ZOiS Spotlight 31/2017

‘Dear Ivan Denisovich...’

by Nina Frieß 15/11/2017
Illustration of 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' by Russian artist Oleg Besedin. It shows a camp commander and prisoners during the roll call Oleg Besedin

In November 1962 the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir (New World) published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Over sixty-five pages, the novel tells the story of a typical day in the life of a typical labour camp prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a carpenter of rural origins who is serving a ten-year prison sentence for alleged treason.

One Day appeared with the express approval of Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who in 1956 had ushered in the de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union with his Secret Speech to the party’s Twentieth Congress. The publication was a sensation as it amounted to an official licence to report on the injustices that millions of Soviet citizens had experienced in the Gulag prison camps.

The existence of the Soviet labour camps was well known. Until the early 1930s they had been presented, even by cultural figures, as progressive facilities within the Soviet penal system. But then the camps disappeared for almost thirty years from public debate, which the state still closely regulated. The state’s repression of its own population had been hinted at in earlier literary texts, for example Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel The Thaw, which appeared in 1954—just one year after the death of Joseph Stalin—and gave its name to a whole era of Soviet politics. But Solzhenitsyn’s text was the first to describe explicitly the circumstances in the labour camps: the prisoners’ eternal hunger, forced labour under terrible conditions, the arbitrariness of the camp administration. (There were, however, no drastic depictions of violence and death in One Day; even in the period of the Thaw, these would not have passed the state’s omnipresent censorship.)

One Day as a ‘one-text phenomenon’

The impact of Solzhenitsyn’s text in the Soviet Union can be seen in the letters that the magazine’s editors and the novel’s author received from readers.[1] Some readers were outraged by the alleged lies that Novy Mir was spreading and that were playing into the hands of the Soviet Union’s enemies. Others remarked that the subject had been put to bed by the de-Stalinisation process of the 1950s and that people should now look to the future.

Meanwhile, most writers, including many former prisoners, reacted with enthusiasm. Their letters were full of praise and gratitude for the editors and author for publishing the text, which, according to one reader, had allowed him to believe in Soviet literature again. There was particular sympathy for the hero of the story, with whom some writers could empathise. Indeed, a number of the letters were addressed not only to the author but also to the protagonist: ‘Dear Aleksandr Isayevich [Solzhenitsyn], dear Ivan Denisovich..’. Many writers urged Solzhenitsyn to continue to cover the subject, which they said was far from exhausted, and offered to tell him of their own experiences in the prison camps. Solzhenitsyn took up some of these offers for his monumental work The Gulag Archipelago.

For a short time, One Day was what American literary scholar Kathleen Parthé pointedly described as a ‘one-text phenomenon’: a text that all readers seem to be reading at a given point in time and that determines what they talk about.[2] Many letters to Novy Mir revealed the high demand of the text: the November issue of the magazine was sold out across the country, and in libraries there were long waiting lists. Some letter writers even begged the editors to send them a copy ‘whatever it costs’.

One Day as an initiation text

One Day became an initiation text for Soviet labour camp literature. Its publication encouraged other former prisoners to put their memories into writing and submit them to magazines. That led to the emergence of a body of testimonial texts whose number is hard to measure and whose literary quality was certainly variable. Yet with the handover of power from Khrushchev to Brezhnev, a period of relatively liberal politics of memory came to a close. The memoirs of Yegvenia Ginzburg, Solzhenitsyn’s later works, and countless other texts could only appear abroad or as self-published texts; most could never be released at all. One Day vanished from libraries and was only reissued in the perestroika period. For a brief moment, however, the text had shown the power that literature can have; its disappearance clearly underscored how dangerous it was considered by the Soviet rulers who came after Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the text enjoyed a rediscovery. It was included in school reading lists, where it could assert itself alongside other texts that painted a critical picture of the Soviet Union. The degree to which it inspired other cultural figures, not only in Russia, can be seen in its many adaptations. As early as the 1960s and 1970s, the subject matter was documented by foreign film producers. In Russia, One Day has been adapted for the stage many times since the 1990s; particular attention was generated by an opera adaptation, which was premiered in Perm in the Urals in 2009 and prompted a wave of national media coverage. That led to debates about how to deal with the period of Soviet and Russian history featured in One Day. Although these debates soon fizzled out, they reveal the power this text continues to have more than half a century after its first publication.

[1] G. A. Tyurina compiled a selection of these letters on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s first publication. It appeared in 2012 under the title „Dorogoj Ivan Denisovič!..“ Pisʼma čitatelej 1962–1964 (‘“Dear Ivan Denisovich!” Readers’ letters, 1962–1964’). There is currently no translation available. All letters quoted or paraphrased here come from this compilation.

[2] Kathleen Parthé, Russia’s dangerous texts. Politics between the lines, New Haven: Yale University Press, 12.

Nina Frieß is a research associate at ZOiS. In her dissertation she undertook a comprehensive examination of memories of Stalinist repression in modern-day Russia, including through an analysis of the opera 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' and its reception.