Dariusz Tolczyk, "Who is Ivan Denisovich? Ethical Challenge and Narrative Ambiguity in Solzhenitzyn's Text", in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Critical Companion, edited by Alexis Klimoff, Northwestern University Press, 1997, pp. 70-84.
Abstract: In the following essay, Tolczyk examines the uncertain ethical dimension of Denisovich's imprisonment and dehumanizing experiences in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. According to Tolczyk, the absence of direct authorial conclusions in the novel--a break from conventional Soviet literature--leaves the significance of the protagonist's victimization and values open to interpretation.
The revolutionary significance of Solzhenitsyn"s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the context of official Soviet culture did not arise from the novelty of the concentration-camp topic presented in Solzhenitsyn"s work. This theme had in fact been present in Soviet literature when these penal institutions were being established in the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, it reached high prominence in official Soviet literary discourse with the publication of Gorky"s reportage from the Solovki concentration camp in 1929,1 followed by the triumphant collective volume on the White Sea Canal project in 1934, authored by Gorky and thirty-five other Soviet writers, including such prominent literary figures as Viktor Shklovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Alexei Tolstoy.2 The camps were presented in these works as benevolent institutions in which the Soviet government reeducated and resocialized individuals who had not adjusted sufficiently to life in Stalin"s brave new world of five-year plans and the forced collectivization of property as well as minds. This peculiar form of resocialization through hard labor, hunger, and deprivation was known in the Soviet Union of the early 1930s by the euphemistic name of perekovka ("reforging"). Needless to say, there are no victims in these Soviet literary descriptions of Stalinist prison camps. The convention that presented incarceration in the camps as a successful form of Soviet "social medicine" naturally had no room for any mention of the physical or moral destruction of the "patients." In the literary reportages from Solovki and White Sea Canal, prisoners not only do not complain about their fate but even express appreciation for the regime"s initiative in putting them to work in the camps. Since the "reforged" camp prisoners were expected, in these literary accounts from the late 1920s and early 1930s, to evolve toward virtual self-identification with the Soviet regime, the success of the perekovka was predicated on the belief in a foreseeable future when there would be no more individuals in need of "reforging" and the system of reeducation would become obsolete. But the massive escalation of Soviet terror against ever-increasing numbers of alleged "enemies of the people" in the late 1930s contradicted these assumptions, and the whole perekovka concept was abandoned by the Soviet regime, making the very subject of the concentration camps taboo for more than two decades.
This lasted until November 1962 when, for the first time in Soviet literary history, the Soviet prison-camp experience was addressed in a literary work from the victim"s point of view. Once again, however, it was not One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that broke the silence and introduced this new perspective. Just a few days before publication of One Day, the newspaper Izvestiia printed a short story entitled "Samorodok" (A nugget)3 from a semi-autobiographical cycle Kolymskie zapisi (Kolyma notes) by a now-forgotten writer and survivor of the Kolyma camps, Georgii Shelest.4 Within a short time other soon-to-be-obscure authors, such as Iurii Piliar, Boris D"iakov, and Andrei Aldan-Semenov, followed suit with accounts on the same theme.5 Thus Solzhenitsyn was by no means alone in giving expression to the prison-camp theme in officially published Soviet literature during the "thaw" of the early 1960s.
