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Literature / One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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“Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?”
—pondered by Shukov as he haggles with the med bay clerk

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner ("zek") in the Soviet Gulag system, imprisoned on charges of being a spy after being captured by the Germans and escaping, and sentenced to 10 years. At the time of the story, sometime during January, 1951note , Shukhov is serving out his sentence in a special camp in Siberia. His number is Щ-854note  and he is part of squad 104. This book details one day in his life, as he struggles to live through another day.

This book, written in 1962 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and based on his own experiences in the camps, was the first widely distributed account of Stalinist repression, and helped raise awareness globally of the conditions in the system.

You can read it in its entirety here.

This book contains the following tropes:

  • Bad Boss: Discussed by Shukhov when reflecting on the work gang leaders, noting that since the entire gang requires the leader to be competent enough to get his men favorable rations and work orders, one who can't is this by default.
  • Beige Prose: Shukhov's narration tends towards clipped, simple sentences, regardless of his condition or the world around him—makes sense, given that he's apparently from a collective farm and a conscript, with no immediately evident higher education (it also makes sense in a meta way, since Solzhenitsyn absolutely HATED the sort of educated loyalist political prisoner who would get uppity about his conditions and make speeches to that effect while saying everybody else was guilty).
  • Easy Come, Easy Go: The contents of Tzezar's care packages. Shukhov sympathetically points out that with all the bribes and "favors" he has to reward, the intellectual spends many days living on his camp-designated rations like the rest of them.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's one day in the life of the zek Shukov, nothing more, nothing less.
  • Handicapped Badass: Senka. Being deaf in one ear didn't make him any less able to kick some ass, which Der nearly finds out first hand.
  • Magikarp Power: Shukhov notes Gopchik is young but is learning how to survive very quickly, and lampshades this trope when musing about well off he will be.
  • No Ending: The book brings up several points and resolves them within the day presented, but ultimately, the book is exactly what it says it is: one day in the life of a gulag prisoner. At the end, he has not gained his freedom, and has nothing more to look forward to than another day in his sentence tomorrow, which will likely be similar to the one he just experienced.
  • One-Steve Limit: Subverted? Averted? Whatever: Shukhov and Kildigs call each other "Vanya", as Kildigs' name is Jānis (or Jan or Johanns, depending on translation); both Jānis and Ivan are respectively the Latvian and Russian equivalents of "John" and under Russian naming conventions shorten to "Vanya."
  • The Pollyanna: Kildigs, who is always upbeat and cheerful despite being a prisoner.
  • The Quisling: Der, The Limper, the unnamed cooks who are in tight with the guards. This does not apply to all the prisoners, however, just the ones who use their positions for the explicit purpose of screwing over their fellow zeks for their own gain.
  • Principles Zealot: The navy captain who is still a devoted and committed supporter of the Soviet system, despite his sentence and status as a prisoner. He argues over his rights with a guard and is punished severely by the end of the story.
  • Prisoner's Work: The Gulag prisoners have to build the walls of a new building, and the main character mentions another labor camp where he had to cut trees.
  • Take That!: Just one example, from a different translation:
    You don't have to be very bright to carry a handbarrow. So the squad leader gave such work to people who'd been in positions of authority.
  • True Art: invoked Tzesar and another inmate discuss this in regards to Sergei Eisenstein, specifically whether or not he's style over substance or if the artistic merits of Ivan the Terrible elevate it despite being apologia for a horrible tyrant. Shukov doesn't have an opinion but can't get them to stop when he needs to talk to Tzesar.