What can we learn from the Gulag? About the military, about the body and soul?
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Walking up Hawks Hill near my home, I discovered a pebble in my shoe. I had taken a couple of them out of my right sneaker before I left. This had me thinking about the book I read by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Here was discomfort on an epic scale, the Stalinist gulag: the biting cold, the brutality, the backbreaking labor, and constant hunger. This first book brought the author recognition in the literary world. In it he describes the Soviet concentration camp, a place where Solzhenitsyn himself had been sentenced for years.
In the story Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, or just Shukhov, had served in the red Army and was captured in WWII by the Germans on the western front. He managed to escape and when he returned to the Soviet Union, instead of a hero’s welcome for service to country, he was charged with high treason. Surely, he was a spy for the Germans? So instead of trying to fight and likely being shot, Shukhov confessed to a crime he hadn’t committed. He is sentenced to ten years in the labor camp and the story begins after he has served eight years. The book’s structure is conventional for its time, a description of one day from reveille to retreat, written in a peasant’s voice.
What made it a sensation and a classic was the authentic account of Soviet camp life, from wake-up in the piercing cold on the Siberian Steppe to lights-out. The inmate’s rationale is that it’s better to work than freeze to death. There’s obsession over food rations and headcount, making sure all the prisoners are there at the start of the day, inspected to ensure they’re only wearing issued garments, then getting the work done, and another body count to make sure of no escape, that all the inmates return.
The portion of bread by the time it gets to Shukhov is never the full ration he’s supposed to have, a harsh reality of prison with shrinkage from theft in the kitchen or the guardhouse, or anyone with access and privilege in the hierarchy taking extra. Like the parcel that never makes it to the recipient, or much of it gone when it does. Punishment is swift and violent, not just from the guards but from fellow Zeks, or inmates. Living with fear and hunger and extreme cold, it’s a wonder they survive.
The reader meets the characters, recognizes them, and cares for them, even the worst of the lot. The attitude one has and his constitution mean survival. A naval captain Buinovksy is older and likely not going to survive, and Fetiukov the Jackal earns his nickname as a scavenger who licks the plates of others and shirks his duty.
The idea of freedom becomes so remote and distant for Shukhov, because the law is warped and they can tack on another term to his sentence. The threat constantly looms whether he’ll get checked for something as simple as carrying a bit of kindling, or the unauthorized vest worn by the captain which gets him 10 days of solitary, or some wayward activity, such as hoarding rations. The Zeks travel in groups so as not to be recognized individually.
How can the man who is warm expect to understand the man who is cold? This quote sums up one of the book’s major themes. How can any of us expect to know what it’s like, if we have not been there ourselves? Solzhenitsyn’s message is clear. Only one who has felt the cold in his bones, its bite permeating deep into his soul, could have written such a book, only the man who had lived it.
MILITARY SERVICE AND HARDSHIP
The book left me with two ideas or take-aways.
The first, I could not help feeling a connection to this novella throughout much of its 150 pages. It was all the military references, which I related to as an army veteran. The squad and the team leader, the barracks style living arrangement, the mess hall and guards and orderlies. The work, the conditions, a life as a pawn to the elements and nature, to the higher ups and the bureaucracy. Here is something which fewer and fewer Americans experience: a fraction of one percent of the population carries the burden of defense for the nation. Such is the reality of an all-volunteer military drawn from 325 million.
What was once the lingua franca among men, from president to mill worker, has become an endangered language, by generations. Yesterday a man told me about a grandfather who landed at Normandy; before that I’d heard about someone’s father, or an uncle. The selective service agency’s website crashed only hours after the drone strike killed the Iranian terrorist leader Suleimani, due to rumors about a potential WWIII and a new draft. I’m pleased that young people feel they have skin in the game. But they needn’t worry, the draft hasn’t been active since 1973. The volunteers in the military took an oath to the constitution and the commander-in-chief, knowing the sacrifice that could mean, and they speak the language of the armed forces, one learned through hardship and a dedication to something bigger.
That said, one elects to serve in the military in the US, a significant and distinguishing difference from a forced labor camp, but the similarities remain. As do the common miseries, the moments of meaning in work, the bonds, the rivalries and petty jealousies, the characters rising up off the page over half a century later, so real I felt I knew them. Make no mistake of the stark difference between prisoner and soldier, a sentence versus a contract served, but human nature has not changed, in the gulag or in military training. The jackal, the brute, the ass-kisser, even Shukhov the decent, and Alyosha the Baptist.