Yet what set Solzhenitsyn apart from the other Soviet writers who addressed the prison-camp topic at this time was that he alone succeeded in liberating this theme from specifically Soviet literary conventions and, more generally, in breaking free from a type of public discourse that had deprived the experiences depicted of materiality and reduced them to mere illustrations of abstract ideological constructs. True, all the officially published Soviet literary portrayals of the prison-camp experiences that appeared in the early 1960s dispensed with Gorky"s ideological rationalizations as well as with the euphemistic manner of presentation he had used, showing the horrors of practical communism in ways that were sometimes even more shocking than the scenes portrayed in One Day. But at the same time, none of them managed to refrain from offering specific and clear-cut resolutions of all moral issues raised by the topic at hand. The constant readiness on the part of Shelest, Piliar, D"iakov, and Aldan-Semenov to dismiss the moral challenges presented by the camps per se by means of facile ideological statements produced a situation where the camp experience did not seem to have enough significance to unsettle the protagonists seriously, to say nothing of transforming them. These writers thus failed to uncover the sources of human behavior that could be revealed in this traumatic test of the limits of humanity. What is especially characteristic of these officially approved works is that the victim"s point of view, introduced here, was in fact limited to only one type of victim, an ardent Communist for whom the main moral question raised by his imprisonment was not "Why do human beings do this to other people?" but "Why is this being done to me, a good and loyal Communist?" The conclusion of D"iakov"s semiautobiographical Povest" o perezhitom (The tale of what I lived through) is symptomatic of these works. D"iakov"s protagonist is speaking:
Do you remember how restlessly we tried to understand what was the root of this evil, and who was to be judged by whom? Now we understand. Stalin, intoxicated by his power, treated his own people as enemies, and punished them. But finally the Twentieth Party Congress came, and it transformed our lives. I feel as if all these innocent victims were finally brought home by Lenin.6
This and other works of the officially sanctioned Soviet prison-camp prose of the early 1960s demonstrated that the ideological jargon of Soviet public discourse had created cognitive, axiological, and communicative filters unpenetrable for some writers even in the face of an experience of such devastating magnitude as the concentration camp.
In contrast, Solzhenitsyn"s One Day brought to Soviet literary and public discourse a work that was to test the nature and limitations of this discourse in ways unprecedented and unrepeated until the advent of glasnost. Specifically, the human experience of the prison camp is presented here as an open ethical issue to be confronted by readers directly and individually. After four decades of Soviet totalitarianism, its chief experience--the horror of concentration camps--was here shown as a moral question in and of itself, not as part of an official answer to some other abstract and allegedly more important question concerning the speed of achieving socialism, the comparisons between Stalin"s and Lenin"s political agendas, and so on. In Solzhenitsyn"s work, for the first time in Soviet history, Soviet readers were invited to face the most dismal aspect of their own reality without the ideological guidance that, in all other Soviet works concerned with the camp topic, had always been there to reconcile them with this reality. In One Day, Soviet readers were required to act as ethical judges, to reflect morally on a phenomenon crucial not only in terms of the Soviet social experiment but, in the more general sense, in terms of the twentieth-century experience of "humanity in extremis": on the ultimate test of human values confronted by dehumanizing forces of overwhelming magnitude.
Such an ethical challenge is inherent in the very subject matter of prison-camp literature, whether it is spelled out in explicit moral terms or not. The presence of an innocent victim, once it is acknowledged, automatically introduces an element of ethical anxiety to any situation where this plays a role. In this sense, the concentration camp is but a particularly vivid example of such an ethically charged situation. When official Soviet literature dealt with issues of victimization in general and the prison-camp experience in particular, it always provided an authoritative resolution, and thus either obliterated or neutralized the ethical challenge posed by the subject matter. In this paradigm, the presence of the victim is typically explained as part of some larger and more abstract context within which the very definition of victimhood is questioned and reevaluated. The accounts of the prison camps produced by Shelest, D"iakov, Piliar, and Aldan-Semenov managed to reserve the right to victimhood and innocence exclusively for those inmates who shared the value system of their Soviet oppressors and thus were always ready to accept their own victimization as an unfortunate but ultimately justifiable part of the larger, essentially positive context of the Soviet road to communism.
In this context, Solzhenitsyn"s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only work that neither provides nor suggests clear authorial resolutions for the ethical problem inherent in the prison-camp experience. This absence is a result of a literary strategy assumed by the author and fulfilled with uncompromising discipline. Solzhenitsyn"s short novel is unique in that it does not contain in its structure a communicative entity, a point of view or a voice, capable of presenting an ultimate authorial assessment of the ethical issues raised in the text. Though One Day is technically a third-person narrative, the perspective is in fact closely attached to the point of view of the novel"s main protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a simple peasant-soldier serving his sentence for uncommitted crimes. His presence within the text is constant, and virtually the entire testimony of the camp experience is filtered through his consciousness. Thus the only commentary that One Day provides on the prison-camp experience is generated by Ivan Shukhov, a character hardly capable of and generally not interested in developing abstract arguments in order to define his fate. Moreover, this limited point of view is rendered by means of the narrative technique of erlebte Rede7: the verbal account of the camp is not only sifted through the cognitive filter of the central character, but its very formulation is colored and influenced by his linguistic competence. The language of the Russian peasant, that is, the language spoken by the "human material" of Soviet history and not by its designers, provides the descriptive medium by means of which Solzhenitsyn portrays the reality of the Soviet totalitarian experience. Thus a reader who would approach this work with the customary Soviet expectation of being guided by some ideological argument to a resolution of the potential anxieties generated by the text is bound for severe frustration. Ivan Denisovich does not speak the language of ideological generalization, and the author himself remains silent and distant behind his protagonist.
