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.