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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (original 1942; edition 2009)

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Introduction), Eric Bogosian (Afterword), Ralph Parker (Translator)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
8,660129351 (4.02)371
Member:labfs39
Title:One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Authors:Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Author)
Other authors:Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Introduction), Eric Bogosian (Afterword), Ralph Parker (Translator)
Info:NAL Trade (2009), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 208 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:fiction, Russian, East European, Gulag, Nobel Prize for Literature

Work details

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1942)

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
translated by Ralph Parker
Signet, 1963
ISBN 0-451-52310-5 (paperback), 158 p.

Review date: March 2016

What is a classic? To me, it seems that the classics are books that are enjoyed by many and will continue to be enjoyed by many, both because they have something to say and because they say it well. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's semi-autobiographical One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, recognized today, over half a century after its first publication in 1962, hits at least two of those points: it has been enjoyed by many, and it certainly has something to say; whether it will continue to be enjoyed, I can't say with certainty, but I suspect that it will be recognized as an important work for centuries to come. What I can say with certainty, however, is that I don't feel that Solzhenitsyn said what he had to say in a manner worth reading.

Briefly stated, this short novel follows its narrator, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, through a singly wintry Russian day behind the barbed wire fences and guardposts of a gulag prison. See, Ivan Denisovich is a political prisoner in Stalinist Russia. His crime: being captured by the Germans during World War II and living to tell about it. The authorities have branded him a spy. Sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a work camp, Shukhov does what he can to survive. Primarily, this means working most days and trying to avoid the attention of the prison guards, with little time for leisure and nothing to eat but runny oatmeal, small chunks of bread, watery stew, and rare treats shared by any friends who happen to get a care package from home. Such a life is grueling, disheartening, and sometimes even deadly. But in true Russian fashion, Ivan Denisovich is fatalistic, resigning himself to getting through each day one by one, until his ten years are up.

As an exposé, the novel is a crucial piece of twentieth-century literature, but as entertainment—as a story—it seems to fall flat. Granted, the eponymous day isn't meant to be the most exciting (although it is, apparently, more exciting than some), and the monotony and despair are central to the book, but still . . . stylistically, the book seems almost amateurish, and moreover, a number of readers, myself included, find it just plain boring. I want to sympathize with Ivan Denisovich, with his compatriots, with the author on whose life it's based, and with the millions who suffered in such a fashion under Stalin's iron-fisted rule . . . but based solely on the execution of this novel, I simply find that difficult to do.

Maybe it was my mindset at the time; I'm not sure I was really in the right frame of mind for such fatalism. Maybe it was my approach; I hear it's got more of an impact if one reads it straight through, in a single sitting, trudging along with Shukhov and his fellow prisoners. Maybe it was the translation; I read the first English version, translated by Ralph Parker in 1963, and I know there have been at least four more since then, including the 1991 version by H. T. Willetts, which was the only one approved by Solzhenitsyn himself. Maybe it was a combination of these. I can't say for sure.

I'm not going to write this book off completely. It's recognized as a modern classic, and I think that means I should at least give it a chance. Although I'm giving the Parker translation a mere two stars, I do plan on finding the Willetts translation and reading it at some point later on; having read one version already, I'll be mostly prepared for the dismal world I'll be entering then. Who knows? Maybe that's all it'll take for me to appreciate the book as it's meant to be appreciated, and I can add another star or two to my rating. Time will tell.

——————————

Rating:

2 stars: It was OK. Whereas many reviewers tend to be more generous, most works I rate receive two or three stars. At this rating, all my expectations have been met; there are few technical, conventional, or factual flaws, if any, and I found the work to be mildly entertaining and/or sufficiently informative, but it wouldn't be at the top of my list of recommendations. There is a bit of subjectivity at work: some otherwise three-star works might end up here simply because their genre or subject matter doesn't appeal to me. Equivalent to a school grade of 'C', or average. ( )
  tokidokizenzen | Mar 15, 2016 |
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been sentenced to a camp in the Soviet gulag system, accused of becoming a spy after being captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war during World War II. He is innocent, but is nonetheless punished by the government for being a spy. His sentence is for ten years, but the book indicates that most people never leave the camps. The final paragraph suggests that Shukhov serves exactly ten years—no more and no less—but whether this is merely Shukhov's hope is left for the reader to decide.

