One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Novel (FSG Classics) Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition
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There was a time in the 1960s and early 1970s when we thought the Russians were winning. They were beating us, or so it seemed. Space exploration and the amassing of armies; or at least that was the story that was sold. Of course we all know now that it was propaganda. But we cannot deny the outcomes – nuclear arsenals and rockets flying close to the moon and monumental buildings and epic underground subway stations. “How is it we finally defeated them?” is often the question posed by the experts.
I have always had the opposite question, how in blazes did they make it as far as they did? Their ideology, their planning, their civilization should not have been able to put a man into space. It should not have been able to build a bomb, to invade and annex other countries. To challenge the west. Theirs is a creed of mediocrity unto death. And it’s not that they seized some developed nation; the “Empire of the Sun” controlling industrialized Japan and turning it into an elaborate war machine. They didn’t install Marxism through a worker revolt in the UK – but a peasant revolt in backward Tsarist Russia.
And they took their rabble and whipped them up into the greatest challenge the United States experienced – lasting for 70 years. They shouldn’t have been able to do that. The project should have burned itself out in a matter of years, not lasted almost a century.
All that to say, I’ve been reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s most famous (or certainly longest) novel “In the First Circle”. The first circle he is referring to is the first circle of hell, from Dante. It’s a mystery novel about a group of political prisoners who, because of their knowledge and education are taken from the gulag to a special set of prisons where they are put to work building the technological advancements of the regime. There the living conditions are moderately better; better food, better work, better sleeping, small pleasures such as reading. The book is good – if somewhat tedious, he certainly could have used an editor. But Russian novels are always a little long and sometimes too in the weeds – especially for an American audience.
What is most fascinating to me is the portrayal of Stalin’s paranoid totalitarianism and how it played out in society. How they controlled the minds of their prisoner/citizens; how they not only got them to obey but to excel, to produce out of their slave labor incredible technological achievements. They did this through allowing their prisoners to compete – if only in that one special area of life, their work for ‘Mother Russia’. By denying them any sense of individuality or satisfaction in their lives – family, faith, wealth, leisure and the like – and giving them only one outlet for expressing their humanity, their productivity in their slave labor, the Soviet dictatorship figured out how to make them productive.
This was hard for me to understand at first. Why didn’t they starve themselves, why didn’t they refuse to work – denying their captors their minds? But in the interactions of the prisoners on the pages of Solzhenitsyn’s novel I started to better understand how the soviet system functioned for so long. It’s a little ironic that the only way it was able to stabilize and advance was through competition – even the limited competition in the limited avenues available to the oppressed. But humanity does find a way, doesn’t it? Even in the harshest of circumstances, people seek to let their inner light shine through – a lesson that all despots learn sooner or later.
Let us hope we’re done with totalitarianism – although I know that hope is probably empty. So too let us read and reread the works of Solzhenitsyn and Rand and Orwell and the other great novelists of freedom lest we forget what makes those regimes tick forward, and we lose our ability to fight them.
One chapter sticks out: Chapter 82 -- Indoctrination in Optimism. It can stand alone, and provides a crushing description of life not only in the Gulag but also life in the Soviet Union outside of the Gulag. It should be read by every high school student for its literary merit, and also for its content.
The foreword points out how the previous "censored" version, while itself great, presents a tamer story. This uncensored version should be the one you read.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Note: This is a Russian novel, in the sense of The Brothers Karamazov. By that I mean it is long, and has much introspection and dialogue on philosophical topics. That's not a bug, but a feature. And it is worth it to take your time reading those chapters.
I attempted to get through the Gulag Archipelagos - but I was too much a teenager to pull reading those off.