When Alexander Solzhenitsyn died in August 2008, the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared that his works had "changed the consciousness of millions of people."
The most significant of those works was perhaps One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.
I first read the novel when my high school history teacher suggested it as background reading for a course on Soviet history. I was transfixed. This slender volume was worth any number of textbooks or fat historical tomes. It brought to life the staggering injustices of the political system through its flesh and blood characters.
The crimes committed by the camp's inmates are not what we would consider crimes. Ivan was captured by the Germans in World War II and consequently accused of being a spy. Gopchik took milk to freedom fighters hiding in the woods. Another prisoner's so-called crime was to be the son of a kulak, a rich peasant.
The book also highlights the unquenchable thirst for a spiritual dimension to life even in the most arid of circumstances. That's another reason I keep going back to it. Ivan is not religious, but toward the end of the novel, after a day spent desperately securing his bread ration, he follows the advice of a devout inmate and sacrifices one of his worldly goods — a biscuit. He experiences a sense of inner peace, and we are reminded that man cannot live by bread alone.
The novel also makes clear that the struggle for human dignity is never ending. Ivan Denisovich, through the course of his day, constantly fights the attempts by the authorities to dehumanize him — not through outward rebellion, but through small acts of resistance. Despite the overwhelming cold, for instance, he removes his hat before meal times, a ritual he associates with civilized behavior.
With every fiber of his being, Ivan clings to what makes him his own man. When he is desperate for a smoke, and one of the other "zeks" (prisoners) lights up a cigarette, it takes a mighty effort of will not to show his desperation. "Every nerve in his body was taut, all his longing was concentrated in that cigarette butt ... but he would never lower himself ... he would never look at a man's mouth"
On the surface, this is a simple story, simply told. It is easy to read, but like all the best books it lingers with you. Look beneath the surface, and you will see how quietly and elegantly its author deals in subversion.
Ivan Denisovich isn't just a book for students of history — it speaks to us all. "Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?" Ivan muses. Putting yourself in another's position, seeing the world through a different set of eyes — that is what the Solzhenitsyn is driving at. It is the beginning of empathy, the beginning of morality, and it is something that the finest literature can achieve.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.