The day begins with Shukhov waking up sick. For waking late, he is sent to the guardhouse and forced to clean it—a minor punishment compared to others mentioned in the book. When Shukhov is finally able to leave the guardhouse, he goes to the dispensary to report his illness. Since it is late in the morning by now, the orderly is unable to exempt any more workers and Shukhov must work regardless.

The rest of the day mainly speaks of Shukhov's squad (the 104th, which has 24 members), their allegiance to the squad leader, and the work that the prisoners (zeks) do—for example, at a brutal construction site where the cold freezes the mortar used for bricklaying if not applied quickly enough. Solzhenitsyn also details the methods used by the prisoners for survival; the whole camp lives by the rule of survival of the fittest. Tyurin, the deputy foreman of gang 104 is kind but strict and the squad grows to like him more as the book goes on. Tyurin is liked because he understands the prisoners and he tells them a lot and does a lot to help them. He shares stories with them and the prisoners feel bad for his situation because his wife left him before he went into the camp. Shukhov is one of the hardest workers in the squad and is generally well respected. Rations at the camp are scant, but for Shukhov they are one of the few things to live for. He conserves the food that he receives and is always watchful for any item that he can hide and trade for food at a later date.

At the end of the day, Shukhov is able to provide a few special services for Tsezar (Caesar), an intellectual who is able to get out of manual labor and do office work instead. Tsezar is most notable, however, for receiving packages of food from his family. Shukhov is able to get a considerable share of Tsezar's packages by standing in lines for him. Shukhov's day ends up being productive, even happy: "Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day." (pg.139).

Those in the camps found everyday life a challenge. For example, one rule states that if the thermometer reaches -41°C (-41.8°F), then the prisoners are exempt from outdoor labor that day—anything above that was considered bearable. The reader is reminded in passing through Shukhov's matter-of-fact thoughts of the harshness of the conditions, worsened by the inadequate bedding and clothing. The boots assigned to the zeks rarely fit, in addition cloth had to be used or taken out, for example, and the thin mittens issued were easily ripped.

The prisoners were assigned numbers for easy identification and in an effort to dehumanize them; Ivan Denisovich's prisoner number was Щ-854. Each day the squad leader would receive their assignment of the day and the squad would then be fed according to how they performed. Prisoners in each squad were thus forced to work together and to pressure each other to get their work done. If any prisoner was slacking, the whole squad would be punished. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn shows that a surprising loyalty could exist among the work gang members, with Shukhov teaming up with other prisoners to steal felt and extra bowls of soup; even the squad leader defies the authorities by tar papering over the windows at their work site. Indeed, only through such solidarity can the prisoners do anything more than survive from day to day.

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Difficult book to finish, due to the subject matter being very depressing. Luckily it's short. Siberian gulag for political prisoners of Stalin is hard to dress up. Liza Minnelli said that 'Cabaret' shouldn't have worked as it was a film musical about Nazis, but it did. It wasn't really, but Minnelli's point was that deception has to fool the audience to make the unpalatable palatable.
I heard a lot about this book in the 80s but nothing now. ISIS has the media focused on their behavior now as no one cares about what the communists did to their own people during the post WWII political purges. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature but this book is poorly done as supposedly it was written while he was imprisoned in Siberia. The award was probably given him due to this being the first Russian book published which was critical of Stalin (the author note says that Khrushchev allowed this due to his own dislike of Stalin).
The end of the book has a religious discussion on the efficacy of prayer and the corruption of Russian Orthodox clergy. Ivan, called Shukov, says he believes in God but without Heaven or Hell. Heaven and Hell imply justice which he sees none of in his penal situation. He says that he only hopes to make it through the forced labor to his camp bed to sleep for the night. The prisoners are in the process of building, with shoddy materials and labor, the same prison complex in which many will likely die.
  sacredheart25 | Feb 5, 2016 |
This book is a necessity as a guide on how to stay alive by shear force of will. Painfully difficult to read due to the bleak details of life in the Siberian prison camp, it stands as Solzhenitsyn’s lasting testament to courage in the face of adversity. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Written from the perspective of a common prisoner, laboring in a Soviet camp, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the semi-authobiographical novel of former political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It is a simple novel, telling the story of Ivan Denisovich, imprisoned in the Gulag for crimes comitted while serving in the Russian Army during WWII. It takes place over the course of a single day, from reveille to retreat. The protagonist spends his day in hard labor, in this instance he and his squad are building a power station, construction on which had been abandoned six months previous. His day begins in misery, cold, and sickness, yet somehow Denisovich manages to end his day, and the novel with a note of hapiness, even hopefulness.

