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Everyman's Library #219: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn
Everyman's Library #219: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

history 244, August 4, 2008

Unbuttoning wasn’t too terrible now they were nearly home.
Yes—that’s what they called it, “Home”.
Their days were too full to remember any other home.

The “home” that Shukhov refers to is camp HQ, a forced labor camp in Siberia. It was part of the Gulag penal system instituted under Stalin and populated by the victims of that dictator’s purges. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives an account of a typical daily routine for Gang 104, a work crew tasked with building a power plant in the dead of winter where the temperature reached thirty degrees below zero. The story of Ivan (Shukhov) and his crew is as much about the dehumanizing labor as it is about the triumph of the human spirit in such horrid conditions.
Solzhenitsyn, himself, had been a convict in the labor camps. Published in 1962, Ivan Denisovich, was one of the first literary accounts of the Gulag system. Its release signaled a temporary relaxation of Stalin’s policies by Kruschev. Such policies had led to the suppression of subversive literature and the imprisonment of millions of Russians; one of the most memorable aspects of the novel is Solzhenitsyn’s explanation of why the characters were in the camp.
Shukhov landed in a labor camp simply because, as a prisoner of war, he escaped the Nazis during the early days of the Second World War. His reason for being in the Gulag system was no stranger or more random than the rest of Gang 104. Tyurin, the foreman, was there because his father was a rich peasant, a kulak. The captain, Buynovsky, had served as a liaison to the British navy during the war, and had been put in the camps simply for receiving a gift from a British officer. Solzhenitsyn’s description of how all members of Soviet society were subject to arbitrary imprisonment is perhaps one of his harshest criticisms of Stalinist rule.
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Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Hadji Murad

history 244, August 4, 2008

No one spoke of hatred of the Russians. The feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hate. It was not hatred, for they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings…the desire to exterminate them—like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves—was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation.

Russian attempts to annex and pacify the Caucasus Mountains lead to a protracted guerilla war for the first half of the 19th century. Leo Tolstoy had served as an officer in this conflict as a young man, and he chose to write about this experience in the last days of his own life. Hadji Murad, written by Tolstoy between 1896 and 1904, and published posthumously in 1912, examines the war from several viewpoints and offers a comprehensive picture of the Caucasian front. By centering his story on the events surrounding the death of Hadji Murad, a Muslim warlord who attempts to ally himself with the Russians to rescue his family, Tolstoy avoids a one-sided narrative. He is perhaps the first Russian author to depict the Chechen point of view, as exemplified by the above excerpt. In doing so, Tolstoy humanizes the enemy, and rationalizes their resistance.
Tolstoy also empathizes with the plight of the common Russian soldier. The death of Avdeev, a peasant conscript, shows not only the callousness of the Russian officers, but also the pain that death inflicts on the soldier’s mother back home. Tolstoy’s portrait of Russian society stretches all the way to the Tsar. The author dedicates an entire chapter to Tsar Nicholas I, in which he depicts the emperor as being more concerned by love affairs with young courtesans than affairs of state.
Rather than romanticizing the conflict, as other Russian authors had done before him (Lermontov’s, A Hero of Our Time, comes to mind), Tolstoy portrays the war realistically. The story remains pertinent more than a century later, as evidenced by one publisher’s choice to feature a modern Chechen rebel on the cover of Hadji Murad.
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Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Heart of a Dog

