One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich contains a deep meaning of life. Still, it is also a novel that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a gulag victim, used to reveal the horrors found within the walls of a prison camp. During the time of Stalin, prison camps were a cheap labor workforce monitored by fear and corruption. Alexander Solzhenitsyn portrays the corruption of the Soviet nation and the gulag simultaneously by using first-hand experiences in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Through his use of explicit details, Solzhenitsyn exposed the corrupt laws of the bureaucracy. Solzhenitsyn grew up in Kislovodsk, Russia, later enlisted in the Red Army under Joseph Stalin. He was later arrested in 1945 for letters he had written containing information that denounced Stalin. The deed was done once he was accused of betraying the Soviet Union.
With his humanist ideals, Solzhenitsyn risked his life to make the world a better place. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (Shukhov), in Solzhenitsyn’s novel, was captured by the German army and “sentenced for high treason. He had testified to it himself” (55). The personal experience of Solzhenitsyn was reflected in the fictional character Shukhov, “Yes, he’d surrendered to the Germans to betray his country” (55). The logistics of the situation and the other possible factors that contributed towards Shukov “betraying” the mother country were unheard; the corrupt Russian power had one belief set in stone, and if that belief went against the truth, there was no getting around it. “Shukhov had figured it all out. If he didn’t sign, he’d be shot. If he signed, he’d still get a chance to live” (55), further portraying the corruption of the Soviet Union. In which any person to disrespect the government in any manner was harshly punished.
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The Soviet Union then utilized this policy to enlist fear in the citizens to not revolt against the government. Solzhenitsyn highlights this portion of corruption. Although the novel is fictional, it still reveals the truth of Solzhenitsyn’s experiences during his prison experience. Solzhenitsyn shows the absurdity and corruption found within the camp walls versus the values the prisoners hold. “You can overwork a horse to death. That the doctor ought to understand” (33) demonstrates the disregard doctors have for their patients, conveying an image of an unsympathetic environment. Also, if they are non-disabled, the patients will work on tedious yet oppressive work. The narrator writes of how difficult it is to get a sick leave (31), yet with a bribe (143), the doctors will be more than happy to give that person the day off, adding a tinge of corruption to the bureaucratic mix.
The prison camp doctors really do not care about the patient; they only care about themselves. Solzhenitsyn observes the paradoxical rule of the illogical ruling the logical. The camp staff members not only have authority, but they also have more power, as in muscle and weapons, than the prisoners, who are feeble and have nothing, so the prisoners must “growl and submit” ( 57). With this oppression hung over those bright individuals, it deteriorates Russia’s progress into becoming a great country, no matter how much the Soviet power thinks it is already great. Through extensive details, Solzhenitsyn wanted to make this point about the insanity of the laws and the corruption of the bureaucracy clear.
Solzhenitsyn intensifies the oppression placed upon the prisoners by the camp staff with his use of diction. Soviet corruption was present during Shukhov’s time in the gulag, especially due to Krushchev destalinizing the nation. Khrushchev renounced many of Stalin’s policies, “it’s one o’clock, not noon.” (53). This is one of the least important decrees to them, but is still recognized as being passed by “Soviet power” (53), exemplifying the prisoner’s awareness of the renouncements. Portraying how corrupt soviet power can walk into the office and change a policy that was accepted for a long period of time under the prior premiere. The corrupt Stalin parliament made prison life dreadful, but Khrushchev improved these conditions by allowing letters to be sent home or clothing to be sent from home. “A new year, 1951, had begun, and Shukhov had the right to two letters that year” (32); the corrupt government stopped those who rebelled against them from spreading their ideas.
With the destalinization of the Soviet Union, the government was portrayed as being non-corrupt. Still, the government allowed the guards in the camp to take over the prior government’s role. Corruption of power was found in the guards of the gulag, with the use of profanity to portray the intensity of the camp but the carelessness of the guards at the same time. “They don’t know how to do a fucking thing and don’t want to learn. They’re not worth the bread we give them. We ought to feed them on shit” (12). The Soviet Union had given the guards a large amount of power that they had begun to take advantage of, and they would use the prisoners as their personal slaves. The guards had no right to speak about the prisoners in this manner, but the corrupt authority could not care less, allowing the guards to take advantage of the bare prisoners. “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?” (34) is an example of the philosophical and corrupt tones of which the story overtook.
The juxtaposed diction of “warm” and “cold” illustrates how the authority figures, who make the prisoners work, will never experience what the prisoners actually experience in the guard’s life of luxury and power. The question’s indignant tone also conveys why the guards take advantage of the prisoners in this manner, which then is answered with, the symbolization of the corrupt power that once suppressed the prisoners around them. The diction shows how ignorant the prison camp staff members are of the prisoners, who break their backs working for their overbearing goals, leading to everlasting oppression of the prisoners. Corruption, absurdity, and oppression are all characteristics the author uses to describe the Soviet government. Corruption displaces common sense, which leads to absurdity. Inhuman treatment is a characteristic of oppression, which is a denial of an individual’s basic human rights and freedoms.
With that being said, the reader can infer that something is wrong with that type of government and that maybe some things need to be changed. This was Solzhenitsyn’s purpose from the beginning to show Russia’s dilemma and what exactly was being done to people of the prison camps due to communism. Further exemplifying the theme of not looking up to communism, it is a policy that the leaders feed off, like a parasite, while one is working to their very existence at the leader’s demands. Russia does not need it, nor does any other country, for it will only lead to corruption and ultimately destruction. A human’s basic rights and freedom are important, and by denying that, the government turns into an enormous, life-stealing leach. After all, especially if corruption is at the root of it, no suffering should go unnoticed.
Consequently, it was important for Solzhenitsyn to include this corruption of power. It was a firsthand experience and gave the reader a perspective of the cruel actions during Stalin and Khrushchev’s reign in Soviet Russia. However, to what extent is Solzhenitsyn’s recount of the situation accurate as he was imprisoned in 1945, released in 1953, but the novel was not published for another nine years. Despite how traumatizing a situation may be, nine years from the occurrence of the situation to the novel being written allows for other events that have been encountered to skew his memories. Therefore, was the corruption described in the novel exaggerated, or was it accurate? Another possibility would be that since the Soviet government imprisoned Solzhenitsyn for eight years, all that time in the camp allowed him to soak up the corruption to be more severe than it may honestly be. Alexander Solzhenitsyn portrays the corruption of the Soviet nation and the gulag, hand in hand, by using first-hand experiences in One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.
- Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Trans. Ralph Parker. New York: Signet Classics, 2008. Print.