The Incredible Power of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
It has been Russian writers in particular, who for two centuries have struggled against censorship and oppression to accomplish two great tasks: to create innovative and meaningful art, and to use that art to make a statement about a specifically Russian predicament. So often the theme was political, and so many generations of Russians criticised Mother Russia for her backward ways. Vissarion Belinsky's caustic admonitions in his "Letter to Gogol" were long a rallying cry for writers: "This is why, especially among us, universal attention is paid...to every manifestation of any so-called liberal trend, no matter how poor the writer's gifts...The public...sees in Russian writers its only leaders, defenders and saviours from dark autocracy, Orthodoxy, and the national way of life." This conditional existence was the inheritance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who followed the great Russian tradition of the intelligentsia. To awaken Russia's people and illuminate for them the deep recesses of a world which is yet unknown to them, this was, I believe, the greater part of why he chose to write One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and for it to be published first in Russia.
Solzhenitsyn's intent on writing One Day could never have been solely literary. If that were so, he would have chosen a safe topic, instead of one of the uttermost dangerous, forbidden subjects of the day. He chose an open attack on Stalin's penal system. Continuing to write in this vein eventually caused his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers. His expulsion made it impossible for him to earn a living as a writer where within his country. Note that One Day is only the precursor and preparation for his monumental Gulag Archipelago.
"...Solzhenitsyn's literary mission, the process of giving voice to the tens of millions of victims of Soviet terror, went on secretly, even collectively. Much of GULAG was based on hundreds of letters and memoirs that former prisoners mailed to Solzhenitsyn after One Day was published." (Remnick, 119)
When reading One Day it is overwhelming to comprehend and imagine this single dawn-to-dusk description, with the hindsight to understand that millions of multitudes of men and women suffered through such an evil scheme of servitude of cruelty.
One Day was the first book of its kind to be printed in Russia. Miraculously, it was not only printed, but subsequently soldto the citizenry, who were actually allowed to read it. This unheard-of event occurred during a very delicate period of time known as the "Khrushchev thaw", when open condemnation of the "cult of personality" began to become commonplace, even expected. These brief years of relief enjoyed a momentary artistic flowering, and poets like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Anderi Voznezensky, among others, began...