history 244, August 4, 2008

The whole horror, you see, is that his heart is no longer a dog’s heart, but a human one. And the vilest you could find.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s short novel, Heart of a Dog, satirizes life in the early Soviet Union. In the story, Professor Preobrazhensky pushes the limits of science when he takes the pituitary gland and testes of a dead criminal and transplants them into a stray dog named Sharik. Over the next few weeks Sharik transforms into a proletarian, who drinks, curses, and makes sexual advances on the professor’s maid, Zina. The dog gives himself the name of Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, becomes a documented citizen if the Soviet Union, and even gets a job purging the city of Moscow’s stray cat population. Eventually, the Professor and his assistant Doctor Bormenthal grow tired of Sharikov, reverse the procedure, and the man Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov reverts to the affable mutt Sharik.
Seething criticisms of early Soviet society pervade this novel’s pages. Bulgakov makes light of the absurdities inherent to Bolshevism several times; one of the most salient examples is the name that Sharik chooses for himself. In pre-revolutionary Russia, one was named after the Orthodox saint whose day fell closest to a child’s birth. When the Soviets came to power they abolished the Orthodox calendar and instituted their own, complete with holidays that celebrated the triumph of the proletariat. With the help of the Shvonder, the housing complex’s resident Communist partisan, Sharik chooses to be named after a Polygraph. Ironic because as a character he is dishonest, Sharik’s name also mocks a society that would place such value on a lie-detector machine. Because of derisions like this, Heart of a Dog did not receive publication in the Soviet Union until 1987, though it was written in 1925.
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A Hero of Our Time (Penguin Classics) by Mikhail Lermontov
A Hero of Our Time (Penguin Classics)

history 244, August 4, 2008

You have admired far more terrible and monstrous characters than he is, so why are you so merciless towards him, even as a fictitious character? Perhaps he comes too close to the bone?

In the preface to the 1841 edition of A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov chastises his audience for their objection to Pechorin, the anti-hero of the story. That Lermontov’s character drew such criticism from Russian readers speaks to how Pechorin’s lifestyle, that of a carefree noble in military service in the Caucasus wars, reflects the deeper insecurities of a Russian nobility that by the 1840’s was no longer certain of its place in society.
Lermontov uses a rather creative storyline composed of five novellas that switch from an unnamed officer (possibly Lermontov), to Maxim Maximych, and Pechorin (through his diaries). The plot focuses around a quasi-love affair between Pechorin and Princess Mary, a Romanov. In the course of his courtship, Pechorin comes into conflict with Grushnitsky, another officer, and the story ends dramatically when Pechorin kills Grushnitsky in a duel set on a cliff. The moral bankruptcy that Pechorin displays in his pursuit of Mary as well as his killing of Grushnitsky raises questions of the purpose of the Russian nobility in a time of great social unrest of the Russian peasantry. Titling the book A Hero of Our Time is an ironic act of criticism of the nobility; Pechorin epitomizes someone who is callous and bored with life. Unfortunately, Lermontov’s life echoed his art too closely; he was killed in a duel on a cliff in 1841.
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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksa Solzhenitsyn
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

history 244, August 4, 2008

Unbuttoning wasn’t too terrible now they were nearly home.
Yes—that’s what they called it, “Home”.
Their days were too full to remember any other home.

The “home” that Shukhov refers to is camp HQ, a forced labor camp in Siberia. It was part of the Gulag penal system instituted under Stalin and populated by the victims of that dictator’s purges. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives an account of a typical daily routine for Gang 104, a work crew tasked with building a power plant in the dead of winter where the temperature reached thirty degrees below zero. The story of Ivan (Shukhov) and his crew is as much about the dehumanizing labor as it is about the triumph of the human spirit in such horrid conditions.
Solzhenitsyn, himself, had been a convict in the labor camps. Published in 1962, Ivan Denisovich, was one of the first literary accounts of the Gulag system. Its release signaled a temporary relaxation of Stalin’s policies by Kruschev. Such policies had led to the suppression of subversive literature and the imprisonment of millions of Russians; one of the most memorable aspects of the novel is Solzhenitsyn’s explanation of why the characters were in the camp.
Shukhov landed in a labor camp simply because, as a prisoner of war, he escaped the Nazis during the early days of the Second World War. His reason for being in the Gulag system was no stranger or more random than the rest of Gang 104. Tyurin, the foreman, was there because his father was a rich peasant, a kulak. The captain, Buynovsky, had served as a liaison to the British navy during the war, and had been put in the camps simply for receiving a gift from a British officer. Solzhenitsyn’s description of how all members of Soviet society were subject to arbitrary imprisonment is perhaps one of his harshest criticisms of Stalinist rule.
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(2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)



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