I listen to a lot of the lectures talks from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson and one person he loves to talk about is Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn, a Soviet gulag survivor. Solzhenitzyn’s life was rather extraordinary in that he studies math and physics at Rostov State University in Russia, was an artillery officer in WWII, then was imprisoned within the Russian gulag system for “anti-soviet propaganda” in that he thought the system needed to be replaced. Solzhenitzyn later went on to write the book that was credited with causing the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago. Documenting the horrific stories of gulag survivors and their arrests, life in the camps, and the death and torture they endured, the work showed the truth of the “Socialist Utopia” in the Soviet Union which led to mass starvation, group guilt and condemnation, mass arrests, incarceration, and corruption.
Seeing as The Gulag Archipelago spans three volumes and is roughly a total of 1500 pages of fine print, I wanted to get a start into Solzhenitzyn’s works and style with a shorter work referenced by Dr. Peterson. I found One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich quickly on Amazon and ordered the paperback copy. Given the current political climate in the United States and the push by “educated” people for socialism, I felt it necessary to read a book about what happened in one of the, if not the most, popular socialist nations to ever exist. While I was aware of communism and it’s general aims, I’d heard stories of the gulags and how things were in Soviet Russia but I was unaware of just how bad and corrupt things really were.
One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich follows a gulag inmate, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who was imprisoned for treason in that he “allowed” himself to be captured by the Germans in WWII and escaped to return to the Red Army. Shukhov then spent his time in a couple of labor camps performing menial tasks in frigid weather which frequently remained at around -20 degrees Celsius in winter. The story follows Shukhov through a routine day in the gulag, starting with him rising early in the morning before the sun to attempt to go to sick call as he woke up not feeling well. For rising late, he is given a punishment of mopping floors for a brief time. Not a terrible punishment as he’s allowed to remain inside. Shukhov then goes for his morning oatmeal, a delicacy that he looked forward to every morning which Solzhenitzyn describes in great detail as the prisoners, called zeks, were given rationed amounts of food, usually minimal, which led to many fighting and scrounging over every last bit, despite the “delicacy” being nothing more than plain, flavorless, thin oatmeal.
Shukhov then goes out with his group, the 104th, out to their station of work for the day. Working in the frigid climate, the men work together under the respected eye of their squad leader, Tiurin, to construct a building of brick and mortar which needed to be laid immediately as the icy air would cause the mortar to harden almost instantly. Solzhenitzyn describes the personalities and reputations of the various men he works with, including Tiurin, who Shukhov deeply respects, the new former army captain who is still struggling to adapt to life in the labor camps, Alyoshka, the devout Baptist who seems unfazed by life in the camps, and the other prisoners Shukhov shares his experience with.
Throughout the story, Shukhov is seen scrounging materials and food as he describes this as being paramount to survival. He has a favorite tool which he hides around the worksite so he can always retrieve it rather than use the busted up tools from the work stations. Shukhov sneaks bread from meals and sews it into his mattress, hiding it so he can preserve it for the next meal and not get punished. Shukhov also keeps a spoon in his boot which he uses at all his meals, showing his inherent ability to focus on his survival.
Following the work day, the prisoners return for the count where one prisoner is missing and all must wait until he is found, causing anger among the prisoners as it only takes away from their time to eat and relax before sleep. Once in his barrack, Shukhov speaks with his fellow prisoners before going to sleep, implying that tomorrow will be another day of the same worries, the same hardship, and the same work for the “Socialist Utopia.”
This story which follows the seemingly monotonous life of a gulag prisoner was eye-opening for me because it showed the effects of a government left unchecked which had the ability to imprison and kill anyone it wished without due process. The Soviets made it quite easy to accuse someone of “anti-soviet behavior” in order to get them arrested and imprisoned as proof was not really needed, you’d need only say you saw or heard it. Solzhenitzyn had been imprisoned because of letters he’d sent to his friend in which he criticized Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party. While communism was pushed as this classless society in which everyone received their “fair share,” it quickly polarized the classes into the extremely wealthy political figures to the lowly citizens who were struggling to get food to feed their families.
There are terrible stories that came out of the Soviet Union, including starvation, disease, executions, and population cleansing, all in the name of Socialism. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich documented the daily life of a “political prisoner” in the Soviet Union where you could be arrested and sentenced to ten years of labor for no reason at all if you were not shot on the spot. The daily struggle for survival and the requirement that a zek play chess, not checkers, in order to make it through his sentence is daunting as many people don’t understand how quickly and easily this type of government can come to power and once their in power, there’s little anyone can do to stop them.
Even in the daily monotony of bricklaying, Shukhov’s struggles with collective punishments, freezing temperatures affecting their ability to work, and the hope they’d be able to be satiated with their ration of food are jarring. The prisoners were given their rations based on the amount of work they completed, a double-edged sword as more work meant you’d be hungrier so you’d eat more only to continue working off what you ate and then some. And if you didn’t do much work, you didn’t get much food.
Shukhov’s story is one not of tragedy, as it doesn’t end with his death, but only his daily struggle for survival. Shukhov’s story was not nearly as horrific or evil as others which have come out of the epitome of a communist nation, but it’s surely worth the read. The daily struggles of the protagonist, the way he describes the characters and their situations, along with the symbolism throughout the story are incredibly interesting as well as alarming because it goes to show how easily this could all occur again, and has in history, when populations fail to act against it.
Solzhenitzyn’s Gulag Archipelago is his Magnum Opus and I intend to read it before I day, likely in bursts as it’s a long but imperative read according to Dr. Peterson as well as the country of Russia which has made this work mandatory reading for students due to its cautionary and eye-opening nature.
If you’re interested in Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s lectures, you can find many of them on YouTube or Spotify as well as his website, www.jordanbpeterson.com. I highly recommend his lectures because they push personal responsibility, self-improvement and reflection, as well as how to make the world a better place by making your bed and cleaning your room. Dr. Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who’s taught at Harvard and currently is a professor at the University of Toronto. His work and his talks are fascinating as well as life-changing.