Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the eponymous protagonist of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is a poor man, an uneducated man, possibly even illiterate. An unsensitive man, neither passionate nor perceptive; not a poet, or an artist, or even a craftsman. Arguably he is stunted, both emotionally and intellectually, possessed of few dreams and almost no ambition. He is almost entirely undistinguished. A peasant too, he is the kind of man who traditionally has no place in the fiction of the Russian greats - a common 'Ivan' (the name is synonymous with 'John' in English) with little in the way of dramatic charisma to tempt Tolstoy or Dosteyevsky or Gogol or even Bulgakov. But he is a protagonist nevertheless and a hero of sorts in Solzenitsyn's answer to Mrs. Dalloway: one day in a man's life and, in that day, his whole life.
It is Russia, 1951 and Shukhov is entering the ninth winter of a ten year sentence in a Stalinist prison camp for 'special' (read: political) prisoners. His days begin with the sound of 'reveille' and the nagging cold:
'As usual, at five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarter. The intermittent sound barely penetrated the window-panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick... It was cold outside...'
He almost never oversleeps but gets up at once, eager for the ninety minutes of free time before prisoners have to assemble for work; he dresses himself in his thin clothing, each item clearly marked with his number and pulls on his 'valenki', the fur-lined boots that keep his feet from turning numb and white. He trudges with his conrades to the mess and crams in to secure his share:
'They sat in the cold mess-hall, most of them eating with their hats on, eating slowly, picking out putrid little fish from under the leaves of boiled cabbage and spitting the bones out on the table... The skilly was the same everyday. Its composition depended on the kind of vegetable provided that winter. Nothing but salted carrots last year... This year it was black cabbage.'
Afterwards he assembles with the rest for the trudge to work, tieing rags around his face to protect it a little from the searing cold and hoping that his 'team' of bunkmates, number 104, are given a gentle duty. As it is, on this day, they're sent to lay concrete blocks in what seems an entirely futile attempt to build a power station - like much of the prisoner's work it is never adequately explained or justified. They're constructing a 'compound', complete with workshops, houses and a power station, but for what, in the middle of nowhere, on barren ground? Nevertheless, and despite the cold, the men and Shukhov especially throw themselves into the task, setting up an efficient production line and working to a gruelling rhythm. At day's end they trudge back to camp, eat more skilly and some bread, and retire finally to bed, where Shukhov wraps up his feet in clothes and his jacket in an attempt to keep them warm during the night. There the novel ends but, we imagine, Shukhov goes on forever: rising with reveille, freezing and sweating at his work, trudging home; rising, freezing, trudging; and on and on.
It makes me cold just thinking about it: -30 degrees, with the wind biting through all your defenses and no respite, nothing to break up your arduous routine or spice up the poor food. Little in the way of diversion, with no expectation of seeing loved ones or even hearing from them more than once or twice a year. Your sentence stretching out in front of you, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 years, with extra added on, perhaps, because of a minor infraction or because of some administrative muddle. The camp becoming your way of life because you have no choice; hope ebbing away.
But really Solzhenitsyn's novel is not about hope; nor is it about despair or the antithesis of hope. On the contrary, it is about contentment. Obviously not the warm fluffiness that immediately springs to mind, but the kind of contentment that comes from a complete acceptance of the limitations of life, without yearning or desiring, and a determination to live as close up to those limits as possible. In some ways it is even about happiness.
As I said in the beginning: Shukhov is an unambitious man and in the world of a Stalinist gulag this is an extroadinary trait. He doesn't want to escape and he doesn't allow himself to properly contemplate a future of freedom. Around mid-morning on the day we spend with him he muses over what he will do when he is finally released; his wife has written to him about the huge sums of money to be made from carpet-painting, a skill newly practised in their village, but he thinks little of this idea:
'There was was easy money to be made, you see, and made fast... But, candidly, he didn't want to turn carpet-painter... He still had a good pair of hands, capable hands. Surely, when he was out, he'd find work as a stove-setting, a carpenter or a tinker? Only if they deprived him of his civil rights and he couldn't be taken on anywhere, or if they wouldn't let him go home, would he turn to those carpets for a spell.'
Because Shukhov wants little, he accepts little and finds it acceptable. During eight years of imprisonment he has seen any number of changes made: he has known winters without boots or bread, and so on the day we meet him he is thoroughly pleased with his furry 'valenki' and thrilled at the turn of events that leaves him with two portions of bread instead of one. Little boons, like the potato in his evening skilly, are a true pleasure. Nor does he resent the work he is conscripted to do on an almost daily basis. Although the work is hard and back-breaking, he gives himself up to it and revels in what he can achieve - during our observation he becomes so invested in building the walls of the power station that he works into his lunch break and after the bell for the end of the work day. He is surging after something, a sense of fulfillment. It is not joy, but is fierce like joy: it is taking the full extent of his life in his hands, even if that comes to very little.
Shukhov is not the novel's only survivor either, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is populated by individuals who have coping mechanisms. There is Tyurin, Shukhov's foreman, a man who doesn't even squint as the Siberian wind blows into his eyes and a prisoner simply by virtue of his 'kulak' heritage - his father was a rich peasant with ideas in compatible with the communist regime. His rigidity, and his manipulation of the camp's power structures, mean that he can maintain a form of meaningful life. At the other end of the social spectrum is Tsezar, a middle class prisoner who receives regular food parcels and has wheedled privileges, like his fur-lined coat, from the camp guards but who is, nevertheless, willing to work hard. And Shukhov's opposite is Fetyukov, a weak sniveller who only appears in the narrative to beg, borrow or slink off with other mens' shares. Finally, there is Alyoshka, an angelically gentle Ukranian Christian whose faith generates kindness and resiliency in equal measure. What all of these men share is their ability to operate within constraint and under circumstances of extreme repression - they're like weeds growing out of deep snow.
Solzhenitsyn's form effectively mirrors his characters' circumscription. Focusing not on plot but on circumstance and minutiae, and restricting himself to a defined period and a documentary style (even going so far as to call it what it is) he creates a world of vividness. The novel has some immensely powerful, lucid moments, many tied up with the pursuit of survival: with the cold, with food or clothing, and with commaraderie. And by virtue of this spotlight on the minute-to-minute experience, it finds a balance between expressing the full horror of the Gulag and containing it, domesticating it. A balance between the long story, of a life ruined, and the short story, of (as Shukhov describes it) 'a day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.'