Maintaining Human Dignity in Gulag in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a story that tells of a day in the life of a typical inmate of a forced labour camp called Gulag which had harsh living and working conditions. The story is about the grinding daily monotony and a restrictive environment the prisoners were in. It explains the struggles the prisoners had to live through.Gulag was a brutal system of concentration camps that was spread all over Soviet Union to which millions of citizens where subjected to. Starvation, food rations and rampant diseases, violence from guards and other prisoners tormented the Gulag prisoners’ daily existence.

Life in the prison camps was all about the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. The system was designed to make the prisoners keep working hard in order for the whole group to survive. Each inmate required willpower, ruthlessness, mental toughness, skill, and large amount of luck at various points to survive in the Gulag camps. Every Gulag survivor planned a series of strategies for their daily existence, while realising that the compassion of fellow prisoners as well as fate also played significant roles in their lives. Their survival was attributed to their retreat into the life of the mind. To maintain a competitive edge against others, a prisoner had to be constantly alert. He competed for almost everything in the camps from food, warmth, decent assignments and incentives to even cigarette butts. As it was a game of life and death in the camp, no relationship was sacred and prisoners resorted to swindling their friends in a selfish effort to keep themselves alive. They did not trust any strangers or their friends and relied on themselves to survive in the camps. In the camp, the prisoners measured future in minutes than in years, and the long-term future seems doomed for most prisoners.

Prisoners engaged themselves by writing and reading poetry in the camps, told their own stories, discussed philosophy and history—all that could keep their minds alert and active. Other prisoners took to chess games, did some embroidery, art or music using whatever was available in the vicinity. It often included tree bark for canvas, pig blood for paint etc. No communication was allowed in the camps. So the prisoners developed an indigenous tapping language as a means of communication. Each letter was represented by a certain combination of taps and the prisoners became quite adept in exchanging information.

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The survival was not always so clearly noble. The brutal system forced prisoners to compete constantly for access to limited means of survival. It was not easy to draw a line of ethics in the struggle to survive. One could not morally accept to work as a brigade leader, a medical assistant with no proper medical training. The prisoner who stole a moment of sleep during the work day, could not allow his fellow brigade members to fulfil his assignment quota. The discrepancy between the energy expended in work and that provided by the ‘big ration’ was so great that the healthiest forest worker was doomed to death by starvation within several months.

Prisoners competed for access to all of life’s necessities, and violence among the prisoners was commonplace. If they survived hunger, disease, the harsh elements, heavy labor, and their fellow prisoners, they might succumb to arbitrary violence at the hands of camp guards. Most of them were forced to do things they would never have contemplated in regular surroundings. Some would literally chop off their arms thereby escape from hard labour. Others tried to take their own lives. Many survived by going into a religious retreat, but nothing ultimately could save those the prisoners who had taken to digging through trash heaps or eating the food rations of a dying friend in their desperation to survive. The life of a prisoner was defined by competition. One’s own survival was placed over the ideal of a collective environment. Prisoners paid off the guards in order to attain decent assignments and privileges, which is a clear indication that the very structure of the camp had flawed. This environment of competition for survival made the camp a hostile place to live in and there was never a collective atmosphere.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the protagonist of the novel, through his experience in the camp, tries to show us that survival on one’s own was never possible. People had to work as a team, helping one another, in order to get things accomplished, overcome challenges, and survive. Through the good deeds that Ivan accomplished, he made rapport with the other prisoners and had the privilege of getting extra food at times. Ivan consciously chose survival over death though he was confronted with unimaginable hardship always. Ivan’s daily struggle represents that of the average Russian citizen.

He realised that the way to survive and maintain human dignity was not through a rebellious approach but through developing a personal belief system. At meal time, no matter how hungry he was, he insisted on removing his cap before eating. It had given him a sense of being civilized. Ivan uses his intelligence to make his life easier so he can muster enough energy to handle the work load. Ivan is careful about what he does in the camp, therefore he does what is appropriate to do in the camp. He does not take other person's left-overs to eat even when he is extremely hungry. This reduces the chances of getting infections so he may live longer. Though he was treated like an animal by the camp system, he subtly fought back and refused to submit. Through his self esteem and dignity, he indirectly declared a war against the state that had put him under torture.

Shukhov’s lonely struggle shows us the peasant’s inner nobility in the face of degradation. He had fully accepted his new identity and his camp life, and he had an amazing ability to build a meaningful existence for himself out of the arbitrary camp system, make himself a spiritual hero. His passion towards life puts him in control of his world. Even if he started out the day feeling ill, he not only survived it, but also made the most of it. When Shukhov worked on a brick wall, he focused on it as if he owned every inch of it. Although he was a slave, he tried to be the king of his little area of the world and enjoy what he was doing. Though Shukhov knew that the squealers do survive - at the cost of their own humanity - he respected and agreed with most of Kuziomin's statement. For Shukhov, avoiding the before-breakfast mess hall, where he might be tempted to lick out another man's bowl, was a significant step towards maintaining his humanity and surviving his sentence. In a Stalinist communist society, in which the government sought to destroy the notion of all private property, even the ownership of a spoon, was significant. In the camp, where Shukhov cannot even call his clothing or boots his own, this spoon marks him as an autonomous individual. His continued efforts to protect his spoon, hiding it in his boot, are metaphoric efforts to protect his own humanity in the camp. Even if it was a thin soup that was served, Ivan has no complaints and concerns. He knew that food was an essential element of his survival and hence devoted much of his skills and ability to keep his stomach full.

Though at times Shukhov's code seems somewhat arbitrary, his adherence to certain principles - such as taking his hat off at the table - allowed him to maintain human dignity in the face of the spirit-destroying atmosphere of the camp. Those small actions which he was able to do became more magnified and endowed with far greater significance than they would in the outside world. Ivan Denisovich managed to survive the camps for more than eight years. He was a consummate survivor as he had a positive attitude, practical skills, and a strong sense of moral and ethical integrity. The life in Gulag camp was thus a great test of moral strength, of everyday morality. Every Gulag survivor attributed survival to a series of small strategies, always knowing that fate and the kindnesses of others also played significant role.

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