Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I(sayevich) (Vol. 26) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aleksandr I(sayevich) Solzhenitsyn 1918–

Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic.

Solzhenitsyn attained world prominence with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an authentic portrayal of life in Joseph Stalin's labor camps, where Solzhenitsyn himself had spent eight years. The novel was among the first works critical of the Stalin era to be published in the Soviet Union. It is widely read by young adults for its powerful treatment of the loss of freedom and for its emotional and philosophical impact. Solzhenitsyn's persistent activities as a dissident and outspoken critic of literary censorship led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1969 and the censorship of his subsequent publications in Russia.

Now living in the United States, Solzhenitsyn continues to write in exile of the oppression in his own land, as well as to speak of his concern for the political and moral problems of the West. Rejecting the precepts of socialist realism, he writes from a Christian point of view, depicting the suffering of the innocent in a world where good and evil vie for the human soul. In this he is thematically linked to the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. His writing, distinguished by its austere, simple style, shows his compassion and moral concern. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., 69-72.)

Marvin L. Kalb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On November 20, 1962, Novy Mir, a monthly Soviet literary magazine, published a short novel by an unknown Russian writer, Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, entitled One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was an immediate literary and political sensation…. [The] title character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, was quickly recognized throughout the country as a touching symbol of the suffering which the Russian people had endured under the Stalinist system.

Was there anything special about Ivan that sparked this lightning response? Not really. Ivan was an ordinary Russian caught up in the swirl and chaos of World War II. Like millions of other Russians, he served uncomplainingly in the Red Army for four years, surviving the bitter cold and hunger of the Western front. In 1945, he and a friend were captured by the Germans. After a few days they managed to escape and returned to Russian lines. Ironically, Instead of being decorated for heroism and loyalty, Ivan was arrested by Stalin's supersensitive secret police, who accused him of high treason and charged that he had returned only to spy for the Germans. Confused and helpless, afraid that he would be shot if he tried to explain. Ivan "confessed." He was sentenced to ten years in a Siberian concentration camp. Solzhenitsyn's book describes one day in that camp, one day no better and no worse than any of the other three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days of Ivan's sentence. Ivan's experience was no isolated miscarriage of justice; it was typical of the Stalinist system, under which the labor camps of Siberia were crowded with Russians whose "crime" may have been nothing greater than a careless remark about Stalin to a tattletale neighbor. There is hardly a Russian family today that managed to escape this tragic fate. Almost every one of them had a father or a husband or a son or a cousin who "sat"—the Russian euphemism for serving a term, generally unwarranted, in the...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Alexander Tvardovsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The raw material of life which serves as a basis for A. Solzhenitsyn's [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich] is unusual in Soviet literature. It carries within itself an echo of the painful features in our development related to the cult of personality that has been debunked and repudiated by the Party…. (p. 13)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not a document in the sense of being a memoir, nor is it notes or reminiscences of the author's personal experiences, although only such personal experiences could lend this story its sense of genuine authenticity. This is a work of art and it is by virtue of the artistic interpretation of this material from life that it is a witness of special value, a document of an art which up to now had seemed to have few possibilities.

The reader will not find in A. Solzhenitsyn's story an all-encompassing portrayal of that historic period which is particularly marked by the bitter memory of the year 1937. The content of One Day is naturally limited in time and place of action and the horizons of the main hero of the story. But in the writing of A. Solzhenitsyn, who here enters the literary scene for the first time, one day in the life of the camp prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, develops into a picture which gives extraordinary vitality and fidelity to the truthfulness of its human characters. Herein above all lies the uncommon power of the work to...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Sidney Monas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich happens to be a masterpiece, but not exactly festive….

On one level it is an account of a prison; on another, a parable of life anywhere in Stalin's Russia. (p. 18)

[Solzhenitsyn] spent eight years in concentration camps….

This is not, however, a book carried off by force of personal involvement alone, an amateur's book. I have read many accounts of concentration camps, Nazi and Soviet, all of them horrifying, some of them acute in their understanding of the role of the camps in totalitarian society and in their observations on the behavior of guards and inmates. Yet none of these accounts has the immediacy, the direct quality of an experience lived, that distinguishes Solzhenitsyn's book. Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead immediately suggests itself as an apt comparison. But even that great parable of life as a prison, beside One Day, seems a little intellectualized, a little contrived.

Prison, for those who are innocently there, assaults the will to survive and that minimal, basic sense of worth on which the will to survive depends. If the prisoner is to live through conditions of the utmost physical hardship (and to what? sentences in the concentration camps were indeterminate), conditions which force him into a constant and terrifying awareness of his own fragility, he must keep his identity when...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Georg LukáCs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


The central problem of socialist realism today is to come to terms critically with the Stalin era. Naturally this is the major task of all socialist ideology. Here I will confine myself to the field of literature. If socialist realism—which in consequence of the Stalinist period became at times a disdainful term of abuse, even in the socialist countries—desires to regain the level it had reached in the nineteen-twenties, then it must rediscover the way to depict contemporary man as he actually is. However, this way necessarily leads through a faithful portrayal of the Stalinist decades with all their inhumanities. Against this, the sectarian bureaucrats raise the objection that one should not rake up the past, but only describe the present. The past is said to be done, already completely outmoded, vanished from the present. Such a claim is not only untrue—the way in which it is presented demonstrates the still extremely influential presence of the Stalinist cultural bureaucracy—but it is also completely meaningless. (pp. 10-11)

Without uncovering the past … there is no discovery of the present. Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a significant overture to this process of literary rediscovery of the self in the socialist present.

