The Soviet Union 50 years ago allowed publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s landmark account of life in the Stalin prison camps “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, shocking readers by revealing a hitherto hidden horror.
In November 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was looking for a powerful symbol that could help his risky campaign to expunge Stalin’s lasting impact on political and cultural life. He found it in a story by the then unknown author Solzhenitsyn.
The year before, Khrushchev had publicly denounced the late dictator’s crimes and ordered that his body be moved out of the Lenin mausoleum on Red Square. But he wanted to deliver another strong blow to critical conservatives in the Communist Party.
After a long hesitation, Khrushchev approved publication of the text, a story that was a one-day snapshot of a wrongfully-accused man’s life behind prison camp walls somewhere in the wind-swept plains of the vast country.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published on November 18, 1962 in Novy Mir, a prestigious literary monthly. The impact of this story, the first account of prison camps printed in the Soviet Union, was enormous.
“For us, Solzhenitsyn was like a comet that fell from the sky. This story was a huge event,” said literary critic Benedikt Sarnov.
The public fought over the magazine issue, thousands of readers wrote to the author and the editor, wanting to share their own stories, including former prisoners and relatives of people who had been deported or executed.
Solzhenitsyn wrote the story in 1959, drawing from his own experience of eight years in labour camps and prison after police intercepted his letter to a friend which criticised Stalin. He spent a large part of his sentence in the Ekibastuz camp in modern-day Kazakhstan.
“My father died in prison when I was five,” said Arseny Roginsky, a former dissident who now heads the Memorial rights group.
“What struck me in ‘Ivan Denisovich’ was that it talked about things that even my father’s friends talked about, including the ones that spent time in the camps.”
The story quickly rocketed Solzhenitsyn to international fame and was translated into many languages.
Khrushchev succeeded in his plan, and signs of a thaw were seen both domestically and from abroad, signalling a break from the Stalin era.
The thaw, however, was not a lasting one, and Khrushchev began to lean more towards the conservatives in just a few months. He declared the topic of prison camps “dangerous for society”, saying that Stalin’s mistakes should be pointed out along with his successes.
Publication of other prison camp accounts, such as Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales” and Eugenia Ginzburg’s autobiography “Journey into the Whirlwind”, did not see the light until the perestroika period.
“If Khrushchev hadn’t attacked Stalin at precisely that moment, my story would have never been published,” Solzhenitsyn, who died in 2008, later wrote.
Khrushchev however could not predict that by enforcing his position against the Stalinists with the help of the story’s young author, he helped Solzhenitsyn to go on and write the Gulag Archipelago, the encyclopaedic narrative about repression under Lenin and Stalin.
“When One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich first appeared, I was inundated with thousands of letters and testimonies,” Solzhenitsyn said in one interview.
“I began correspondence with the most interesting authors. I understood that fate was sending me exactly what I needed: material for writing Archipelago,” he added.
Once Khrushchev was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, things changed drastically for Solzhenitsyn. “One Day” disappeared from libraries. Books were destroyed. In magazines, pages with the story were torn out, and the title and author’s name was blackened out in the table of contents.
Until the end of the Soviet era, the story, along with other works by Solzhenitsyn, could only be circulated via the dissident practice of samizdat, or self-publishing by hand or typewriter.
During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin in post-Soviet Russia, it became part of the official required school reading program, where it remains today. – AFP