50bookchallenge #34/50: One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, A. Solzhenitsyn

This is a reread. It was the first of Solzhen­it­syn’s work I ever read and it start­ed me on a life­long fan­hood. I don’t know why I get so much out of read­ing about Sovi­et labor camps, but I do seem to have an obses­sion with oppres­sive regimes. Stal­in­ist Rus­sia is par­tic­u­lar­ly heart­break­ing to me for a num­ber of rea­sons, not least of which that Stal­in’s purges seem to have gone unno­ticed by his­to­ry. Per­haps because there was no “hot” war fought to defeat Rus­sia, but Hitler and the Holo­caust far eclipses Stal­in’s mass mur­der despite the greater num­bers that Stal­in got away with killing. Per­haps we don’t remem­ber Stal­in’s vic­tims because no one fought a war to save them. Stal­in was defeat­ed only by old age; his poli­cies defeat­ed by a grad­ual evo­lu­tion that should be cred­it­ed as much to his suc­ces­sors as to his ene­mies. Per­haps when the world looks to Stal­in’s crimes, we look away in shame because human­i­ty turned a blind eye.

In any case, read­ing about the bit­ter hard­ships of oth­ers gives me some pride in the resilien­cy of the human spir­it. Yes, we’re capa­ble of the atroc­i­ties, but also we’re capa­ble of endur­ing the atrocities.

One par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant pas­sage was the descrip­tion of the pro­tag­o­nist con­struct­ing a wall in sub-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures. Despite not being able to prof­it from his work, Shukhov (Ivan Deniso­vich’s sur­name) was inven­tive, resource­ful, cre­ative and enter­pris­ing. He took pride in his assigned task and put in extra effort to make cer­tain the job was done right. Why would a pris­on­er care that the job was done right? It seemed that the one thing that he was allowed to hang on to in his life was his work; that despite all hard­ship, all the neglect, abuse and indig­ni­ty, he held on to the one thing that the guards did­n’t want to take away, his con­sci­en­tious atten­tion. Solzhen­it­syn’s not one to club us over the head with themes, though. He just tells a sto­ry and lets us draw our own con­clu­sions. So my guess about the wall-build­ing pas­sage is just that: my own speculation.

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