The rise of Stalinism played a crucial role not only in the development of the USSR, but also in the context of world history. This epoch fully demonstrated terrifying consequences of dictatorship. While Stalinism was trying to suppress any manifestation of intellectual and physical freedom, it could not completely destroy the wave of criticism. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is real evidence of horrors of Stalinism and the primary argument against any dictatorship.
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The idea of this book is elegant and simple. Solzhenitsyn writes about one day in the life of an ordinary prisoner named Shukhov Ivan Denisovich hour by hour. His story represents an outstanding example of Stalin’s policy that aimed to imprison an individual not only physically but also mentally. Shukhov was an ordinary Soviet peasant who went to war from the first days of its beginning. He was wounded and captured but managed to escape. In 1943, Ivan was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges. The reader finds him as an old and experienced zek (inmate), who knows what to do in order to survive under inhumane conditions. While the system was designed to imprison the body, it could not imprison the human soul. The primary theme of the story is the preservation of human dignity in an environment where everything is aimed to trample every feeling, thus to destroy every human being. Therefore, Shukhov forbids himself to have dinner without removing the cap, lick strangers’ bowls or eat fish eyes in the soup. According to Solzhenitsyn, not every prisoner shall recognize the guard’s right to offend. The zek preserves his sense of human dignity without any external manifestation. In this context such character as, for example, Fetyukov remains the ultimate prisoner losing his human nature.
While Fetyukov is the lowest point in the camp hierarchy, the former Navy commander Buinovsky is uncompromisingly dignified. He cannot remain silent when faces open violation of human dignity. For example, in one scene Buinovsky protests against another pointless folly of the guards that order him to remove his jacket despite the extremely cold temperature. Perhaps the most flagrant injustice was related to the front-line soldiers, who were accused of treason. For Solzhenitsyn, the fate of these people was particularly close because he knew from personal experience what it meant to change the combat uniform for a prison robe. The stories of true heroes who were not broken either by the war or Nazi camps are even more tragic because they were forced to obey the order of the Soviet camps, thus becoming prisoners.
Buinovsky is a newcomer to the camp and still retains naive faith in laws and the justice of the whole system. After his revolt against the warden Volkovoi and the subsequent ten-day lock-up, Buinovsky obviously cannot become a practiced and experienced zek. Therefore, the reader cannot consider him a true prisoner as well as other zeks who in one way or another support Ivan Denisovich in the most difficult moments. Shukhov affectionately refers to young Gopchik, who reminds him of his deceased son, and respects the strict but fair brigadier Tiurin. At the same time, strong bonds of companionship connect him with Kilgas and with fellow sufferers. Moreover, Shukhov empathizes with the intellectual Tsezar Markovic because of his detachment from real life. The relations with fellow sufferers who despite the physical incarceration did not become hostages to the system help the main character to preserve his dignity.
However, prisoner U 81 from the 64th brigade does not require any friendly support. This old man spent almost all his life behind barbed wire but did not become a prisoner. A nameless hero U 81 from the 64th brigade appears only for a moment, and the next part of the story does not contain any mention of him. However, the old man amazes Shukhov with his look, posture and movements that are full of dignity. Even the countless years in the appalling conditions and horror of prisons did not force him to obey. This old man represents Solzhenitsyn’s vision of true freedom. U 81 is the ultimate image of personality that was considered the archenemy of the whole Stalinist system. Only in the Soviet era, the Communist party could suddenly declare its favorite, the best friend, a faithful Leninist, or a true communist the enemy of the state and break his/her life. According to Solzhenitsyn, not all people are able to survive and preserve their freedom. However, as long as there are such individuals as U-81, no one can say that Stalinism achieved its primary goal.
While Solzhenitsyn devoted One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the life of a prisoner, he also painted the life of people of different social classes and groups. They react to imprisonment in a different way but have only one way to remain free even behind the bars. This way presupposes preservation of human dignity despite all challenges. Life is wiser than those who want to subordinate it to an idea and stronger than those who are willing to take lives of thousands of people. In this context, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a life-affirming story that develops into a broad epic narrative of the history of Soviet people in the first half of the twentieth century.
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