Solzhenitsyn"s literary strategy demands the reader"s active role in providing some sort of philosophical response to the ethical problems raised in the text. Yet no final resolution is possible, only a specific dialogue between a particular reader and the text, while the text itself remains open to other dialogues. Solzhenitsyn was absolutely unique in Soviet literature in establishing such a dialogical, open-ended communicative link between the reader and a text on a topic so explosively subversive for the Soviet authorities.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich thus clashed frontally with a Soviet public discourse that was incapable of tolerating open-ended issues, seeing them only as potential sources of dissent and controversy. Since each social and human phenomenon had to be fully explicable in the ideological terms of a regime claiming omniscience and moral superiority, Solzhenitsyn"s work had to be supplied with interpretations and explanations formulated in the language of accepted Soviet public discourse. For this reason, One Day became a catalyst for numerous statements made in the Soviet press in which all the philosophical and rhetorical means available were mobilized in an attempt to neutralize the ethical challenge posed by Solzhenitsyn"s work. These attempts failed, thus proving, for the first and only time in the history of Soviet public discourse, that the ideological resources necessary for the ethical and cognitive rationalization of the Bolshevik evil had been already exhausted by the Soviet regime and that, at the same time, this regime remained incapable of a searching look at its own ethical legitimacy.
In an interview granted in March 1967 to a Slovak journalist, Pavel Licko, Solzhenitsyn defined his own views on the principal tasks of a writer:
By intuition and by singular vision of the world, a writer is able to discover far earlier than other people various aspects of social life and can often see them from an unexpected angle. This is the essence of talent. Talent, however, imposes certain duties. It is incumbent upon a writer to inform society of all that he is able to perceive and especially all that is unhealthy and a cause for anxiety. I was brought up with Russian literature and only circumstances prevented me from pursuing more extensive studies. & Russian literature has always been sensitive to human suffering.8
And in another segment of the same interview, Solzhenitsyn added:
I know that the easiest thing for a writer is to write about himself. But I have always felt that to write about the fate of Russia was the most fascinating and important task to be performed. Of all the drama that Russia lived through, the fate of Ivan Denisovich was the greatest tragedy.9
These two statements shed light on the author"s intention as well as his awareness of his own craft. By stressing the social duty of literature (defined here in terms of the anxiety caused by human suffering) and by viewing Ivan Denisovich (a sufferer) as a representative type embodying the drama of the Russian historical fate, Solzhenitsyn identifies himself and his work with the tradition of morally committed Russian nineteenth-century realism. The significant nature of the issues he raises within this literary tradition is reflected not only in the concrete historical circumstances he has chosen to describe but also in his general vision of human nature, and in this sense the actual circumstances of the concentration camp serve as the justification for larger philosophical questions. Just as the protagonist described in One Day is a particular example of the general moral drama engulfing all of Russia, so too can the drama of Russia be seen as a particular instance of an even more general trial--that of humanity degraded by the onslaught of totalitarianism. In this sense, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich also belongs to the great twentieth-century literary tradition of prison-camp literature, a tradition that continually asks: How do human values stand up to the test of the totalitarian experience? What are the limits of human dignity and what are its sources?
As noted earlier, the focus of narration, the selection of the phenomena described in One Day, and the very language in which the image of the prison-camp experience is presented are essentially the products of the cognitive dynamics and linguistic competence of Shukhov himself. Ivan Denisovich is an insider in the dehumanizing world of the camps, and in this respect he is living testimony to the long-term results of man"s confrontation with this special world. After years of being subjected to degradation and to a systematic assault on his self-image, his perception of the prison-camp experience contains an indirect answer to the question of the sources of human victory and/or defeat in the face of such extreme conditions. Hence the central ethical question of One Day is encapsulated in the problem of Ivan Denisovich"s motivations: What is it that induces his actions and shapes his perceptions?
