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In From the Cold

Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich at 60.

· 15 min read
In From the Cold
One Day in the Life of Ivan (1970) directed by Caspar Wrede / Alamy

Sixty years ago, on Saturday, November 17th, 1962, a book was published in the Soviet Union that almost certainly changed the world. It would be the first step in a writer’s public exposure of an entire political system, and it was taken at great personal risk. Almost overnight, it made its author world famous, and decades later, historians and critics would still be describing him as “the dominant writer of the 20th century,” and observing that he had helped “to bring down the greatest tyranny the world has ever known.” The book in question was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the writer—who would later win a Nobel Prize and sell 30 million copies of his work—was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The book was published less than 10 years after the death of Joseph Stalin, the dictator who had frozen his country in fear for nearly three decades and subjected his people to widespread deportation, imprisonment, and death. His successor Nikita Khrushchev—a man who, by his own admission, came to the job “elbow deep in blood”—had set out on a redemptive mission to liberalise the country. The Gulags had been opened and a swathe of prisoners freed; Khrushchev had denounced his predecessor publicly as a tyrant and a criminal and, at the 22nd Party Congress in October 1961, a full programme of de-Stalinisation had been announced. As for the Arts, previously neutered by the Kremlin’s policy of “Socialist Realism”—in which the values of Communism had to be resoundingly affirmed—they too were changing. Now, a new openness and a new realism was called for by Khrushchev’s supporters: books must tell the truth, even the uncomfortable truth about Communist reality… up to a point. That this point advanced or retreated as Khrushchev’s power ebbed and flowed was something no writer or publisher could afford to miss.

Solzhenitsyn’s book told the story of a single day in the 10-year prison-camp sentence of a Gulag inmate (or zek) named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Following decades of silence about Stalin’s prison-camp system and the innocent citizens languishing within it, the book’s appearance seemed to make the ground shake and fissure beneath people’s feet. “My face was smothered in tears,” one woman wrote to the author after she read it. “I didn’t wipe them away or feel ashamed because all this, packed into a small number of pages … was mine, intimately mine, mine for every day of the fifteen years I spent in the camps.” Another compared his book to an “atomic bomb.” For such a slender volume—about 180 pages—the seismic wave it created was a freak event.


As was the story of its publication. By the time it came out, there was virtually no trauma its author—a 44-year-old married maths teacher working in the provincial city of Ryazan—had not survived. After a youth spent in Rostov during the High Terror of Stalin’s 1930s, Solzhenitsyn had gone on to serve eagerly in the Red Army at the East Prussian front, before disaster struck in 1945. Arrested for some ill-considered words about Stalin in a letter to a friend, he was handed an eight-year Gulag sentence. In 1953, he was sent into Central Asian exile, only to be diagnosed with cancer and given three weeks to live. After a miraculous recovery, he vowed to dedicate this “second life” to a higher purpose. His writing, honed in the camps, now took on the ruthless character of a holy mission. In this, he was fortified by the Russian Orthodox faith he’d rediscovered during his sentence, and which had replaced his once-beloved, now abandoned Marxism.

Solzhenitsyn had, since his youth, wanted to make his mark as a Russian writer. In the Gulag, he’d written cantos of poetry in his head, memorized with the help of matchsticks and rosary beads to hide it from the authorities. During his Uzbekistan exile, he’d follow a full day’s work with hours of secret nocturnal writing about the darker realities of Soviet life, burying his tightly rolled manuscripts in a champagne bottle in the garden. Later, reunited with the wife he’d married before the war, he warned her to expect no more than an hour of his company a day—“I must not swerve from my purpose.” No friendships—especially close ones—were allowed to develop with his fellow Ryazan teachers, lest they take up valuable writing time, discover his perilous obsession, or blow his cover. Subterfuge became second nature: “The pig that keeps its head down grubs up the tastiest root.” Yet throughout it all, he was sceptical that his work would ever be available to the general public: “Publication in my lifetime I must put out of my mind.”

After the 22nd Party Congress, however, Solzhenitsyn recognised that the circumstances were at last propitious, if all too fleeting. “I read and reread those speeches,” he wrote later, “and the walls of my secret world swayed like curtains in the theatre … had it arrived, then, the long-awaited moment of terrible joy, the moment when my head must break water?” It seemed that it had. He got out one of his eccentric-looking manuscripts—double-sided, typed without margins, and showing all the signs of its concealment—and sent it to the literary journal of his choice. That publication was the widely read, epoch-making Novy Mir (“New World”), a magazine whose progressive staff hoped to drag society away from Stalinism. They had kept up a steady backwards-forwards dance with the Khrushchev regime throughout the 1950s, invigorated by the thought that each new issue might be their last.

