|This map shows the widespread distribution of prisoners in Soviet Russia|
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
I believe One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the first "adult" book I ever read on my own, or close to it. I can still remember the paperback cover in my hand. The Cold War is a living example of how recent important historical events can rapidly recede in important when more recent historical events create a new framework for looking at that history. Although Russia remains a frequent topic of conversation, Communism, with it's peculiar institutions, has functionally vanished from the world. Most people, if they have an thoughts about Communism, use late stage, pre collapse Communism as their reference point. This perspective eclipses the decades between the end of World War II and the late 1980's, when Communism was an existential threat to the west.
Solzhenitsyn was an icon of this period, a victim of Stalinist era insanity, he was exiled to series of prison camps and exile within the vast expanses of Soviet era Central Asia. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is his hit. It tells of a single day in the life of the titular hero, who is called Shukov, at a Russian prison camp. The day in question is a winter's day, and the experience of being a prisoner, with all the inferior treatment that entails, in a Russian prison camp in the dead of winter sums up the take away the reader gets from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
It's hard not to compare One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Survival in Auschwitz, the Holocaust memoir written by Primo Levi. There is no doubt that the Stalinist era camps, while insanely horrific, were a step below the Nazi death camps. Although Stalin murdered with genocidal flair, there was no Soviet equivalent to the trucking of millions of victims to an industrially sized gas chamber. Another difference between Nazi and Soviet Concentration camps was the principle that Soviet camps had a goal of "re-education." The Nazi camps were simply punitive.
The totalitarian prison camp experience is one of the defining moments of 20th century history. It's something that future generations will look back on with horror, even as different and newer horrors replace it in contemporary experience. As a young reader I remember being horrified by the Communist aspect of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Today, I see it as much more universal work, not limited to Communist prison camps but rather serving as an excellent example for the global phenomenon of the concentration/prison camp.