Sparked by Words

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was first published in Russian in 1962, in English in 1963. I originally had another book in mind for O, (On the Road) but given the current political situation, I feel this is a book to remind us of the dangers of a totalitarian government. It’s as hard a book to read as any, not for its length (it’s little more than a novella at 150 pages) but for the presentation of the brutality of life in the Soviet prison system. It portrays a government that represses people not for crimes they’ve committed but for political advantage and retribution, raising a virtual cudgel over a populace with little recourse for defense, terrifying people who understand that the next person accused might be them.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner, a man falsely convicted of spying at the end of World War II. This one day in his life is a day like every other, a day closer to his freedom if he can survive the quixotic events that threaten his safety at every moment. He’s woken up ill, one more misery to add to his usual bleak condition. Too late for a place at the infirmary, he trudges with the rest of his unit out of the camp to a construction site. There he engages in the mindless work of building a brick wall. In the Soviet gulag, building a wall in such freezing temperatures is a Sisyphean feat. Nothing works correctly unless the laborers work at a feverish pitch, tasks nearly impossible to achieve because of the primitive quality of their tools and materials.

Shukhov is always hungry, tired, cold, and undernourished. His bed is uncomfortable, his clothing inadequate, his shoes thin, his life monotonous, and he has little to look forward to except surviving this one day. To anticipate anything else is futile; the gulag is not a place for daydreams but for enforced effort. Yet he fosters friendships among other prisoners and guards, trades favors for food, and carefully navigates a complex hierarchy that safeguards him from extra punishment. He manages to augment his small stash of contraband. He engages in conversations about the meaning of life, whether there is a heaven, and how small luxuries comprise happiness in the gulag.

Throughout the day, we see the prisoners reduced to insignificant parts of the system by which they’re incarcerated. Shukhov and the others are treated as though they are disposable, with only superficial concern for their well-being. They awake to a relentless regimen of being identified as a number, getting searched, marching across a frozen landscape, enduring manual labor in subfreezing conditions, and marching back to the dormitories at night. Eating is a crucial part of the day and Shukhov manages a few extra rations, a blissful moment. Lying in his bunk at night, he counts the number of days left to bear before he will be free. It’s been one day, like all the rest, and a day unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in fact a prisoner of the gulag and wrote about it in other books, notably The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book he was able to publish in the Soviet Union. All his other books were published in the West because of the political controversy surrounding his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work, but like fellow Russian, Boris Pasternak, did not accept it for fear of reprisal at home. Though the book appears to be critical of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn’s political position about his country was complicated, a situation I’m not qualified to address.

I remember being so transfixed by this grim, spare account of Soviet incarceration that I sat at a rock concert with my hands around the book, reading. Certainly I was shocked by such hardship imposed on men but also by the callous attitude of a system intent on meting out punishment without or regard for human rights. Every word beat against my heart. To live in a country like the United States where human rights are analogous to our concept of democracy, and compare it to a totalitarian government where people are less important than bricks, horrified me. The book anchored my sense of the inalienable right of justice not only because our Constitution says we are so entitled, but because my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. That our current president abridges such rights without regard for the Constitutional independence of the three branches of government and without consequence makes me fear for our democracy. It all beats against my heart.

I look forward to learning about your favorite O fiction books.


Other books that were serious contenders for O:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson


Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Signet Classic


Comments on: "O is for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (34)

  1. I thought One day in the life was very good too, and I was interested that you were originally going with On the road because I thought that was excellent. Great imagery from Kerouac.

    As ever, I can never think of any other books after you write such an interesting list. Some real classics in this list. I think The Odyssey is the only O book that comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sharon, an excellent all-encompassing post and you describe the book so well, its brutality, dehumanisation of the men but also the glimpse of the slight positive elements in Ivan’s day.

    On top of this, you tie the book brilliantly together with events today, seeing the dangers that face us and the threat of what could be. I believe many see the world as you and agree with your statement that: ‘my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. ‘

    Finally, it was fascinating to learn a bit about Alexander Solzhenitsyn – I knew most of his books were not published there but not that he hadn’t accepted the Noble Prize for Literature.

    I’ve read quite a few on your “O” list, including the one you reviewed here. Going through my recent Kindle list this is one I can highly recommend, I reviewed the Jodi Danyard’s first book in the series on my blog.

