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Peter Carl Faberge

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On this day: Russia in a click

17 November

On November 17, 1962, the Novy Mir (Russian for “New World”) Soviet literature magazine published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” exposing his writings to Soviet readers and earning him a reputation as the leading dissident writer.

The story depicted an ordinary day in a labour camp for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a Russian peasant and soldier, in January 1951. For the first time in Soviet literature, the life of victims of Stalin’s repressions was pictured so truthfully, vividly and with great literary excellence. Anna Akhmatova, the outstanding Russian poet, said, that “this story is a must to read and learn by heart for every citizen out of all 200 million of the Soviet citizens.” 

Solzhenitsyn recalled how the idea of writing such a story first dawned on him.

“One day, while carrying a doolie with my partner, I was thinking: how would I describe all our prison life?”, he recalled. “A detailed description of just one day would be fairly enough… in a day of a most ordinary worker, our life would be perfectly unraveled.”

In the summer of 1956, after 11 years in the gulag, Solzhenitsyn moved from Kazakhstan to the Ryazan region in Russia, where his ideas were finally put on paper.

“The writing process didn’t take long, just 40 days -- that is, less than a month and a half,” he said. “It always happens this way when you take material out of a rich, eventful life whose routine you are familiar with and… the only thing you have to do is to stop the extra material from squeezing into the story uninvited, only concentrate on what matters most.”

But it would only be two-and-a-half years later that he would finally have a chance to publish the story, in the wake of the famous XXII Congress of the Communist Party, which triggered the vast Destalinization campaign inspired by Nikita Khrushchev. It was the most convenient time for such story to appear: all of Stalin’s heinous acts were strongly criticized and Solzhenitsyn’s story played right into the new ideology.

An anonymous copy of the story was taken by one of Solzhenitsyn’s friends to the editorial office of the Novy Mir literature magazine. Presented as the “gulag from the simple man’s point of view,” it was given to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, who was impressed by its purity and unvarnished truth. Determined to have the story published by any means, Tvardovsky asked a number of prominent Soviet writers to read it and express their feelings in reviews, in order to help persuade the authorities. In the meantime, homemade copies of the story were already widely circulating among the general public.

The higher authorities in charge of censorship had many objections to the story, many of which Solzhenitsyn found he could not accept. In July 1962, Tvardovsky, fearing the story would not get through the censors, sent a copy of it straight to Khrushchev’s office, prefacing it with his own assessment praising its literary and cultural value. Khrushchev, amazed by the story, gave his consent to the publication, and on November 17 it was released in 96,000 copies, with 25,000 additional ones issued later due to its incredible popularity.

Solzhenitsyn became an instant celebrity the very moment the story was published, receiving thousands of letters from grateful readers. Solzhenitsyn himself saw this whole venture as a miracle. All of this happened, he recalled 20 years later, “as a result of an incredible coincidence and support of some exceptional people. Had there not been Tvardovsky as the magazine’s editor-in-chief, the story would have never been published. Had there not been Khrushchev, the same -- the story never would have been published. The publication of my story in the Soviet Union in 1962 is like going against law of physics, as if things would suddenly fly up in the air instead of falling down, or cold stones would heat themselves up, almost going up in flames.”

After Khrushchev stepped down, however, Solzhenitsyn fell into disfavor with the authorities. What was seen before as the manifestation of truth and righteous denunciation of the Stalin era was then interpreted as slander and anti-Soviet propaganda. The publications of the story were discreetly extracted from book stores and libraries, and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was only allowed for republication in 1992.