Critical Context (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the book which brought Solzhenitsyn from total obscurity to worldwide fame. Its publication was a central event in Russian political as well as literary history. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were known as the time of “the thaw,” a period when intellectual and artistic restrictions were temporarily loosened in an attempt to move beyond the terror and repression of the decades under Stalin. Solzhenitsyn’s novel dealt directly with events which touched the life of every Russian family and yet which had never been spoken of publicly even after Stalin’s death.
The publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, therefore, was a sensational event in the Soviet Union, selling out large editions in a matter of hours. Within a short time, however, the Soviet leaders decided that allowing criticism of the past set a dangerous precedent for criticism of the present, and the book was withdrawn. So began Solzhenitsyn’s conflict with Soviet officials. The appearance of his novels Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968) and V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968), published in the West but not in the Soviet Union, led not only to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 but also to his eventual exile from his country in 1974.