    Our Own Country: A Novel (The Midwife Series Book 2)
    by Jodi Daynard.

    ‘In 1770s Boston, a prosperous merchant’s daughter, Eliza Boylston, lives a charmed life—until war breaches the walls of the family estate and forces her to live in a world in which wealth can no longer protect her.

    As the chaos of the Revolutionary War tears her family apart, Eliza finds herself drawn to her uncle’s slave, John Watkins. Their love leads to her exile in Braintree, Massachusetts, home to radicals John and Abigail Adams and Eliza’s midwife sister-in-law, Lizzie Boylston. But even as the uprising takes hold, Eliza can’t help but wonder whether a rebel victory will grant her and John the most basic of American rights.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Annika. The books that stay with me are the ones on this list. Solzhenitsyn is a controversial figure, and had very bold ideas, some of which I disagree with. He was Russian through and through, proud of his heritage but an anti-Stalinist.

      Our Own Country sounds like a book I’d love, making this the third recommendation from you added to my to-read list. Thanks for the description that makes me want to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I thought I better add the blurb to the book as otherwise it’s obscure what the book is about. I’ve just started your recommendation of The Marriage of Opposites. It’s brilliant!! It takes all my effort to sit here blogging and not snuggle up with the book and continue reading.


      • I know how that is, especially with Alice Hoffman’s books. She’s a writer who has maintained her writing strength.

        (OK, Shari, get off the computer, don’t pick up a book to read, you’ve got stuff to take care of. Wait – one more chapter.)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the memory jog. What an amazing collection of O titles. I’ve read the ones by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Dickens and Kesey. Haven’t read this one of Solzhenitsyn’s, but read ‘Gulag Archipelago’ many years ago.


  4. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Ivan Denisovitch. When I got my B.A., my emphasis was Russian history. Ivan and a novella called Sofia Petrovna were my favorite readings. (Sofia Petrovna tells the story of a woman whose son “disappears.”) I also adore Of Mice and Men. Makes me sob every time. Come to think of it, Old Yeller has the same effect! It seems I have a thing for books that make me cry. 🙂

    The only O book I’d add to your list is Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows. It’s actually my favorite of her books.


    • Ilene, I have another friend who majored in Russian history – see Jacqui Murray’s reply to this post.

      Allende is one of my favorite writers though I don’t think I plan to review any of her books in this series. She has a new book just released and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Based on your recommendation, I’m adding Of Love and Shadows to my to-read list. Thanks.


  5. So many of your favorite books contain serious subject matter, which I’m not sure I could read back to back. Do you read any light hearted books, Shari? I’m not sold on what those would be really…and not saying your choices don’t leave you feeling satisfied, but I guess I’m thinking I would have a tough time leaving the subject matter behind once the book ends. I envy your knowledge.
    This time O is easy. Oliver Twist, The Other Boleyn Girl, Of Mice and Men, …Oliver Twist wins in the end.


    • I’m grinning a bit here, Audrey. Yes, I do read lighter books but I have to admit that many of them leave me still hungry – know what I mean? I think my favorite in the lighter category would The Princess Bride by William Goldman, an absolutely brilliant book that had me on the edge of my seat, sometimes gripped with angst, sometimes nearly falling off in tears of laughter. So good I’ve read it three times and that won’t be the last. Tell me what you’ve enjoyed that is lighter.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m currently reading “Nobody’s Cuter Than You”, by Melanie Shankle. A friend gave it to me a day before I left Texas. Definitely a lighterish one. Glad to have caused a smile.


      • Also all the Douglas Adams books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe being his most famous. Laugh out loud material. I wrote about Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for my D book.
        Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll look into Shankle’s book – love the title!

        Liked by 1 person

      • For light reading, Sharon, what do you think of Tom Robins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The themes are not necessarily light, at least not in the sense of being superficial, but the language and style render the book easy to read, and with a light aftertaste. At least that’s my take on it. I’m curious what yours is?


      • I’ve read the first five books that Tom Robbins wrote and loved all of them. Not everything I’ve ever read is on the list at the bottom of each entry in this series, and I’ve read many books I’d consider light but still excellent. The books I’ve been reviewing are those that have had a major impact on me as a writer. Most of them I read more than once. Let me know about other suggestions, Paul – always welcome.


