This is my first venture into Russian literature. Well, sort of. I started Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy a few weeks ago, but it really was not sucking me in at all and I ended up putting it down. There were a couple of interesting passages, but mostly I found it to be little more than aristocrats talking to other aristocrats about being aristocrats, which wasn’t of much interest to me. I know that Tolstoy is regarded as one of the great writers of all time, and I’m certain Anna Karenina is an accurate and important portrayal of the culture, I simply felt like I was watching a movie I wasn’t interested in, and a long one at that. Nothing was being retained and I was just going through the motions. There’s no sense forcing something with little promise of a return.
But, I still wanted to get into the Russian works, so I pivoted in lieu of retreating and picked up One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This book was about as far in the other direction as I would think one could get from the drama of the Russian Aristocracy in the 19th century.
Set in the Soviet Gulag prison labor system following World War II, the relatively short (approx 150 page) novel follows one day in the life of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Shukhov is currently serving a ten-year sentence to hard labor, officially for the crime of being a spy for the Nazis in WWII, but in reality he was a prisoner of war who escaped and found his way back to the Russian front lines. His true crime seems to have been admitting to the truth and telling his superiors that he was, in fact, in the hands of the Germans for a period of time which was more than enough to spark espionage paranoia and convict him of treason. The tragic irony being that if he’d of had the foresight to create a lie and state that he simply got lost from his unit and wandered the forest until he found his way back, he might have been spared the accusation of being a soldier tainted by the culture of the enemy and allowed to rejoin the ranks. Such was not Shukhov’s fate.
Despite this injustice, Shukhov does not seem bitter about his predicament. Perhaps he was to some degree in the beginning of it all, but certainly if he had displayed much bitterness or tried to fight what was happening to him he would have simply been executed. For whatever reason, by the time we catch up to Shukhov he seems rather resigned to the life thrust upon him. Better to live in hell on earth than be sent to the one below, I suppose. Regardless, this isn’t a book about the ways things should have been, it’s a book about the way things were.
At least Shukhov was only given a ten year sentence, a hard thing to survive for certain, and there was no chance of him ever being the same even if he did survive it. The true tragedy, in his mind, was all the poor souls who started coming into the camps in recent years. At some point, the sentencing practices of the judicial system had changed and now it seemed that everyone was coming in with twenty-five year sentences no matter how benign their crimes were. Shukhov had never seen or heard of someone surviving twenty five years in the Gulag, and didn’t ever expect to. Solzhenitsyn himself served eight years for writing critical remarks against Stalin in letters to his friends, which I am certain served as ample research for this novel.
The description of this one day in the life struck me as a combination of prison (which I’ve never been to) and Army Basic Training (which I have). Being a labor camp, the day is described as something very different than what we are used to seeing on TV about the modern American prison system. Rather than simply a large concrete fortress used to house thousands of inmates who have nothing really better to do with their time other than lift weights, press license plates and run internal crime syndicates in concert with corrupt prison guards, life in the Gulag contained a rank and file system, official prisoner leadership structures and work projects that more explicitly served the needs of the Soviet Union (without having to hide behind pesky bureaucracies to profit from prison labor the way we do in the US).
The prisoners were divided into platoon-sized elements with their own prisoner leadership and numerical designations. Shukhov belonged to the 104th labor team headed by a prisoner/squad leader named Andrey Prokefyevich Tyurin. Tyurin was on his nineteenth year of imprisonment as of that day. The role of the squad leader was to act as liaison between the rank and file campers and the guards, who themselves seemed to only be in a slightly better position than the prisoners. The guards had more power, more access to warmth, better clothes and better food, but they were still stuck in the camp regardless.
Survival in the Gulag was not at all assured or much tended to by the guards. It took a savvy squad leader, who himself was in competition with the other squad leaders, to do what he could to shelter his squad from the bad labor details, to jockey for position in the food lines and to run an economy of trades and favors that both came to him from below and went up from him to the authorities to ensure that his team had the best conditions they could, tacitly at the expense of the team whose misfortune found them lead by a less effective leader. Perhaps this is something like the criminal groups that exist in the modern American prison system, but in the Gulag this seemed to be more of a fight for survival than what occurs here and now. No one starves to death in American prisons because their cell block leader can’t cultivate enough favors to obtain enough extra bread to meet the basic caloric needs of the cell block.
The intricacies of the subculture of Gulag prison life are explained in great detail, how to hide good tools from guards so that your work was a little bit easier, the dangers of being caught with an extra layer of warm clothing underneath your standard dress, the no guarantees that the extra firewood that everyone smuggles every day in the form of broken sticks would ever make it back to the barracks, the fight for food that leaves everyone licking their bowls clean even on the good days, the barter and trade of tobacco and bread to ensure that you and your allies got what they needed that day, and implicitly had it to do all over again the next with a different but also constant set of changing variables and obstacles to overcome. Some days were going to be better than others, and all anyone can ever do is the best they can.
The system was rough and easy to find oneself on the outside of, if one was not careful. Find yourself out of line, and your punishment got worse. Solitary confinement for any more than ten days would probably mean death. If not death, you’d never be healthy again, making it that much harder to return back to the system of struggle and survival without finding yourself again on the outside of it.
The implication with the stern sentencing and mostly construction tailored labor details is that the system of crime and punishment in this era was less about crime or punishment and more about creating a cheap labor force to rebuild Russia following the war and to prop up the Soviet Union. I am certain there is some truth in that. What I think the main take away from this novel is that 150 pages could be filled with one day in the life of this one Gulag labor camp prisoner and, as the novel states at the end, this was only one day in the 3,653 days of Shukhov’s sentence. The three extra days for the three leap years he would experience in his ten years. While many of us simply go through the motions of our day to day lives, sometimes struggling to remember what happened a week or even a couple days ago, and while each day in Shukhov’s 3,653 days could probably fill nearly identical 150 page novels, I am certain he, and Solzhenitsyn actively felt every single day in a way that I hope to never know.