's rise to fame began with this slim book, a novella
really, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich
. It was published in 1962 in the Russian magazine Novy Mir
, during the brief period under Nikita Khrushchev
when the cult of the individual
- namely Stalin
- was under attack.
The book details one day in the life of the average prisoner in a Soviet forced-labor camp. The notorious Siberian gulags are portrayed not as dramatic scenes of torture, a la the Spanish Inquisition, but as numbing, Kafkaesque pits of squalor, where thoughts revolve simply around the next obstacle to survival.
Solzhenitsyn spent 5 years in such a camp. He draws his main character not as a hero, or even anti-hero, just one man trying to survive each day - and each day a repetition of the day before and the day to follow. There are no evil villains, just the petty assholes and jerks we'd recognize from any large enough group of individuals. The true villain is the very system that allows and fills such camps. But this is a statement and observation for the reader to intuit - for there is no polemic here.
As such, the story is a somber monologue, a vignette. There is little action and no catharsis or dramatic ending. Instead, we watch as Ivan Denisovich -- or Shukov as he is usually referred to -- rises from bed to face the twenty-below cold, and a workday outside dressed in rags and ill-fed, until he finishes his meager dinner and returns to bed to sleep and ponder tomorrow.
The Russian people immediately recognized this story. It is their story. Each knew someone -- a family member, a loved one, a friend -- enduring the same hardships. Solzhenitsyn, with his sharp eye for detail, wrote what they already knew was true. The prisoners were only allowed to write two letters per year, many would go decades without seeing their families. Solzhenitsyn wrote the long letter home that most could not or would not write themselves, so that everybody would know what it really was like. A brilliant and sobering work.