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An Examination Religious Ambivalence in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn Essay

Updated on May 8, 2013

The Life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov

Solzhenitsyn’s work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962 in Soviet Russia. The story follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov for one day’s events in a Soviet labor camp. The ambiguous feelings towards religion really come out through the discussions and actions of Ivan Denisovich and Alyosha, the Baptist. The use of separation of one group (zeks) from another (guards), rations of bread and warmth, maintaining human dignity through ritual, and interactions of the group itself are all teeming with religious symbols.

Prisoners in a Siberian Gulag at Work
Prisoners in a Siberian Gulag at Work

Good vs Evil

The book portrays a sense of religion through the separation of the inmates (zeks) from the guards. Religion was shunned and outlawed in Soviet Russia and the inmates represent a repressed people, the religious of Soviet Russia. The camp represents a sort of Hell for the inmates who are tortured by being made to work grueling hours on tedious tasks. The tasks aren’t even important to finish as much as they are to just work on them. This is evident when Tyurin goes to visit his superiors about “percentages” and returns to tell the men they will receive more food because he was able to play up their work to his boss (Solzhenitsyn 82). The heads of the Soviet camp are fairly incompetent. This failure is “emblematic of the futility of the Soviet system of camps and repressions to subdue the human spirit” (Kobets 669). In fact, this can be further tied in to religion through the analogy of Satan’s attempt to control Heaven and eventual failure. The prisoners must remain faithful to their own spirit in order to best protect themselves from the tyranny of the Soviet system, or Satan.

Rituals of the Camp

Again, religion can be accessed in their thoughts through their “habits” in the camp. The re-lettering of the jackets by an old man is symbolic of anointing to protect from demons. The demons of the camp are the guards and the anointing medium is paint rather than oil, ash, or water. The rations of bread and not eating more than your need seem to also be symbolic of the religious “daily bread” and abstaining from gluttony. The sin of gluttony is fought throughout the time Shukhov spends in the camp. Even when he has a surplus he refuses to eat more than he needs. In the end he even gives extra to his neighbor Alyosha after he gives Shukhov the knowledge of reflection and spiritual freedom within the camp. The bread seems to be a direct biblical reference to the story of the bread and fish, the Lord’s Prayer, and the body of Christ. Through the bread they receive the opportunity to live another day. How they choose to eat also reflects their character. The ones who “lick other men’s leftovers” are the lowliest of the group of zeks (Solzhenitsyn 3). Shukhov even fashions a spoon for himself in order to maintain a bit of humanity and grace while living in hell.

The rituals they perform throughout the camp are also signifiers of wanting to maintain humanity and spirit while in the camp. For instance, Shukhov always removes his hat before eating. Pre-meal rituals have deep-seated roots in religion to thank God for the meal. This ritual is a way of symbolically giving thanks that Shukhov gets to eat that day, rather than scarfing the food down without a second thought. Another example of ritual in the camps is when building the wall Shukhov would rather finish his work dignified and not wasting than worry about the consequences of being punished. The narrator says, “if the guards had put the dogs on him it would have made no difference…” (Solzhenitsyn 105). He would rather be punished by demons in hell than to give up his dignity and the thing that keeps him human, his spirit. Tobacco use is another indicator of the human spirit still being alive within the camp. The tobacco is a luxury yet they still all smoke when they can. This shows that they are not perfect and are still human. However, this human nature is not separated from religion. In religion, everyone sins, even the good people who are struggling for salvation. They all still sin as there is no escaping it. This seems to be their one humanistic trait that they cling to that is both bad for them and sinful in the camp.

The Secular Side of the Novel

However, there is also a much more secular side of the novel. When Shukhov interacts with Alyosha there is a feeling of negativity towards the mysticism of his religion. When Alyosha asks why he thanks God and doesn’t pray, Shukhov replies that his prayers don’t get approved or they get rejected (161). This anti-mystic tone is furthered when Shukhov explains that, “I’m not against God… But I don’t believe in paradise or in hell… why do you take us for fools and stuff us with your paradise and hell stories?” (Solzhenitsyn 163). However, Alyosha explains that praying for physical things is in the wrong spirit of prayer. You should pray for freedom of the soul. The ambivalent attitudes towards religion in Russia can be summed up in this exchange. One side wants to be practical and have the physical. They want money, possessions, and to have enough to give and help others. The other side wants to have a resilient spirit with a relationship with God and the promise of the afterlife. They want the ritual and the magic. There is also the in-between that wants practical things like food, water, and medicine for everyone while also having a healthy spiritual understanding. This middle ground and true understanding of the soul lies somewhere between Alyosha and Shukhov

Other Hubs in the Series

This hub is one of a series of hubs on Religion and Atheism in 19th and 20th century Russia and Russian Literature. Please visit the other hubs in this series:

Atheism and Religion in 19th and 20th Century Russia

Religious Ambivalence in The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

Religious ambivalence in Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by Anatoli Kuznetsov

Works Cited

Kobets, Svitlana. "The Subtext of Christian Asceticism in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." Slavic and East European Journal. 42.4 (1998): 661-676. Print.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: New American Library, 2009. Print.

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