  6. This too is one of my favorite books. As a student of Russian culture, I actually read it in Russian which gave a slightly different flavor to the content. One of his summative lines that has always stayed with me is (rephrased from the Russian) “We are never so free as when we have nothing left to lose”. What a fascinating concept.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jacqui, I’m not surprised that you read it in Russian. Only Russian word I know is “nyet” and not in Cyrillic! I always wonder how close translations are to the originals, for any work. There have to be adjustments, words and phrases that don’t translate directly, cultural ideas rooted in language that are clumsy in translation. I like the quote you chose. Having nothing left to lose doesn’t negate making choices even if it reduces the options. The book is loaded with thoughts about the most basic human aspirations – being warm, being fed, being free, and how life in the gulag refutes all of them. Having read it in the original Russian, would you agree?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I studied in in my Russian culture classes and they didn’t present Denisovitch as a pitiful character. Nor did he feel sorry for himself. It’s where he was, what he had to cope with. Very Russian in that way. Yes, he did struggle with being warm, fed, but on a different level, so do those of us not incarcerated. I found the book insightful, almost self-empowering.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You got so much more out of the book being able to study it – I read it on my own and in English, so I imparted my American values to his predicament. Thanks, Jacqui, for insight I missed. I hope other readers find your comment.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. The Gulag Archipelago was a horrifying read. I still have the occasional nightmare about it. It’s really why I hate thought police. The term political correctness I believe is a soviet one–or from one of the other states that have killed millions and millions.

    There’s one story where I think Stalin comes to a meeting and the people stand to applaud. No one wants to be the first to stop so it goes on for a VERY long time. Finally one person stops. Later he’s executed.

    On The Border With Crook by Captain Bourke. Okay, I’m cheating. It’s nonfiction, but such a great read (and Bourke makes a cameo in my novel so he’s sort of fictional :)). He writes in the charming style of post Civil War officers–they’re memoirs are great! He had a heart for Native Americans and spent a good portion of his life documenting their cultures.


    • As I wrote to LeggyPeggy I couldn’t get through Gulag – too bleak, too dense. Horrifying is a good description. The execution of the person who finally sat – yes, horrifying.

      I’m keeping to my fiction choices for my reviews in this series, but I’m thrilled to learn about everyone’s choices in any category. Interesting to know how Captain Bourke shows up in one of your books – always like to see historical figures make an appearance in fiction. Adrienne, have you posted on your blog other historical figures who also live in your books?


      • Hmm… I’m not sure but I think I should 🙂

        Also love On The Banks of Plum Creek (Little House Series). I have a special place in my heart for Laura Ingalls Wilder because her books made me want to become a writer as a kid.


      • I read a few of Wilder’s books but as an adult because my students were reading her, and I liked to know what interested them. Her stories are lovely and I’m giving a set to my granddaughter soon. She loves to write. Her school “produced a play” based on a story she wrote because she grasped the concept of problem, crises, resolution.

        The book that most influenced me to become a writer was The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I wrote about it in a post called The Yearling as a Young Writer.


      • Can you send me the link? I couldn’t find a search bar on your site (I’m half blind 🙂 ).


      • Adrienne, please try this:
        I know it isn’t the correct way to add a link but I actually don’t know how to do that. If you can’t access the post, let me know and I’ll get someone to help. You may be “blind” but I’m a digital doofus.
        By the way, the search box is right under the WordPress Freshly Pressed award sticker. It is hard to find and it is not obvious – another thing I need to change. Thanks for your patience.


  8. Thanks for the memory jog of a book I read so long ago I don’t even remember reading it. But then again I’ve repressed my entire 10+ years of college. Repression I find is good for my welfare, if not for my brain. (did that sentence need a comma?)

    HOWEVER, what stands out for me in your post are your words: “Every word beat against my heart.” Beautiful.


  9. Olive Kitteridge is one of my favorite novels. Of Mice and Men is a good read.

    I am impressed with the lovers of Russian novels amongst your commenters. I love Anna Karenina by Tolstoy and some of Checkov’s short stories. Every few years I try to get through Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – without success. I do love the movie, however.

    I think I am a lightweight! 😁


    • Kate, you are no lightweight if you got through Anna Karenina. The book is fabulous but I was envious of my friends who read it in college classes. They got so much more out of the story than I did plodding through it on my own. I might also have been a little young as I read it in middle school. I should read it again. On the other hand, I’ve never read War and Peace and I should.


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