Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

PLOT SUMMARY: Clang! A resounding five A.M. wake-up call—hammer against steel—pierces the ears of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov in his feverish haze and commences One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. A third-person narrator thence follows Shukhov through twenty-four hours of toilsome labor amidst the frigid landscape of his Siberian prison camp. Shukhov is a dutiful Russian soldier; he prides himself in his timeliness, ardor, and devotion. A wrongful conviction of treason does not shake his valor: Shukhov pursues harrowing labor with nothing short of rigor to ensure the livelihood of his prison squad, the 104. On this one day, however, illness prevents his early start, and his morning commences with punishment. Not minutes after an extra round of chores and threats of solitary confinement, he proceeds from the ominous guardroom into the flow of prisoners picking up their bread rations, gathering for a meager breakfast, and landing upon their sunup frisk. From this hectic morning, the reader marches alongside Shukhov to his designated worksite.

     Shukhov and the 104 are tasked with the construction of a power plant. Their work is heavily guarded, unshielded from the cold, and determines their food rations for the day. Many are penalized for attempts to huddle around a nearby building, harboring warmth. The prisoners’ hands otherwise barely depart from the cement mortar until their lunch break. Together, the squad finds joy in their serving of kasha for the day and returns to bricklaying soon after.  Shukhov is fairly self-sufficient; he devours his bowl with the spoon he keeps handy in his boots and scrapes his serving clean with bread crust from the morning. After the meal, Shukhov shakes off his feverish stupor and works for perfection beyond his quota. In the thick of his labor, Shukhov notices a bit of steel on the site that he fancies could fashion a utile trowel, his possession of which almost lands him subject to severe punishment—maybe, even, death—upon return to camp. Back at the main quarters, Shukhov voraciously consumes his third meal of the day—even receiving savory extras—and returns to the bunk enamored of his fortune. His evening ends with another abrasive inspection, leading into dialogue with Aloysha, a Baptist prisoner who advises Shukhov to embrace faith. Yet one more inspection ensues, and Shukhov ends these twenty-four hours in his bunk, “almost happy,” (139) preparing for the clang of hammer and steel soon enough.

ANALYSIS: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s sober realism in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich shows the reader what it is like to be a fish that knows what water is. Captivity is simply the base for Ivan Shukhov; his experience with carceral structures does not directly beg for sympathy or appear an act of resistance. Shukhov’s life is rife with striking pain: his peers are beaten beside him, men across the cafeteria appear moments from mortal starvation, and the frigid cold threatens to wring life out of his squad. Shukhov, though, is not afraid of these otherwise perilous waves; he understands that this is the indomitable reality of captivity. “Yes,” he says, “You live with your feet in the mud and there’s no time to be thinking about how you got in or how you’re going to get out” (55). Shukhov thus remains pragmatic and faithful; he might be starving, but he trowels at his cement with gusto, making him nearly late to meals he so values. He is devoted to his work, and through it he remains human. He just survives. Thus, he says, “Real jail was when you were kept back from work” (7). The imperative is remaining human—alive—despite carceral structures.

     Shukhov maintains his survival through three humanizing items he salvages amidst the nihilist mire of prison: his spoon, which provides quasi-independent sustenance; his trowel, with which he works and finds fulfillment; and bread-crust, a creative tool to ensure he gets the most of his food. His narrative reality of survival is neither striking nor strictly exclusive to prison: he values his meals, works hard and creates, and is hesitant to waste. Any reader, inundated with responsibilities of their own, might relate to Shukhov. It is exactly his simple methods of survival and almost ironic understanding of his treacherous surroundings that imbues his story with meaningful credibility. His every sentence is marked by suffering, but he appears neither tortured nor terrorized: “They pulled the zek’s arms apart, the better to hug them and slap their sides. Same as in the morning, more or less. It isn’t so terrible to unbutton your coat now; we’re going home. That’s what everyone used to say: ‘Going home.’ We never had time to think of any other home” (102). Shukhov shows no repulsion to physical coercion; he has reached acceptance, and through it he is stabilized. To stamp his narrative with horror would render it distant; it would keep Shukhov confined to his far-away camp, alienated from his readership.

     Solzhenitsyn constructs the “Gulag without borders”; it is a perpetual “archipelago,” made universal through its relatability. Shukhov is a character in which readers can see themselves; the minute details of his life beg the reader to recognize their essential similarities and thus question his captivity. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn crafts an empathetic narrative that humanizes the “average” prisoner, communicates the arbitrariness of Russia’s carceral system through Shukhov’s relatability, and emphasizes the goal of survival.


“The thoughts of a prisoner—they’re not free either. They keep returning to the same things. A single idea keeps stirring. Would they feel that piece of bread in the mattress? Would he have any luck at the dispensary that evening? And how did Tsezar get his hands on that warm vest? He’d probably greased a palm or two in the warehouse for people’s private belongings. How else?” (32)

“And now Shukhov complained about nothing: neither about the length of his stretch, nor about the length of the day, nor about their swiping another Sunday. This was all he thought about now: we’ll survive. We’ll stick it out, God willing, till it’s over.” (117)

“Shukhov gazed at the ceiling in silence. Now he didn’t know whether he wanted freedom or not. At first, he’d longed for it. Every night he counted the days of his stretch—how many had passed, how many were coming. And then he’d grown bored with counting. And then it became clear that men like him wouldn’t ever be allowed to return home, that they’d be exiled. And whether his life would be any better than here—who could tell?” (136)