Shukhov struggles with the idea of faith, so present in his squad mate Alyosha the Baptist. He tells Shukhov at night that he must have faith, that he is misguided, that he mustn’t pray for freedom, or a different prison sentence.
“But we didn’t pray for that, Ivan Denisovich,”
Alyosha said, and he came up close to Shukhov
with his Gospels, right up to his face. “The only thing
of this earth the Lord has ordered us to pray for is
our daily bread — ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’”
“You mean that ration we get ?” Shukhov said.
But Alyosha went on and his eyes said more than
his words and he put his hand on Ivan’s hand.
“Ivan Denisovich, you mustn’t pray for somebody
to send you a package or for an extra helping of
gruel. Things that people set store by are base in the
sight of the Lord. You must pray for the things of
the spirit so the Lord will take evil things from our
hearts….” (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 154)
THE BODY AND THE SOUL
Alyosha’s prayers are genuine and he is a good worker, who is kind to others. Yet, faith is a hard thing to keep when the body is under assault, which brings me to my second idea or take-away from this book: the connection between physical needs and the mind, or faith as Alyosha puts it.
I have been blessed so far in life with good health. In my robust youth, I was like members of the armed forces who met the physical standards for military service, a necessity to accomplish the mission. The soldier is fit, in body and mind. The last couple months, mid-life ordeals such as migraines and menopause include fatigue and faintness, iron deficiency. The body is under assault. Unlike Ivan, I have a soft warm bed, a family, and healthcare. How tethered I have become to my body. The migraines felt like a Ka-bar knife had been inserted slowly into parts of my head. Days became weeks, when I was not productive or functioning. What was the cure? How do I un-tether myself from the physical ongoing anguish? Just how do those who suffer disease and illness survive?
I could manage the pain to summit Kilimanjaro last June, and the pain in running the Army Ten-miler in the fall, because there was an end to it. I think I could even survive a day in Stalin’s gulag, but what of the next day, and the one after that, and the whole 3,653 day sentence? That is, ten years and three days for leap years. I’m not sure I’d survive a week. But who knows what would happen, how one would respond under extreme duress. I don’t have a constitution for the cold.
I am held captive by my body, to its physical realities. If I were a stoic I could separate myself from the pain of living, or as an enlightened Bodhisattva, I could liberate my mind from worldly suffering. I have attained no such level. I’ve grown soft.
How does Shukhov manage? He bows to the immediate, lives in the moment; the hunger and the work drive him. He is resourceful and has the right attitude. It is about survival, with every spare ounce of nerve and muscle focused on escaping violence, cold, hunger, and illness. Shukhov lies down to sleep, content from what he called many strokes of luck that day: he didn’t go to solitary, he swiped a bowl of kasha, smuggled a bit of hacksaw blade, and he hadn’t fallen ill.
Maybe that’s how we climb the mountain and finish the race. Focus on the moment. Here Shukhov takes his daily bread, his stew in the evening.
And now Shukhov complained about nothing: neither about the length of his stretch, nor about the length of the day, nor about their swiping another Sunday. This was all he thought about now: we’ll survive. We’ll stick it out, God willing, till it’s over. (page 136)
Shukhov shows us how to survive life in the brutal labor camp, in the biting cold. Alyosha would push us further, to keep faith with the Gospel, and what is good. That higher plane may not be attainable, especially under horrific circumstances. Yet it is a belief and an attitude which the Russian author likely adopted for his own survival. Solzhenitsyn writes in the closing:
Alyosha was speaking the truth. His voice and his eyes left no doubt that he was happy in prison.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn served with distinction in the Russian Army during WWII. He became an artillery battery commander, decorated twice for bravery. He was sentenced to the labor camps and exile for criticizing Josef Stalin in a private letter. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was his first book and he became an international literary sensation. Kruschev is said to have read it and made a decision to publish the work, an exceptional event in Soviet literary history.
IN CLOSING, what makes a novel a classic is its ability to connect people across cultures and time. Solzhenitsyn’s military service, his struggle and ultimate survival in the labor camps, his exile, and his simple writing style, give his work its authenticity. In the book’s forward, the poet and editor Alexander Tvardovsky writes that the peasant’s voice, the everyday ordinariness and the fidelity to the great truths of life, these “awaken corresponding virtues in the author’s writing. . . it [the book] is least of all concerned with itself and is therefore full of an inner dignity and force.”
How refreshing to read this novel in a culture of narcissism, so prevalent in non-fiction today.
*An online exhibit and a page on women in the camp – Soviet Gulag – Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom