One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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BBC Radio 4, 6 September 2008

Screened as a tribute to the late author, who died in August 2008, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a harrowing chronicle of life in a Soviet prison-camp (or gulag), where the inmates are dehumanized, given numbers instead of names, and treated as mere cannon-fodder by the sadistic guards. It was one of the first works to lift the lid on Stalinist Russia, and the way it brutally suppressed any dissidents, whether or not they expressed anti-government opinions.


Mike Walker’s 2003 production vividly dramatized the sheer boredom of prison camp life, where the inmates had little to do except count the days away. The eponymous central character (Neil Dudgeon) enjoyed winning little victories over the prison guards, such as forcing them to make mistakes while counting the prisoners, while indulging in flights of linguistic fancy as he tried to recount to the listener exactly what life was like. On the other hand the sense of impending doom (none of the prisoners had any prospect of escape) was frequently signalled by the sound of a single cello in the background. All the prisoners could do was to make the best of their miserable lives, sustain their self-esteem and understand that the dream of socialism envisaged after the 1917 Russian Revolution was effectively dead.


While the production was undoubtedly sincere in its point of view, I could not help feeling that, translated into British terms (complete with regional accents), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came across as a nihilistic version of Colditz or The Great Escape. The same themes appeared – the monotony of prison life, the battles against the sadistic English-speaking guards; the only thing that was missing was the perpetual desire to escape. No one in the gulag was digging tunnels with teaspoons; there was no point in doing so, as life on the outside was equally bleak. This is what made Solzhenitsyn such an effective writer; unlike his counterparts in Britain or Western Europe, he did not look at life optimistically.


This episodic semi docu-drama was grittily performed by a cast led by Dudgeon and Philip Jackson as the sadistic prison commandant.