The point here is not—at least not primarily—the horrors of the Stalin era, of the concentration camps, etc. This theme has existed for some time in Western literature. Moreover, since the XXth Congress placed a critique of the Stalinist period on its agenda, these horrors have lost their initial shock effect, above all in the socialist countries. Solzhenitsyn's achievement consists in the literary transformation of an uneventful day in a typical camp into a symbol of a past which has not yet been overcome, nor has it been portrayed artistically. Although the camps epitomize one extreme of the Stalin era, the author has made his skilful grey monochrome of camp life into a symbol of everyday life under Stalin. He was successful in this precisely because he posed the artistic question: what demands has this era made on man? Who has proved himself as a human being? Who has salvaged his human dignity and integrity? Who has held his own—and how? Who has retained his essential humanity? Where was this humanity twisted, broken, destroyed? His rigorous limitation to the immediate camp life permits Solzhenitsyn to pose the question simultaneously in quite general and quite concrete terms. The constantly changing political and social alternatives which life places before free human beings are in the nature of the case eliminated, but resistance or collapse are treated so directly in terms of concrete being or non-being of living people that every solitary decision is raised to the level of a true-to-life generalization and typification.

The entire composition, the details of which we will discuss later, serves this purpose. The slice of everyday camp life already described, as the central figure stresses at the end, presents a "good" day in camp life. And in fact nothing unusual, no special atrocity occurs on that day. We see the normal order of the camp and its inmates' typical reactions based on that order. In this way the typical problems can be sketched firmly, and it is left to the reader's imagination to visualize the effects on the characters of even greater tribulations. This almost ascetic concentration on essentials is matched exactly by the extreme economy of presentation. Of the outer world only the elements indispensable for their effect on the inner working of man are shown; of the emotional world of man only those reactions which are directly connected with their human substance in immediately comprehensible ways—and he is most sparing even with these. Thus this work—which is not even symbolically conceived—can exert a strong...

(The entire section is 1598 words.)

Leonid Rzhevsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The writer's craft begins with his language.

Solzhenitsyn is undoubtedly an innovator in the field of language. His efforts to enliven the modern Russian language with the freshness and richness of popular speech, to soften the congealed bookishness, lifelessness, and platitudes in the literary language with living conversational elements, which are themselves based on the honesty and directness characteristic of common speech—these are his innovations. (p. 19)

Sincerity—merciless, courageous, and honest—is the essence of Solzhenitsyn's literary creations, a sincerity in which poetic and ethical elements merge into one definitive feature of his style and craft.


(The entire section is 523 words.)

Christopher Moody

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been described by different critics as both an old-fashioned writer and a genuine innovator. Paradoxically, both of these views are correct. In the early 1930s, when his fame in the Soviet Union was at its height, the official aesthetic of socialist realism, with its emphasis on optimism and education, was beginning to give way to a more candid and exploratory approach to Soviet life. Writers were being admitted to those dark areas of social and political evil which they had hitherto been obliged to by-pass. They were acquiring the freedom to question the assumptions which they had been expected to affirm. They were gaining the right to express private thoughts and exercise their consciences...

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Gary Kern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The structural framework of One Day is obvious: Ivan Denisovich is described from the time of waking to the time of falling asleep. We follow him step by step through his daily routine, witnessing all of his tasks, experiences, and thoughts. We see the sun rise and set, the sky change colors, the moon rise, the stars come out. We notice also that the day falls into three periods (before work, work, after work), and that this imparts a certain "natural" symmetry to the piece: Alyoshka says a prayer in the beginning and at the end, Ivan hides his bread in his mattress in the morning and recovers it at night, Buinovsky is sentenced in the morning and taken to the cooler at night, the men march to work and back...

(The entire section is 2524 words.)

Philip Rahv

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A completely authentic account of life in the forced-labor camps under Stalin, [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich] is cast in a fictional form superbly adapted to its subject. Its narrative tone and method, relying on the selective accumulation of minute factual particulars, finely controls the powerful emotional content, never getting out of hand, never descending to rhetorical presentation or to any sort of preaching and moralizing. (p. 232)

The experience recorded in One Day no doubt parallels [Solzhenitsyn's] own, but he is not the novel's protagonist. That role, from first page to last, is reserved for the simple village workman, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has no head for...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Early reviews [of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich], even in the most orthodox of Soviet sources, were overwhelmingly favorable. Pravda remarked on Solzhenitsyn's "profound humanity, because people remained people even in an atmosphere of mockery." Zhores Medvedev, who was later to write Ten Years after Ivan Denisovich, emphasized the artistry of the novel. But most responses, in keeping with Khrushchev's motivation for allowing publication, centered on the book's political significance. Importantly, most Western reviews also emphasized the political dimension; the book's publication was viewed as an event illustrating the increasing thaw within the Soviet Union, thus auguring well for...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)