I’ve rather slipped off the radar this week, owing to chaos and busyness at work, combined with my first cold of the winter (and it was a doozie). Then the snow arrived and I gave up trying to keep up with normal life. But I’m feeling a little better now and so let’s try and get back to normal and consider some books!


Vintage edition translated by Willetts

Vintage edition translated by Willetts

Well, after last year’s Russian fest and the orgy of reading I indulged in during November, I’ve been very keen on returning to this book which I first read when I was in my teens. I read it appropriately enough during a period of extended snow and it worked rather nicely as therapy to remind me that it wasn’t as bad here as living in Siberia! Anyway, on to the book. I should say here that if you haven’t read it, there will no doubt be SPOILERS!

“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is literally that – the tale of one day of Shukhov’s time in captivity in the gulag – how he survived the cold and the work, deals with other prisoners (zeks) and guards, reaches the end of the day and what this life is like compared to the life he knew outside beforehand. It’s a short, deceptively simple read which packs quite an emotional punch. “One Day” was first published in 1962 and it was a revelation to most in the West (and many in Russia presumably!) – up until then, no-one had really realised the extent of the labour camp network in the USSR and how many people were kept in captivity, under what conditions and for what trivial and falsified offences. The book had an enormous impact at the time, and when I read it in the 1970s it was still shocking because the Soviet regime was still in power and Solzhenitsyn was still battling them. I wondered, therefore, how the book would strike me now, all those years later.

Penguin Edition

Penguin Edition

And interestingly, I found it still immensely powerful, but now on a deeper level. Shukhov and his fellow zeks are all trying to survive in the best way they can, depending on the type of character they are. And the book reflects this, and how a human being will find a way to cope with whatever type of situation he or she is thrown into. We are adaptable beings and “One Day” shows how we can survive in the most extreme conditions. It also displays the incredible cruelty humans are capable of, how badly they can treat their fellows and how ideology can warp humanity so that there is no compassion left. As Solzhenitsyn puts it:

“You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like.”

This is a quick, powerful and moving read and one that has a lot to tell us as readers and as citizens of the world in the twenty-first century. The passing of time had not dimmed the effect this book had on me and I was glad to revisit Shukhov and his good day.


As I mentioned earlier this month, I was intending to drop into Ali’s Month of Re-reading when I could, and this book counts as a re-read – but also a new one, as I read the translation by Willetts, who was Solzhenitsyn’s approved linguist. However… I have to confess that I think I prefer the Ralph Parker version L  I wasn’t expecting to react like this, as I loved Willetts’ translation of “In the first Circle” and also the newer “One Day” is from a complete text. I haven’t made a complete comparison, but I did look at the start and end of the book and these are the two versions:


Willets translation (Viking)

Parker translation – Penguin

Opening of the book:

The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o’clock as always.  Time to get up.  The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away.  Too cold for the warder to go on hammering.

The jangling stopped.  Outside, it was still as dark as when Shukhov had gotten up in the night to use the latrine bucket — pitch-black, except for three yellow lights visible from the window, two in the perimeter, one inside the camp.

For some reason they were slow unlocking the hut, and he couldn’t hear the usual sound of the orderlies mounting the latrine bucket on poles to carry it out.

Shukhov never overslept.  He was always up at the call.  That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade — time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side.  He could stitch covers for somebody’s mittens from a piece of old lining.  Take some rich foreman his felt boots while he was still in his bunk (save him hopping around barefoot, fishing them out of the heap after drying).  Rush round the storerooms looking for odd jobs — sweeping up or running errands.  Go to the mess to stack bowls and carry them to the washers-up.  You’d get something to eat, but there were too many volunteers, swarms of them.  And the worst of it was that if there was anything left in a bowl, you couldn’t help licking it.


As usual, at five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sound barely penetrated the window-panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they’d begun. It was cold outside, and the camp-guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.

The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket. It was pitch dark except for the yellow light cast on the window by three lamps — two in the outer zone, one inside the camp itself.

And no one came to unbolt the barrack-hut door; there was no sound of the barrack-orderlies pushing a pole into place to lift the barrel of nightsoil and carry it out.

Shukhov never overslept reveille. He always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, be-longed to him, not to the authorities, and any old-timer could always earn a bit — by sewing a pair of over-mittens for some-one out of old sleeve lining; or bringing some rich lag in the team his dry valenki*— right up to his bunk, so that he wouldn’t have to stumble barefoot round the heaps of boots looking for his own pair; or going the rounds of the store-huts, offering to be of service, sweeping up this or fetching that; or going to the mess-hall to collect bowls from the tables and bring them stacked to the dishwashers – you’re sure to be given something to eat there, though there were plenty of others at that game, more than plenty – and, what’s worse, if you found a bowl with something left in it you could hardly resist licking it out.

End of the Book:

Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep.  A lot of good things had happened that day.  He hadn’t been thrown in the hole.  The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok.  He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinnertime.  The foreman had got a good rate for the job.  He’d enjoyed working on the wall.  He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the search point.  He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening.  And he’d bought his tobacco.

The end of an unclouded day.  Almost a happy one.  Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

The extra three were for leap years.

Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent the team to the settlement; he’d pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw-blade through; he’d earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it. A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.

The three extra days were for leap years.


Well – looking at the two versions, I really feel that Parker’s is better. The ending in particular had more impact for me the way he translated it, and there are elements missing from Willets – that could be because Solzhenitsyn removed them from the revised text, but they seem rather essential to me. Maybe it’s because I read the Parker version first, but in the case of “One Day” I think I’ll stick to the original translation!