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One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (contains spoilers)

I  finished reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich today. It's Solzhenitsyn's first novel, and is pretty well described by the title. It deals with a day in the life of a Soviet work camp prisoner named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

It was a somewhat easier read than I expected. Russian novels are often difficult for me because it's confusing (for me at least) to keep up with all the Russian names. I was helped by two things. It is a relatively short novel. Also I'd bought it from a used book store, and the previous owner had highlighted the names of the characters as they were introduced. That was helpful.

It was also  less depressing than I expected. Solzhenitsyn is of course most famous for The Gulag Archipelago, which catalogs the real horrors of Soviet work camps. The work camp described in this novel was very unpleasant and unjust place. It was a place I would never want to be. But the worst horrors I have read about in books like The Black Book Of Communism  were not there.

As I've said, the camp in the book was harsh and cruel.  The inmates had meager food, shelter, and clothing. They were bullied by guards. But Shukhov (as the title character is referred to in the book) develops  various strategies for making the best of it. He knows where to get black market food and tobacco, and knows  which guards were crueler than the others. He is also skillful  at evading the harsh punishment  meted out to people who break petty rules.

At the end of the book, he says a prayer of thanksgiving that he was not locked up in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement in this book is a punishment so harsh that inmates who are in there for 10 days are effected for the rest of their lives if they survive. Shukhov is inured to the harsh treatment he receives, and is grateful (to God, not his captors) because he knows even harsher treatment is a possibility.

Solzhenitsyn does a good job of putting you inside the head of someone who thinks that way. It made me forget that I probably would not survive one day in the camp described in this book.

Less negatively, it is an object lesson on how someone who is clever enough and has a strong enough will can survive in an extremely harsh and unjust environment.