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A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
In “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, the author tells the tale of Ivan Denisovich Shukov, a prisoner in a Russian work camp during the reign of Stalin who had been arrested for high treason. Solzhenitsyn introduces the reader to the schedule that Shukov lived out on a specific day during his sentence at the work camp.
The beginning of the book depicts reveille at the work camp. As soon as the rail was struck by the campguard, which was like the bugle to soldiers, that indicated the start of a new day in the camp: a day of back- breaking work for the prisoners in the blistering cold. On this particular day, the author describes the windows being covered in frost “two fingers thick”. I would expect this to be a normal occurrence considering the descriptions of the normal temperatures during the winter season at the camp. For example the only time the prisoners got of work was when the temperature reached below -41 degrees (Fahrenheit, I would assume). Shukov was most appreciative of the ninety minutes before all the prisoners assembled for work. This was his time; it belonged to him and to him only. And it belonged to every man. It was one of the, if not the only time of the day you had to yourself.
Shukov had before always risen at reveille, but on this particular day, he didn’t. He was feeling ill. Around him he listened to the sounds of the morning: men dragging barrels of human waste out of the door, a fellow prisoner named Alyosha reciting his prayers, a squad leader complaining about how the camp has been delivered a smaller-than-usual supply of bread loaves.
In the mess hall, it was a constant battle. Shukov had many things to worry about, like whether the cook would serve you off the top of the stew pot receiving only broth or whether the other prisoners (”vultures” as the author puts it) would try and steal your helping. If they would not steal it, they would wait until you left and scrape what they could out of your bowl. Such is life around the mess hall. But Shukov had more dignity than that. He always remembered the words of a prisoner named Kuziomin whom he met when he first came into the camp. He said, “The ones who don’t make it through are the ones who other men’s leftovers, those who count on the doctors to get them through, and those who squeal on their buddies”. After trying to get out of work with doctor’s order because of his ill state, which did not work, and a short stop back at the barracks to receive a small portion of bread, he and the rest of the men in the barrack reported to the parade ground. There at the grounds they formed rows and were counted. Afterwards, Shukov’s group, the 104th, reported to a repair shop where they were given instructions on what to do that day. Shukov was given instructions to board up the windows of the repair shop to keep it warm.
The day progressed quickly, much to the surprise of Shukov. It had approached midday and soon the dinner break came. After he ate his serving of “kasha” (oatmeal), and delivered a serving to the Tsezar, he returned to the shop to continue his work assignment. He spent the rest of his working day laying bricks. Even though the work was physically taxing, the task went quickly and efficiently, considering everyone was on top of their own role in their brick-laying process. The only drawback was when a new
load of mortar had been mixed, the dinner signal (clanging of the rail) had been signaled for dinner. Even when they saw that the count before dinner had started and most of the bricklaying crew had run to the crowd of prisoners, Shukov himself stayed to finish the job. That’s the kind of person he was: always making use of himself in terms of any kind of work that could be done. He finished his job, and ran to the crowd, pelted by taunts and boos from the other prisoners already gathered for the count. After Shukov went through his routine search, hoping that the guard would not find the bit of hacksaw he found and kept for repairing his shoes that he had kept in his mitten, he went to the mess hall, even though he knew he might have a parcel waiting for him. All he cared about was getting to the mess hall in time to get hot food. When he got there, a fight ensued between pushy prisoners and the mess hall cook. After the melee broke apart, they got their food and ate. Shukov made sure which bowls were the most substantial, and got bowls for all the members of the 104th.
As dinnertime closed, the prisoners returned to their barracks. Shukov managed to get a cigarette off of another prisoner. Tsezar shared his parcel of meat and other goods with Shukov. But before the night came to a close, Shukov had a discussion on religion with Alyosha. Alyosha states that he was put here in a sense to die for the name of Jesus Christ. But, in contrast, since Shukov never discusses religion, therefore probably doesn’t practice it, either, he asks Alyosha who he was sent here to die for. And with that, he gulps down a bit of sausage given to him by Tsezar, and lays down to sleep, feeling content with his quality of work, his avoidance of sickness, his bit of hacksaw he
snagged and smuggled by the guards, and the fact that he was one day closer to getting out.
I think that Solzhenitzyn achieved what he meant to in this book. He wanted his readers to see what actually went on in a Russian work camp during Stalin’s reign. He depicted each important character in their own separate entity, describing each of them in as much detail as needed. I also saw in my mind a picture of how this camp might look: a barren, desolate, freezing-cold, hellish place. A place that no man should be sent. And the way the author described the camp made it very easy to visualize it. He also depicted the guards and authority figures mostly as cold-hearted and ruthless with no respect for the prisoners’ human rights. Although, he did describe some as being a little more conscious of what the prisoners themselves were going through. Even though I thought that Solzhenitzyn jumped around a bit in the story line, I thought it was a very well organized and well-written story. I couldn’t put it down once I started. Again, the imagery was too strong for me to stop reading. I had such a concentration in the book. I just wish I was allowed to write more than just four pages (I could go on for ten more, probably).
In conclusion, I believe that in addition to Dr. Pantsov’s lessons on the history of the Stalinist years in Russia, this book had given me the opportunity to see a side of history I have never known. Even if I only had a few months to read the book and to participate in the class, I feel as if I will walk away from Dr. Pantsov’s class feeling like I’ve really learned something. And this book has aided in the process. In terms of recommendation, I can say nothing but good things about “A Day in the Life on Ivan Denisovich”.
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