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International Socialist Review, Winter 1963


Ellen Grey

Life in Stalin’s Prison Camps


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.2, Spring 1963, p.63.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
160 pp., $3.95. Published by E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1963.

This novel is the most recent literary and political sensation in Soviet literature. Completed almost two years ago, the manuscript was first rejected by several Soviet editors before the liberal wing of the Soviet writers took it up. They managed to get the Central Committee to review the question of its publication and finally Premier Khrushchev personally authorized it to be published without changes. The official favor is reflected by the government publicity campaign. Moscow News printed it in weekly installments and Soviet Literature for February 1963 has also published it.

Solzhenitsyn himself spent the years 1945-1953 in a Stalinist concentration camp and although the book is in no sense a diary, it is obviously based on personal experience. In spite of the fact that it describes only one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of Ivan Denisovich’s prison term, it is an artistic, compressed, analytic commentary on Soviet life generally during Stalin’s reign. In keeping with its subject matter it is terse and to the point.

Ivan Denisovich Stukhov is an ordinary Russian soldier who served in the Red Army, was captured by Germans, later escaped and made his way back to his own lines. Instead of being welcomed as a hero, Ivan is regarded with suspicion as a German agent and arrested for treason. Afraid of being shot if he protests his innocence, Ivan “confesses” to the charge and is sentenced to ten years in a political prison in the frozen wasteland of Siberia.

Since this is a camp for political prisoners (z.e.k.’s) here at least one can talk against the regime. However this is small recompense for the incredibly hard life the prisoners are forced to bear. You either dedicate yourself to survival or you perish. Make every mouthful of bread count, hoard your energy against the −20° cold, and work in order to live. Here death is close. A trip to the cells (perhaps for the failure to doff your cap to a passing guard) is usually the end. And here the administrative set-up is corrupt and heavy-handed, just as the Stalinist bureaucracy is everywhere. These camps carried to an extreme the generally unbearable rules and dictates of the Stalin era. But the emphasis is not on the “cult of personality.” “Old Whiskers” is only mentioned once. The novel simply describes the structure of deprivation and privilege which were the social forces behind Stalinism.

There is a feeling of group consciousness among the prisoners. There is a defferentiation between those who do forced labor and those who get soft jobs or act as informers. There is also a certain feeling of resistance; informers are murdered in their bunks. (This is in 1951; by 1953 prison riots broke out at the Vorkuta camp.) Shukhov says to himself: “Who’s the zek’s main enemy? Another zek. If only they weren’t at odds with one another – ah, what a difference that’d make.” Despite the deprivation, humiliation and hardships suffered by the prisoners on the work sites they grow hardened and tough. “For a trusty with a soft job at staff quarters, those prisoners on the march must have been something to think about.”

Life outside the camps wasn’t much better in those days. Shukhov forbids his wife to send him any parcels in prison. He says, “Don’t take the food out of the kids’ mouths.” A letter from his wife mentions that all the men who survived the war had given up working on the kolkhoz. They had a new trade – carpet painting. A stencil, some paint and an old piece of sheeting made a carpet for which you could get 50 rubles.

People would buy these so-called carpets because real ones in state stores sold for thousands.

Inside the camp too there was a terrible shortage of tools and equipment at the construction site. A careful count was kept of every item. And more often than not the prisoners were forced to scrounge the materials they needed for their jobs.

Anyone interested in the complex and contradictory nature of the Soviet Union should read this novel. It is the perfect antidote to the Orwellian disease of Stalinophobia. This is not a “1984” horror tale but reality. And while the reality was hard and unpleasant, there was still a power and tenacity in the workers that the oppression could not crush.

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