However this book is about so much more than just what Ivan's day to day life is like; it is a political statement. It is a look at the cruelty and oppression of the Soviet regime under Stalin, when a man could be imprisoned for just about any action, real or imagined. Denisovich was imprisoned for supossed desertion (in actuality he had been held as a German POW and escaped) while serving in the Soviet Army during WWII. Another character, Aloyshka - a dedicated Baptist, was imprisoned for his religious beliefs. Tiurin, squad captain, was imprisoned despite his impressive military record, for his birth. Solzhenitsyn, himself, was imprisoned for supossed derogatory remarks regarding Stalin.

It was suprisingly published in 1962, despite the rampanent censorship of the Soviet era, after gaining the approval of Kruschev while having one of his "anti-Stalin" days. It was later banned in Russia and Solzhenitsyn expelled after the ouster of Khrushchev, yet elsewhere the novel was so important and widely regarded that it's author received the Nobel Prize.

The novel itself is short, my edition only 139 pages, and the writing style spare, almost simplistic. However I feel this to be a reflection of the experience it is telling. One living in Stalin workcamp isn't going to have the time or energy for superflous words or emotion. Solzhenitsyn's austere style only served to emphasize the horror of the topic, and made it that much more powerful. The labor camps of Stalinist Russia rank right up there with Hitler's Death Camps as one of humanity's darkest moments. In a way that no history text could, Solzhenitsyn and One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich shed light on events that should horrify and sicken anyone. This is one novel that should be required reading in any history of the world. ( )
  Mootastic1 | Jan 15, 2016 |
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This quiet tale has struck a powerful blow against the return of the horrors of the Stalin system. For Solzhenitsyn's words burn like acid.
 

» Add other authors (267 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Solzhenitsyn, Alexanderprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Parker, RalphTranslatormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kalb, Marvin L.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lahtela, MarkkuTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tvardosky, AlexanderForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Valiulina, SanaAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vries, Theun deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zelma, GeorgiCover photographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dedication
[Translator's Dedication] To my grandson, Dmitri Ivanovich, with thoughts of the future
First words
As usual, at five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters.
Quotations
Apart from sleep, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner, and five at supper.
There was truth in that. Better to growl and submit. If you were stubborn they broke you.
You should rejoice that you're in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul.
When you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who’s warm.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Please do not combine editions that include other works, or critical companions and study guides (such as Monarch Notes Study Guides) with this original 1962 novel. Thank you.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374529523, Paperback)

Solzhenitsyn's first book, this economical, relentless novel is one of the most forceful artistic indictments of political oppression in the Stalin-era Soviet Union. The simply told story of a typical, grueling day of the titular character's life in a labor camp in Siberia, is a modern classic of Russian literature and quickly cemented Solzhenitsyn's international reputation upon publication in 1962. It is painfully apparent that Solzhenitsyn himself spent time in the gulags--he was imprisoned for nearly a decade as punishment for making derogatory statements about Stalin in a letter to a friend.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:04 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Ivan Denisovich is a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp who faces daily hardships and struggles to maintain his humanity.

(summary from another edition)

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