The true story of a dutiful Russian soldier wrongly accused of treason and sentenced to ten years in a Siberian labor camp –the gulag –where there is no escape but death out in the cold, dark and bare tundras. The very existence of the gulag system was enough to keep the average person fearful and silent in Stalin’s Russia. The dictator’s spies were everywhere. He murdered dozens of his top military commanders fearful that they might turn against him. He, later eliminated many members of his party as well as most of his inner circle assistants and friends. Millions of people were arrested and sent to Siberia to work as slaves to extract diamonds, gold and oil to contribute to the riches of Stalin’s reign.
“The knock on the door could come at any time. The best insurance was to keep your mouth shut.”
In the heartfelt story of Sukhov who once was a conscientous soldier with a home and a family, is now a laborer at the camp where the cold hunger and pain rules, where even thoughts are not free. Yet how can it be possible for a human being to keep his dignity, courage and inner strength against all tyranny and dehumanization?
The morning came as usual. The windows iced over and the white cobwebs of frost all along the huge barracks where the walls joined the ceiling! There would not be a warm corner for a whole month. And fires were of out question. There was nothing to build a fire with. Let your work warm you up, that was your only salvation.
He did not get up. He lay there on his bunk on the top tier, his head buried in a blanket and a coat, both feet stuck in the felt sleeve of his jacket. Apart from sleep, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes during breakfast and five minutes over dinner.
Sukhov ate his bread down to his very fingers, keeping only a little bit of crust. He wrapped the crust in his cloth again and slipped it inside his pocket for dinner, buttoned himself up against the cold and prepared for work.
He cared for his work, he even took pride in the way he trowled cement and laid the block wall with care and patience. In that way he could remain human. In the frozen cold when he could not even feel his feet nor the fingertips, he thought he survived through one more day at the camp.
The question written in the afterword of the book : “What would I do if I were in his shoes?” is an essentially humane one. It is grounded in empathy. We either see ourselves as distinct individuals without much to do with one another or we see ourselves as essentially similar people who just happen to have landed in different sets of circumstances in our respective lives.”
What makes us human then in all circumstances?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich. 50th Anniversary edition. 1st ed 1963. New York: Penguin Group. Original published in Russian in 1962.