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.
Gentlemen, I am tormented by questions; answer them for me. You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind? So far, you know, this is only your supposition. It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity. You think, gentlemen, perhaps that I am mad? Allow me to defend myself. I agree that man is pre-eminently a creative animal, predestined to strive consciously for an object and to engage in engineering — that is, incessantly and eternally to make new roads, wherever they may lead. But the reason why he wants sometimes to go off at a tangent may just be that he is predestined to make the road, and perhaps, too, that however stupid the “direct” practical man may be, the thought sometimes will occur to him that the road almost always does lead somewhere, and that the destination it leads to is less important than the process of making it, and that the chief thing is to save the well-conducted child from despising engineering, and so giving way to the fatal idleness, which, as we all know, is the mother of all the vices. Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? Tell me that! But on that point I want to say a couple of words myself. May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction (there can be no disputing that he does sometimes love it) because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? Who knows, perhaps he only loves that edifice from a distance, and is by no means in love with it at close quarters; perhaps he only loves building it and does not want to live in it, but will leave it, when completed, for the use of les animaux domestiques — such as the ants, the sheep, and so on. Now the ants have quite a different taste. They have a marvellous edifice of that pattern which endures for ever — the ant-heap.
With the ant-heap the respectable race of ants began and with the ant-heap they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and good sense. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station — and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all. But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.
And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive — in other words, only what is conducive to welfare — is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either. I am standing for … my caprice, and for its being guaranteed to me when necessary. Suffering would be out of place in vaudevilles, for instance; I know that. In the “Palace of Crystal” it is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a “palace of crystal” if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, ch. IX