Ivan Denisovich Shukhov: archetypal stoic hero

In 1941 the Soviet Union desperately fought for survival against the Nazi onslaught. On August 16 Joseph Stalin issued order 270, and stated: “There are no Soviet prisoners of war, only traitors.”

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the story of a poor and uneducated Russian peasant. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is one of the numerous destitutes the Soviets pretended to help; before the war he and his family lived in a wood shack and did manual labor to survive. In 1943 the Nazis captured Ivan while he fought for the red army, but he escaped and got back to the Russian side. Order 270 was still in full force, he was unjustly accused of being a spy, condemned, and sent to a gulag in Siberia for 10 years. The story is narrated through his eyes during a working day in his political prison.

The gulag is a ruthless place designed to dehumanize its inmates, and turn them into fearful creatures stripped of all their dignity. Both prisoners and guards live by the rules of the survival of fittest. Mistakes are severely punished; the sanction inmates fear the most is the can: 10 days alone in a freezing cell without food. After a stay in the can the victims’ body has wasted away and many die in the following weeks. The barracks the prisoners sleep in are cold, cramped, and dirty. The nights are short, the work days are long and happen in freezing temperatures. Twelve hours of hard labor six days a week is their usual lot. For lunch and dinner they eat mushy soup made of cabbage and rotten fish.

When the day ends Ivan doesn’t dwell on the injustices of the past, the hardship of the present, or the bleakness of the future. Ivan may be uneducated, but he is a master of his own mind and he knows how to live. He counts his blessings, however meager. He re-frames the events of the day and gives the reader a radical perspective about what is valuable when one has nothing left. He focuses on what he controls, and rejoices that despite not having much, he can still earn something.

The last pages stirred powerful emotions in me; I had tears in my eyes when I closed the book. Tears of joy, and hope. Hope that I may one day be as self-possessed and stoic as Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.