Seen in this context, the absence of drama in the tone and plot of One Day becomes a source of a meaningful ambiguity. The fact is that hunger, cold, pain, violence, injustice, and oppression--each more than sufficient as a source of shock and drama--permeate the reality of the prison camp Solzhenitsyn describes. It is only their status in the eyes of the central protagonist, who tends to perceive them as routine elements of everyday life, that deprives them of their dramatic potential. Shukhov, the "well-adjusted" insider, constantly understates the horror of his experience.
What, then, is the motivation behind this peculiar perception on the part of Ivan Denisovich? Is this matter-of-fact, tough-skinned view of the prison camp a necessary element in the struggle of a human being determined to survive and to save his dignity, a man who cannot afford to indulge in any dramatization of his fate since this could become psychologically disarming in the given conditions?10 Or (to state the opposite possibility) is this perpetual understatement and focus on the mundane practicalities of day-to-day existence in the camp, this systematic exclusion of the element of moral outrage, a reflection of an atrophied ethical sense in the protagonist? Could it be an indirect indication of Ivan"s inner submission to slavery to the point of accepting his own victimization without a thought of protest? Is it an indication of Shukhov"s confusion about what is wrong and what is normal? In other words, does One Day stand as a testament to the victory of human dignity over totalitarian dehumanization or to its ultimate defeat?
The question of Ivan Denisovich"s ability to respond to the ethical challenge of concentration camp existence finds its most direct expression in the dialogue between Shukhov and Alyoshka, a Baptist victim of Stalinist religious persecution. The topic of the conversation is, precisely, the problem of identifying the sources of human values and relating the prison-camp experience to the value systems of the victims. Both prisoners express their understanding of how their experience of incarceration can be understood in light of the values they hold.
The importance of this dialogue as a key to the ethical dimension of One Day is indicated in at least two ways. It is the only major instance when Shukhov"s habitual focus on the mundane and practical aspects of his existence gives way to more "philosophical" reflection. Moreover, the issue of Shukhov"s own motivations in his life in the camp appears here explicitly as a theme. The significance of this episode is also suggested by the fact that it appears in the novel"s conclusion. This privileged position gives the dialogue between Shukhov and Alyoshka the character of an interpretive key to the themes and events described in the whole work. The philosophical issues addressed here form a paradigmatic framework that allows the ethical dimensions of the phenomena described in One Day to be seen in proper perspective.
If Shukhov is a human puzzle owing to his limited verbal competence and his inability to generalize from his own experience, his partner Alyoshka is just the opposite. Alyoshka views the individual as an ethical entity, that is, as someone who looks upon his own fate in the camp as the ultimate test of his value system. He expresses his value system in religious terms and defines his life as service to these ideals. Alyoshka"s actions and words show his uncompromising observance of a fully internalized religious framework of values that encompass his entire identity. Even though he is physically confined to the prison camp with its dehumanizing pressures, Alyoshka is spiritually free because he psychologically inhabits a world beyond the power of the camp. This internal freedom, the source of Alyoshka"s human dignity in the prison camp, is based on his rejection of that which is the main cause of all moral compromises in the camps--the illusive hope for survival and a change of fortune. That hope--which, according to such writers and prison camp veterans as Varlam Shalamov and Tadeusz Borowski, turns a prisoner into a slave11--in Alyoshka"s case loses its tempting appeal.
Within the world of the prison camp, hope for survival often forces a prisoner to adhere blindly to the specific pragmatics of survival and either to internalize his oppressors" point of view, hoping for mercy or the "clarification of the mistake" (as in Shelest, Piliar, D"iakov, and Aldan-Semenov) or to acquire "camp smarts" and learn to live at the expense of his fellow prisoners (the typical attitude of criminals portrayed in nonofficial prison-camp literature).12 The notion of hope is so foreign to Alyoshka that he not only seems to care little for the practical aspects of survival in camp but does not even allow himself to pray for a change of circumstances. When Shukhov tells him that praying in the camp is unlikely to shorten the time spent there, Alyoshka replies: "That"s just the sort of thing you shouldn"t pray for!" (177;117).13 And it is this issue of hope that becomes the key subject of the climactic dialogue that sheds light on the human puzzle of the main protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.