BIOGRAPHY: It is often said that Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s dual reputation precedes him; known as both a “grim, Jeremiah-like figure” and a “vital optimist” (Ericson and Klimoff 48), Solzhenitsyn’s literary prowess and political convictions have memorialized him as a controversial and resonant leader. Born to educated parents of peasant-ancestry on December 11, 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia, Solzhenitsyn spent his early formative years displaced. His father, an artillery officer in World War I, died six months before he was born, while his mother relocated for work and left him in the care of her sister. Solzhenitsyn was there entertained with readings from religious and literary studies until the age of five, which planted the seeds for his ideological disposition towards hope and a fervent desire to write (surviving juvenilia show short stories written by him at the age of nine). He eventually returned to his mother, living in markedly destitute conditions in Rostov-on-Don, where he graduated from high school in 1936. The Trail (1947), one of Solzhenitsyn’s inaugural political and autobiographical pieces, recounts his scattered and idealist adolescent experiences of this period with state indoctrination and collectivization. After high school, Solzhenitsyn attended Rostov University, where he studied math and physics on the Stalin Scholarship. Writing in correspondence courses took up the majority of his time, however, as he nurtured his literary aptitude (Ericson and Klimoff 5-9).

     In college, Solzhenitsyn met his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, and the two eventually moved in 1940 to teach in Morozvsk. His tenure as a small-town teacher was brief, however, as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 encouraged his enlistment at age twenty-two (Burg and Feifer 22). In Love for the Revolution (1948) and The First Circle (1958), Solzhenitsyn writes of his initially degrading experiences in service. His education eventually freed him of his shamed low-ranking, however, and enabled his transfer to artillery school; by 1943, he was appointed the commander of his own battery and fought until 1945. Solzhenitsyn’s military career ended in pandemonium, as he was arrested and sentenced to eight years of forced labor and perpetual exile for his correspondence of notes that “maliciously slandered” Stalin’s leadership. His arduous experience in labor camps, during which he wrote, “By now we are even unsure whether we have the right to talk about the events of our own lives,” provided critical material for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), his first work published in the Soviet Union. During his time in prison, Solzhenitsyn encouraged his wife to divorce him and find love in another man. The two entered a distraught period, which culminated in their separation. When Khrushchev introduced reforms and denounced Stalin in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was freed. He re-married to Natalia Reshetovskaya in 1957 and continued to teach and write domestically, until his controversial Western release of The Gulag Archipelago (1968) and August 1914 (1971)—both rife with ethical and political critique of the USSR—brought retaliation from the Soviet authorities. In 1972, he and Reshetovskaya divorced once again and Solzhenitsyn married Natalia Svetolva. His writing eventually amounted to his 1974 deportation to Frankfurt, Germany (Ericson and Klimoff 28-30). After a brief tenure there, Solzhenitsyn moved to Vermont in 1976 where he lived rurally for eighteen years, continuing The Red Wheel, a cycle of novels reflecting on the conception of the Soviet Union, and speaking against Communist aggression. During this time, Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship and dropped all charges against him. Solzhenitsyn returned to his native Russia in 1994, where he would write prodigiously until he died in Moscow in 2008 (Moody 48). Like his great nineteenth-century predecessors, Solzhenitsyn toiled through repression and used his commanding literary aptitude to address political and moral concerns deeply relevant to Russia and resonant with the world beyond.


Burg, David, and George Feifer. Solzhenitsyn. Stein and Day Publishers, 1975.

Ericson, Edward E., and Alexis Klimoff. The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn. ISI Books, 2008.

Moody, Christopher. Solzhenitsyn. 1st ed., Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.


Dobson, Miriam. “Contesting the Paradigms of De-Stalinization: Readers Responses to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Slavic Review, vol. 64, no. 3, 2005, pp. 580–600.
In this article, Dobson analyzes the vibrant debate in the Soviet press provoked by the 1962 publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Dobson offers her curation of unpublished letters to the editor to examine how Solzhenitsyn’s work simultaneously swayed civilians in favor of and against de-Stalinization, the former embracing humanitarianism and the latter viewing the process as a threat to respectable Soviet culture. Dobson offers diverse perspectives on the gulag’s legacy and deconstructs many of the monolithic analyses that circulated both inside and outside of the space.

Khlevniuk, Oleg, and Simon Belokowsky. “The Gulag and the Non-Gulag as One Interrelated Whole.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 16, no. 3, 2015, pp. 479–498.
Khlveniuk and Belokowsky discuss the historically established boundaries and sociological consequences of Stalin’s gulags. The authors analyze Solzhenitsyn’s implicit “hellish bounds” (480) of incarceration and suggest that the gulag and broader Soviet society interact in their economic, architectural, and social similarities. Khlveniuk and Belokowsky argue that a more comprehensive understanding of life in the gulag can be cultivated via analysis of the liminal space between captivity and freedom created by the movement of civilians in, out, and within labor camps.

Xu, Dongmei. “Food and Homecoming in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The Explicator, vol. 66, no. 2, 2008, pp. 104–108.
Dongmei draws on the Freudian theory of eating as an abstract process of inner fulfillment to suggest a relationship between sustenance, homecoming, and national identity in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. According to Dongmei, Solzhenitsyn’s politicization of food elicits connotations of freedom and belonging, both of which Ivan essentially loses in the gulag. The author proposes that the inmates’ languid consumption of food highlights the distinctly inhuman mental space of captivity.

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