Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich" follows a prisoner through 24 hours of his lengthy incarceration. When first published in 1962, it brought to the world's attention the horrors of life for political dissidents in the Russian labour camps.
The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o'clock as always. Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering.
The jangling stopped. Outside it was still as dark as when Shukhov had got up in the night to use the bucket – pitch black, except for three yellow lights visible from the window, two in the perimeter, one inside the camp.
For some reason they were slow unlocking the hut, and he couldn't hear the usual sound of the orderlies mounting the slop tub on poles to carry it out.
Shukhov never overslept. He was always up at the call. That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade – time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side. He could stitch covers for somebody's mittens from a piece of old lining. Take some rich foreman his felt boots while he was still in his bunk (save him hopping around barefoot, fishing them out of the heap after drying). Rush around the store rooms looking for odd jobs – sweeping up or running errands. Go to the mess to stack bowls and carry them to the washers-up. You'd get something to eat, but there were too many volunteers, swarms of them. And the worst of it was that if there was anything left in a bowl you couldn't help licking it. Shukhov never for a moment forgot what his first foreman Kuzyomion had told him. An old campwolf, twelve years inside by 1943. One day round the campfire in a forest clearing he told the reinforcement fresh from the front: "It's the law of the taiga here lads. But a man can live here, just like anywhere else. Know who pegs out first? The guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the sick-bay, or squeals to godfather.*"
He was stretching it a bit here, of course. A stoolie will always get by, whoever else bleeds for him.
Shukhov always got up at once. Not today though. Hadn't felt right since the night before – had the shivers, and some sort of ache. And hadn't really got warm all night. In his sleep he kept fancying he was seriously ill, then feeling a bit better. Kept hoping morning would never come.
But it arrived on time.
Some hope of getting warm with a thick scab of ice on the windows, and white cobwebs of hoar frost where the walks of the huge hut met the ceiling.
Shukhov still didn't get up. He lay on top on a four-man bunk, with his blanket and jacket over his head, and both feet squeezed into one turned-sleeve of his jerkin. He couldn't see anything but he knew from the sounds just what was going on in the hut and in his own gang's corner. He heard the orderlies trudging heavily down the corridor with the tub that held eight pails of slops. Light work for the unfit, they call it, but just try getting the thing out without spilling it! And that bump means Gang 75's felt boots are back from the drying room. And here come ours – today's our turn to get our boots dried out. The foreman and his deputy pulled their boots on in silence except for the bunk creaking under them. Now the deputy would be off to the bread-cutting room, and the foreman to see the work-assigners at the HQ.
He did that every day, but today was different. Shukhov remembered. A fateful day for Gang 104: would they or wouldn't they be shunted from the workshops they'd been building to a new site, that so-called "Sotsgorodok"**. This Sotsgorodok was a bare field knee-deep in snow, and for a start you'd be digging holes, knocking in fence posts and stringing barbed wire around them to stop your-self running away. After that – get building.
You could count on a month with nowhere to go for a warm, not so much as a dog kennel. You wouldn't even be able to light a fire out in the open – where would the fuel come from? Your only hope would be to dig, dig for all you were worth.
The foreman went off to try and fix it, looking anxious. Maybe he can get some gang less quick off the mark dumped out there? You could never do a deal empty-handed, of course. Have to slip the senior work-assigner half a kilo of fatback. Maybe a kilo, even.
Might as well give it a try – wander over to the sickbay and wangle a day off. Every bone in my body is aching.
*Political officer in charge of the Informers' network
** Socialist settlement
Excerpt from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H T Willetts. Translation copyright (c) 1991 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. and William Collins & Son Co., Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.