Review #25: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Cruelty can be solemn and boring

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il once again raises the question of how an entire nation can continue to live under an economic, political, and technological facade. From the viewpoint of someone in a First World nation like the United States, a country that exists for the sole benefit of a handful of leaders—or even one somewhat chubby leader in a tan jumpsuit—boggles the mind. Although North Korea is shut tight to the prying eyes of outsiders seeking to comprehend the Asian nation, a look back at Cold War-era Russia can provide a good study into why such systems continue.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a 1962 novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, documents totalitarian communism from the viewpoint of a political prisoner. Solzhenitsyn himself spent many years in a Soviet prison camp, and provides a shocking yet subdued look at communism’s basic failures. The novel’s protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, narrates one day of his life in 1951 Siberia. Everything about life in the camp reeks of injustice: food, clothes, shelter, communication with the outside world and with each other. But even beyond the injustice, the story is one of hopelessness. Even the structure of the printed book screams despair: the text is one long chapter, a literary parallel to what the author saw as the never-ending plight of his target audience.

Life is harsh in the camp, yet the story includes no specifically cruel events. This isn’t Schindler’s List. Instead, Solzhenitsyn communicates a slice of life in a system where actions are pointless, nobody matters, and nobody cares. Everyone in the story is in a prison: Ivan and the other inmates, the guards, their families living back in communist-run cities. There is no escape. They are all starving, all cold, all hounded by guards, all experiencing a system of forced superiority. While they are all equal, they are all equally destitute.

In the introduction to the book, Yevgeny Yevtushenko says that “The system, for all its cruelty and deceitfulness, turned out to be stupid. It had taught its future gravedigger how to wield a shovel.” Another book in The Well-Read Man Project, Max Havelaar raises a similar point in how the Dutch colonizers indirectly taught the local Indonesian natives how to fight back at their oppressors. It provides a glimpse of hope. But for Soviet Russia and its satellite nations, it took three more decades for the gravediggers to wield their shovels. And in this we perhaps can understand a country like North Korea. Someday, the people will care again, they will revolt against the injustice, and they will fight back against their oppressors. But first, they might need someone to write a book for them that quietly and solemnly screams out for justice.

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


  1. Very interesting comparison between North Korea and Soviet Russia.
    Thanks for all the reviews, and good luck with the rest of the course!


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