In contrast to Alyoshka, Shukhov has no clear-cut system of verbally defined values capable of serving him as a point of reference and a source of inner freedom in the camp. However, he indirectly acknowledges the need for something external to the realm of the camp experience. This point of reference appears as a traditional rhetorical entity, called "God," when Shukhov, lying on his bunk in the evening, sighs: "Thanks be to Thee, O God, another day over!" (174; 115). Shukhov"s purely rhetorical phrase here opens the conversation that will provide the main ethical paradigm of One Day: "Alyoshka heard Shukhov thank God out loud, and looked around. "There you are, Ivan Denisovich, your soul is asking to be allowed to pray to God. Why not let it have its way, eh?"" (175; 115-16). Shukhov answers: "Because, Alyoshka, prayers are like petitions--either they don"t get through at all, or else it"s "complaint rejected"" (175; 116).
The only desire Shukhov is intellectually capable of reflecting on is the hope for an improvement in his circumstances, with his release from the camp the peak of this desire. But he realizes the futility of this hope: ""Anyway," he concluded, "pray as much as you like, but they won"t knock anything off your sentence. You"ll serve your time from bell to bell whatever happens"" (177; 117).
Alyoshka"s answer opens a new dimension to Shukhov--that of a value-system that transcends hope.
That"s just the sort of thing you shouldn"t pray for! What good is freedom to you? If you"re free, your faith will soon be choked by thorns! Be glad you"re in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul. Remember what the Apostle Paul says, "What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." (177-78; 117)
In this central passage, Shukhov realizes that what he thought was the source of his everyday efforts and the direction of his life in the camp was not necessarily the hope for survival and freedom. In fact, just like Alyoshka, Ivan Denisovich himself has already abandoned this desire and has resigned himself to his fate in the camp:
Shukhov stared at the ceiling and said nothing. He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. To begin with, he"d wanted it very much, and counted up every evening how many days he still had to serve. Then he"d got fed up with it. And still later it had gradually dawned on him that people like himself were not allowed to go home but were packed off into exile. And there was no knowing where the living was easier--here or there. (178; 117)
Unlike Alyoshka, however, Shukhov does not know what the source of his own behavior is in the camp, nor why he should abandon his hope and accept his fate. ""Look, Alyoshka," Shukhov explained, "it"s worked out pretty well for you. Christ told you to go to jail, and you did it, for Christ. But what am I here for?"" (178; 118).
Both Shukhov and the reader (by virtue of Shukhov"s limited scope of awareness) lack any explicit verbal definition of the particular values Shukhov himself may stand for in the camp. This absence of a clear philosophical assessment of the nature of Shukhov"s true response to the camp experience establishes the principal ethical puzzle of One Day; namely, is Shukhov"s acceptance of his fate a sign of his having transcended the enslaving dynamics of prison-camp life and, as in Alyoshka"s case (but unconsciously), an indication of Shukhov"s inner victory over totalitarian dehumanization? What, in that case, is the source of value that supersedes the hope for freedom and survival itself? Or is Shukhov"s abandonment of any hope for freedom a reflection of the victory of the totalitarian machine? Is Ivan Denisovich recognizing the camp as his true home, the only framework of his identity, including his dreams? In such a case, Ivan Denisovich would exemplify a stance diametrically opposed to that of Alyoshka: he would represent a Soviet version of what Tadeusz Borowski has called the "Lagermensch,"14 a type of camp prisoner whose body as well as spirit have become so accustomed to his circumstances that they refuse to travel beyond the barbed wire. And the appearance of the "Lagermensch" may well be totalitarianism"s greatest victory over the human spirit.
Which of these two contradictory interpretations provides a more accurate answer to the question of what motivates Solzhenitsyn"s protagonist? In other words, who is Ivan Denisovich? This is the question that each reader of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is invited to ponder long after the last page of the book has been turned.