This is a story not of one Aleksandr but of two. Aleksandr Tvardovsky was Novy Mir’s legendary editor and an accomplished poet from a peasant family in Smolensk. He had achieved fame during World War II for his epic verse about a common soldier named Vasily Tyorkin, which resonated with the general public. It helped that Tvardovsky was also a convinced Stalinist at the time. “What would have become of me without the Revolution?” he was apt to wonder aloud. He had been so in love with Bolshevism from the start that he’d denounced his own father to the police. It was an act for which his later career as an anti-Stalinist editor was surely an attempt to atone.

By the time he received Solzhenitsyn’s manuscript, Tvardovsky, like the country, had been through a sea-change. Following Khrushchev’s revelations about the great dictator, the editor had turned on his former idol. He was finally able to acknowledge to himself that his infatuation was in fact bottled-up hatred. Tormented by his own past decisions—even in the Khrushchev era he’d denounced Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, a work of genius that had nonetheless displeased the authorities—Tvardovsky berated himself and drank like a dromedary.

Yet even when drunk, he would never, said Novy Mir colleague Vladimir Lakshin, utter a word to hurt anyone “with whom he felt a sincere affinity” or speak highly of anything he “would not praise when sober.” He had, added Lakshin, a “particular dignity and moral strength,” a “simplicity and gentle sense of humour” that made him loved by those who worked under him. What made Tvardovsky a “true editor, an editor unlike others,” Solzhenitsyn said later, was that he yearned “to discover new authors, as feverishly, passionately, as any prospector longs to find gold.” But of all his discoveries, the best, brightest, and finally the most rebellious and ungrateful, would always be Solzhenitsyn, whose manuscript had just landed on his desk.

That it got there at all was down to sheer luck. Prose editor Anna Berzer had seen the ugly-looking manuscript and, realising its literary quality within a few moments of reading it, had it retyped and sent past the middlemen at the magazine straight to Tvardovsky. The editor took it home and cast a casual eye over it before bedtime. After a few pages, he decided—or so the story goes—that it was too good to read in his pyjamas. Putting on a suit and tie, he spent all night in his office reading and rereading with mounting exhilaration. “He’s got a wonderful, pure and great talent,” he declared the following day. “Not a drop of falsehood in it. … They say Russian literature has been killed. … Dammit! It’s here! In this folder…”

To understand the jubilation caused by this single short book, recall that it was speaking openly, honestly, and in forensic detail about subjects central to Soviet life but hitherto forbidden. In the West, everything is permitted and nothing matters, went a truism. In the Soviet world, the same statement only applied if “nothing” and “everything” in that sentence were reversed. The authors Pilnyak and Babel had been executed under Stalin for their works; poet Osip Mandelstam had been driven to his death; the great poetess Anna Akhmatova had been persecuted to a point of near-madness and starvation. Even Khrushchev, in 1957, had threatened a gathering of Soviet writers with the bullet if they didn’t fall into line: “My hand would not tremble,” he raved at them. Russia so respected its writers, the old saying went, that it would often pay them the compliment of killing them.

But it was Khrushchev—who was by now calling for greater openness—whose permission Tvardovsky needed to publish Solzhenitsyn’s book, and in this he showed strategic and political cunning. Tvardovsky slowly built a coalition of literary support for the book, and the Kremlin back-channels he approached as a member of the Supreme Soviet finally bore fruit. The Soviet leader—who hated reading—was brought to tears by the simple descriptions of Ivan Denisovich’s day at work in the camp, and subsequently bullied the Central Committee into approving it. When Tvardovsky and his magazine finally received the green light to publish, his sense of triumph was boundless. “The bird is free, the bird is free!” he cried, dancing about his office.

When he finally saw his tale bound between Novy Mir’s famous blue covers, Solzhenitsyn was similarly overwhelmed: “I imagined the truth about the way we had lived in the camps emerging like some hideously cruel monster into the light of day, where the ill-informed millions could see it—and in the luxury of my hotel room I wept, for the first time, as I read the story.”

Novy Mir’s initial print run of 100,000 copies sold out immediately upon publication. Another 750,000, produced by a mass-circulation journal, were then snapped up hungrily by readers, followed by 100,000 more in a special edition before the hardliners in Khrushchev’s cabinet stymied the process. But the genie was out of the bottle. Critic and children’s writer Kornei Chukovsky called it “a literary miracle.” Novelist Grigori Baklanov declared that it was now “impossible to go on writing as one did before.” In 1963, the book would be translated and published in the English-speaking world, and sales would go stratospheric.

Stripped of its historical context, it might be difficult to read Ivan Denisovich today and see quite what the fuss was about. Set beside Solzhenitsyn’s mighty later books—the mystical power of 1968’s The First Circle (which he’d actually written first); the palpable warmth and generous anger of Cancer Ward (also 1968); the transfixing, relentless lava-flow of The Gulag ArchipelagoIvan Denisovich seems like a minor work. Besides, Russian writers like Eugenia Ginzburg or Varlam Shalamov had written, for many, more movingly of their camp experiences than had Solzhenitsyn in this particular work.

Yet it’s arguably Solzhenitsyn’s cool objectivity—so different from the thunderous pulpit-bashing of his later years—that continues to make it unique, and worthy of standing beside books like Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man (1947). Playwright Ronald Harwood, who would write the screenplay for the 1970 film adaptation of Ivan Denisovich, pointed out that Solzhenitsyn’s novella rigorously avoids sensation, and simply describes a single day in another world. “This is how we millions lived. This is how we suffered. This is how we—perhaps—survived.” Part of the book’s power comes from showing a point of transformation—the new type of citizen the brutality of camp life automatically created. For the zeks are locked in a permanent, daily battle, which absorbs them from morning to night, from the moment a banging guard wakes them in the morning, to when they fall asleep at night, wrung out and shattered.

One of the prisoners’ chief enemies is the cold. It steals through windows, permeates undergarments, burns, silences, chastens, and mortifies the men it victimises. It turns the ground into iron which the pickaxes of work brigades glance off violently, endangering their quota and threatening them with the horror of “punishment rations.” Wet boots are a disaster. Burned boots from trying to warm yourself by the work fire are even worse, sprouting cracks and holes that may torture you with frostbite. The rag you stretch across your face for protection soon ices over and becomes as firm as plywood. Solzhenitsyn was brilliant at conveying such details, but he knew his limits. Can a man who’s warm, he asked, understand one who’s freezing?

One Day in the Life of Ivan, directed by Caspar Wrede (1970) / Alamy

The prisoners’ other great battle is for food. Some of the most vivid passages in the book are the descriptions of Ivan sucking the flesh from an old fishbone or hiding his daily ration of bread inside the sewn-up hollows in his mattress or work-jacket, fretting all the time that it will be discovered. This is food as fuel, and men fight like dogs over an abandoned half-bowl of gruel or to lick the dirty plates. There can be few books in which such distressing meals are written about so rapturously: “Back in camp after a whole day of buffeting wind, freezing cold, and an empty belly, the zek longs for his ladleful of scalding-hot watery evening soup as for rain in time of drought. … For the moment that ladleful means more to him than freedom, more than his whole past life, more than whatever life is left to him.”

One of the few areas that binds the men together is work. It has to, for whole work-gangs may be punished for one member’s laziness. Though you’re herded to it like cattle, work absorbs you, warms you up, joins you to others, and may be the one place where your idealism can express itself. Shukhov invariably labours till the very last minute so as not to waste materials, and ignores the foreman’s orders to chuck away mortar even if it means saving energy. He knows that “work is what horses die of” but he “was the sort of fool who couldn’t let anything or anybody’s work go to waste, and nobody would ever teach him any better.” Yet the writer is unsparing about the disaster that a snowed-over ramp, its ridges and footholds flattened out, can be to a wheelbarrow pusher, or that a slowly freezing bucket of cement can be to a bricklayer. Or about the fear that your favourite tool, put down carelessly for a moment, may be stolen in seconds by another zek.

There were reportedly a staggering 30,000 prison-camps across the USSR, a number that defies belief. And this is but one day, endured by one of millions of prisoners, in just one of them. We’re shocked to find, at the end of this picture of hell, that for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, it was “such a good day he didn’t really feel much like sleeping.” Not getting put in the slammer, not getting caught with contraband in his pocket, scoring some tobacco, getting an extra bowl of gruel at dinnertime: these were the small victories that amounted to a kind of happiness in the camps.

This hidden reality at the dark heart of the Soviet Union was barely spoken about even when it happened to family, friends, or neighbours. Even when the law of silence slowly lifted, people often simply lacked the words to express it. How could you describe an experience so immense that it forever altered the way you moved your body, the expression on your face, the language you used, the very emotions available to you? How could you make—as Solzhenitsyn asked—a warm person imagine the cold?

Readers could now picture that and more through Solzhenitsyn’s short novel. It was because a specific moment in history of just a few short months happened to coincide with the confluence of three characters: Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky, and Khrushchev. This made the book’s publication a minor miracle, yet it was too much of a fluke to last. Within weeks, the hardliners in Khrushchev’s cabinet, emboldened by his political and economic failures, had started a backlash. Just two years later, Khrushchev would be deposed and a partial re-Stalinisation would begin. Solzhenitsyn was widely denounced and further publication of his novels in the USSR was blocked for over 20 years. Nominated for the coveted Lenin Prize for literature in 1963, a whispering campaign against him would see it handed instead to a relative unknown, the Ukrainian, O. Honchar. Tvardovsky and Solzhenitsyn would argue and fall out over the latter’s perceived disloyalty, with Tvardovsky’s staunch colleague Lakshin condemning the writer as a “prison-camp wolf.” As for Tvardovsky, he was hounded out of his job by the new regime and died in December 1971. The official obituary published in the USSR made no mention of his time at Novy Mir at all.

