting a girl from Siberia (can't remember the exact location), who said winter temperatures over there were much easier to bear than comparatively warmer winter temperatures in Central Europe. We were both living in Luxembourg at the time and we had an average of -15°C for three months, while she was talking of temperatures on the -40's.


Rosemarie | 1580 comments I lived for two years in Regina, Saskatchewan, and -25celsius was considered a nice day in winter, if there wasn't any wind.
The prisoners who worked out in the cold day, without any source of heat, must have really suffered, and I am sure many died.
Ivan was always worried that he would get that work duty and was grateful for the comparatively warmer work.


Jerome (tnjed01) | 55 comments I am halfway through and I admire the description of the stamina of existence in spite of the harsh conditions. The argument over Russian literature is a perfect example. Does anyone know the context or background of the debate on Eisenstein?


Nente | 780 comments They're talking mostly about Battleship Potemkin, one of the best-known films by Eisenstein, which does indeed feature many unforgettable scenes such as the tragedy on the Odessa stairs. I remember, when I saw this film for the first time, in several dramatic scenes I was completely certain I'm hearing what the characters say or shout - though it's a silent film and I've never been able to lip-read.

In this book, one of the characters discussing the film is a former Navy captain, and he finds something technical to quibble at as far as I remember.


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Sara (phantomswife) | 6113 comments Mod
Thank you, Nente, for this information. It certainly adds to my understanding of that scene in the book.


Lotte | 196 comments Rosemarie wrote: "I read the author's Gulag Archipelago a couple of years ago. I remember reading that the date of release kept getting changed, so a person with a ten year sentence might be there much longer, but t..."

How was The Gulag Archipelago? i've been very interested in reading that book, and still am. I think One Day gives you an impression about the experience, but I'd like to know more about the system.

Nente wrote: "The one thing I got from Shalamov (I'm talking about Kolyma Tales) and didn't find so much of here was the general maliciousness and unwholesomeness of the camp life. Solzhenitsyn pai..."

I hadn't heard about Kolyma Tales, thank you for mentioning it! I was also surprised by the "solidarity" (even if minimal) between prisoners. Would there have been any particular reason for Solzhenitsyn to be so optimistic about this aspect?


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