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Solzhenitsyn's 'Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' 50 years on

November 26, 2012|By Hector Tobar
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn is shown boarding a train in Vladivostok, Russia, after 20 years of exile. His story "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was the first public acknowledgment of those who suffered in the gulag during Joseph Stalin's wave of terror.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is shown boarding a train in Vladivostok, Russia,… (Reuters )

One work of literature, arguably more than any other, helped changed the course of Soviet history -- “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel of one man’s descent into Stalin’s infamous gulag.

“One Day” was published in the Soviet Union 50 years ago this month, a landmark commemorated in a series of stories from Russia.

Solzhenitsyn had been arrested during World War II and thrown into a concentration camp for writing letters critical of Stalin to a friend. While in prison, he secretly wrote a novel based on his experiences.

“The character was fictional,” the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg writes in a retrospective from Moscow. “But there were millions like him -- innocent citizens who, like Solzhenitsyn himself, had been sent to the gulag in Joseph Stalin's wave of terror."

“I was convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime,”  Solzhenitsyn said in an autobiographical sketch released by the Nobel Prize committee after he won the prize for literature in 1970. “But, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known.”

When Stalin died in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, began to close the camps. Solzhenitsyn presented his novel to the prestigious Soviet literary journal Novy Mir, which, like every other publication in the Soviet system, was under official control.

But with Khrushchev’s explicit approval, the novel was published, as part of Khrushchev’s official criticism of the “excesses” of Stalin’s reign.

“If Khrushchev hadn’t attacked Stalin at precisely that moment, my story would have never been published,” Solzhenitsyn, who died in 2008, later wrote.

Millions of Soviet citizens had either been incarcerated or had a loved one who was. Solzhenitsyn’s story was the first public acknowledgment of their suffering.

“For us, Solzhenitsyn was like a comet that fell from the sky," the literary critic Benedikt Sarnov told the wire service AFP. “This story was a huge event.” The thaw was short-lived. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and exiled.

For their story on the anniversary of “One Day,” Radio Free Europe sent a correspondent to the site of the infamous prison where Solzhenitsyn wrote the story -- in the town of Ekibastuz, in a region that passed into Kazakhstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn is not well remembered in Ekibastuz. He was an unwavering defender of Russian national pride, and he argued that Ekibastuz should have remained in Russia.

And the prison camp was long ago leveled to make way for a sports stadium. But the guides at the city’s museum will tell you about the gulag.

"There were barracks with no heating,” a tour guide told Radio Free Europe. "It was very cold. People were brought there in the clothes they were wearing when they were detained. It was so cold here that the people were dying like flies."

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