Following a Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, an attempt was made by the KGB on Solzhenitsyn’s life. In the wake of its failure, he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974. After the completion of his three-volume Gulag Archipelago (1973–75)—a work that was like a triple wrecking ball to the USSR’s reputation beyond its borders—Solzhenitsyn never again wrote a book that would reach such a wide foreign audience. When his Red Wheel cycle of books (1971–91) appeared, the writer was accused of succumbing to graphomania, scribbling frantically (and indigestibly) for an ever-dwindling audience. Whether this criticism is fair or not is an open question: virtually nobody outside of academic departments has read beyond the first volume. His greatest success since Gulag Archipelago was with Rebuilding Russia (1990), a tract which, in the USSR, had a circulation of over 20 million readers. With a now-disturbing ominousness, it called for a pan-Slavic Union which, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, would include Ukraine.

Under Putin, a strange dual process has taken place. Solzhenitsyn the Orthodox Russian nationalist, who began to predominate over the novelist and dissident in the 1990s, has been honoured and exploited by the regime since his death, and statues and roads now bear his name. In the last years of his life, Solzhenitsyn in turn openly, if not uncritically, supported the regime, praising Putin for “resurrecting Russia,” fulminating against NATO’s “encirclement” of his country, and speaking of the Kremlin’s “sensible” foreign policy.

In 2007, he readily accepted a prestigious State Award from Putin, having turned down similar honours from his predecessors Gorbachev and Yeltsin, both of whom were much more liberal figures. Later that same day, he received the Russian President in his home. Where, critics demanded, was the earlier Solzhenitsyn, who would have railed about the 2006 assassinations of Putin critics Anna Politkovskaya in St. Petersburg and Aleksandr Litvinenko in London, or would have blasted Putin’s rigid control over all major TV stations in the country? He seemed, step by step, to be dismantling his own moral authority or, as the Russians put it, “ruining his autopsy.”

In his homeland, novels like First Circle or Cancer Ward go almost unread now, as does Ivan Denisovich. For his anti-Soviet activities and the decades in which he relentlessly exposed the crimes of totalitarianism, he’s frequently dismissed in conversation as “a traitor to his country.” Those who pass over him refer airily to the “lies” told in his books, but rarely specify what they are. The government’s much-publicised introduction of The Gulag Archipelago onto school syllabuses has proved to be a damp squib, its students studying this 2,500+ page book for a mere class or two in the final year. With the repressions of the Stalin years downplayed by Putin-era history textbooks, there’s little context available to make sense of it all. As Stalin’s posthumous reputation has soared in Russia, helped along by an authoritarian state with despotic abuses of its own to justify, Solzhenitsyn’s has slumped. Even in Rostov-on-Don, the city of his childhood and youth, of which he’s without doubt the most famous ex-resident, it’s not unusual to find that young people, even the more educated among them, have never heard his name.

Yet there was a glorious period of several decades when he was hailed as a literary prophet of almost unparalleled courage; when the appearance of a new book by Solzhenitsyn was a genuine event, not just in literature but in history itself. On his 50th birthday in 1968, during a temporary thaw in their froideur, Solzhenitsyn received a telegram from Tvardovsky, his former mentor. “May you live another fifty years and may your talent lose none of its splendid strength. All else passes; only the truth will remain.” Tvardovsky would have found himself disappointed on the first two counts—Solzhenitsyn would die aged 89 in 2008, his talent looking decidedly spent. Yet one hopes his final words prove accurate regarding the long-term survival of Solzhenitsyn’s early and most valuable works.

Ivan Denisovich, the very first of them, retains an unvarnished and savage authenticity—a clear eye and restraint, and above all, a determination to speak the truth in an aggressive empire ruled and propped up by deceit. It led to the trio of books that followed—The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago—which gave you the sense of an almighty sensibility, with breadth and depth of experience, the rage to pass it on, and an almost bloody-minded determination, in the title of one of his best-known essays, to “live not by lies.” Given the events of this year in Russia and beyond, it is time for Solzhenitsyn-the-dissident’s exile to end, for the rehabilitation of that aspect of him to begin, and for the writer and his books—the earlier, more mutinous ones at any rate—to come shivering in from the cold.

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