Solzhenitsyn was awarded in the 1970 Noble Prize in Literature, according to the citation accompanying the award, “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Both elements of that citation, the ethical force and the abiding and pervading connection with the Russian literary tradition, are evident throughout each page of this short but tremendous work.
Here, the reader is introduced to Ivan Denisovich, who, in the gulag, goes by the name Shukhov. Shukhov was a loyal Russian soldier captured by the Germans during World War II. He and several other Russian soldiers were able to escape from Germany captivity and return to the Soviet Army, only to be arrested and accused of treason. Sent to the gulags for his “crime,” Shukhov serves out his lengthy sentence in the cold winds of Siberia, laboring and scheming along with hundreds of other prisoners day in and day out. We, the readers, are offered a briefly glimpse into this miserable existence, an existence which many thousands of Russian men and women endured under Stalin in the Soviet Union.
In his telling of the story, Solzhenitsyn makes the gulag, so distant, so terrible, and so inhumane, seem, in a sense, immediate, even intimate, and quite human. The people we meet in the gulags are not people unlike ourselves. On the contrary, the people we meet there are the people meet anywhere we go; the key difference, however, is that these people have been thrust into a struggle for their very survival which few of us will ever experience. It is in times like these that men reveal their true selves. They do not become different people. They show to the world who they really were all along. Through recounting the experience of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn reveals us to ourselves.