Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In his first novel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave the world a grittily realistic view of the brutalities of life in a Stalin-era prison camp through the eyes of a peasant. The struggle within the Soviet government over whether to allow the book’s publication helped shape the Communist Party’s attitudes and project of de-Stalinization in the early 1960’s.

Summary of Event

It was a most extraordinary manuscript that arrived at the editorial offices of the literary journal Novy mir Novy mir (periodical) (new world) that December in 1961, shortly after Soviet first secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev’s now-famous secret speech Secret Speech (Khrushchev) had begun the process of de-Stalinization []De-Stalinization . In complete contravention to standard manuscript format, the manuscript was typed single-spaced, on both sides of the page. That alone should have been enough to garner its instant rejection. There was something compelling, however, about the text that led an assistant copy editor to take a closer look at it. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solzhenitsyn) [kw]Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Nov., 1962) [kw]Soviet Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a (Nov., 1962) [kw]Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet (Nov., 1962) [kw]One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in (Nov., 1962) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solzhenitsyn) [g]Europe;Nov., 1962: Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich[07410] [g]Soviet Union;Nov., 1962: Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich[07410] [c]Literature;Nov., 1962: Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich[07410] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, Aleksandr Trifonovich Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;de-Stalinization Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;human rights

She found it so poweful that she passed it up to the editor, Aleksandr Trifonovich Tvardovsky. He took the manuscript home, intending to give it a casual perusal as he was getting ready for bed. However, after reading a few pages, he decided that the novel deserved more respect: He got up, dressed as he would for the office, and went out to the front room to read the rest properly. When he was done, he read it a second time.

By the time Tvardovsky was finished with his second reading, it was morning. He made calls throughout his circle of friends, telling them the wonderful news that he had just found a novel of incomparable power by a totally unknown writer hiding under the pseudonym of Ryazansky. After some careful inquiries, he discovered that the writer was a schoolteacher in the village of Ryazan—hence the pseudonym, which was the name of his residence with the adjectival ending appended.

Thus, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entered the Soviet literary scene. His novel described, in starkly realist language, a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Stalin-era prison camp, as he went about the modest yet all-encompassing task of surviving until bedtime. The novel’s brilliance lay in its refusal to draw any explicit lessons from the experience of its protagonist. Instead, it simply presented his choices and experiences from sunup to sundown, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

Solzhenitsyn knew whereof he wrote, having spent years in Stalin’s prison camps Human rights;Soviet Union after offering veiled criticisms of Stalin in letters to a friend during World War II (the Great Patriotic War, in Soviet parlance). Because he had training as an engineer, Solzhenitsyn had first been sent to a prison laboratory, or sharashka, where he was allowed to work on various secret technical projects. After he had built up the necessary mental and spiritual toughness to survive the rigors of the real prison camps, he was transported east to Siberia, where he saw the worst of Stalinism and, paradoxically, the best of humanity. Often, he saw fellow prisoners, or zeks, performing acts of kindness to someone who might not otherwise have survived.

It was the fruit of this constant observation of people and events through those years, along with his very deliberate honing of his mastery of the Russian language, that gave Solzhenitsyn’s novel its power. However, Tvardovsky felt that its title, which was the prisoner number of the protagonist, should be replaced with a more evocative one based upon the novel’s final sentence. Thus, Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) got the title by which it would be known to the literary world. Otherwise, there were only a few minor corrections to be made—small mistakes in Ukrainian, a few sentences changed to give hope that the protagonist would survive and once again be a free man—before it was ready to go to print.

Even before it appeared in Novy Mir, the fame of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich spread throughout literary circles in the Soviet Union. People were making unauthorized copies right and left, and many were reading them to friends and memorizing whole chapters. There was the real danger of an unauthorized Western edition, which could have brought disaster on everybody involved in the effort to bring out an authorized publication.

Tvardovsky was desperate to get the novel past the censors and into print before something politically catastrophic happened. Finally, he used his connections with the Kremlin and, after much effort to penetrate the bureaucratic maze, was able to get Khrushchev himself interested in the novel. After one of his subordinates read several key scenes to him, Khrushchev personally authorized Tvardovsky to publish the novel in Novy Mir. Furthermore, he was to provide twenty-three copies for the perusal of the members of the Communist Party’s Communist Party, Soviet;and literature[literature] Central Committee, to be sent the very next morning.

Needless to say, there was no way to have that many copies typed in such a short time. Since this was before the days of photocopying, the only way to produce twenty-three copies overnight was by printing press. Tvardovsky decided to put out a limited edition: He secured four of the presses of the Communist Party newspaper Izvestia, along with four proofreaders and typesetters, all sworn to the strictest secrecy. When the work was done, the plates were locked away as carefully as if they were a state secret.

Even after Khrushchev got the members of the Central Committee to read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he encountered resistance to the idea of allowing it to be published. At length, he told the committee members that there was a Stalinist in each of them, even in himself, and it must be rooted out. When nobody dared raise an objection, he announced that he was taking their silence as consent and issued his resolution allowing it to be published. Amid jublilation at the success of their efforts, the Novy Mir editorial staff summoned Solzhenitsyn to go through the page proofs one last time before the novel would come out.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Suddenly, Solzhenitsyn found himself catapaulted from complete obscurity to the forefront of Soviet literature. He was privileged to visit with such then-living greats of Russian literature as Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, whose reputations had been secured when Solzhenitsyn was yet a boy. Nor were the author’s meetings confined to literary leaders, for at a special plenary session of the Communist Central Committee, its entire membership was ordered by Khrushchev to read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and to confront what it represented. They were not happy with being confronted with the crimes of the Stalin era, and they did not like being shaken out of their cozy world of private shops and luxury limousines to have to see the world through the eyes of an ordnary peasant. Already, some corrosive criticism was beginning to appear against One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, complaining that the the author should have written from the point of view of an intellectual, and that a peasant simply could not appreciate the complexity of Soviet society.

It might be easy to claim that such criticism missed the point of the novel—and it was certainly opposed to any semblance of Marxist ideology, which emphasized class consciousness. At one level, however, the Soviet elite caught the point of Solzhenitsyn’s novel quite well—and they did not like it one bit. They did not want to have to confront the arrogance of the intellectuals who had unilaterally decided what was best for Russian society and killed millions in imposing their will, and that was exactly what they were seeing through the eyes of this peasant who had suffered the consequences.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich not only made the career of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn but also opened the door for further exploration of the Stalin era in literature, particularly the experience of those unjustly imprisoned. However, not long after the thaw in Soviet censorship began, the doors that Khrushchev had opened were slammed shut once again. The Communist Party leaders had wanted just enough openness and examination of Stalin’s crimes to further their own programs of reform, but not so much that difficult questions might be asked about their own complicity in those crimes.

Solzhenitsyn went from literary lion to outcast just as quickly as he had been thrust into the limelight. He was finally expelled from the Soviet Union and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. He settled in a walled compound in Vermont, not to return to his native land until the Soviet Union fell after the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev failed to revivify the Soviet system. The West, however, recognized the greatness of Solzhenitsyn’s works, awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn[Solzhenitsyn] in 1970. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solzhenitsyn)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich. Khrushchev Remembers. Translated by Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. A revealing primary source, although with certain predictable blind spots regarding Khrushchev’s own complicity in many of the crimes he describes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Medina, Loreta, ed. Readings on “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001. A collection of articles on the novel, covering theme, characterization, form and style and the politics of its publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, D. H. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A thorough biography of Solzhenitsyn, with some interesting background material on the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich not available before the fall of the Soviet Union.

Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature

Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control

Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime

Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published

Khrushchev Falls from Power

Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy

Categories: History