One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
A lot of books have a fairly typical history – author writes book, book gets published, people read it, author says "hooray!" One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not one of those books. In fact, this book's history is kind of nuts.
See, One Day was a hugely bold and controversial book that was published in 1962 in Soviet Russia. This book is a work of fiction, but it is also a kind of journalistic tell-all about a serious topic: the gulag system. What on earth is a gulag? Well, "gulag" is the name of a type of prison that existed in Soviet Russia. Gulags were forced labor camps where millions of people were sent for "crimes" like practicing a certain religion, having contact with foreigners, and speaking out against the government. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was writing about the gulag system under Joseph Stalin, the dictator who ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 (following the death of Vladimir Lenin, the guy who led the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which brought the communists to power) until his death in 1952. During Stalin's reign of terror, millions of people were killed and millions were arrested and shipped off to gulags. Gulags were often in locations that weren't exactly vacation hot-spots, like Siberia. Conditions there were awful and inmates were used as slave labor. The people who survived the camps were often sent into forced exile afterwards.
Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the gulag system. He was arrested for writing a derogatory comment about Stalin in a letter. Private mail didn't really exist in Stalinist Russia. Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 and was released from prison in 1953, when he was sent into forced exile in Kazakhstan. In 1956 he was finally allowed back into Russia.
Actually, a lot of prisoners were released after Stalin's death in 1952. The arguably less ruthless Nikita Khrushchev took over the Soviet Union and kicked off what is known as the "Thaw," a period during which people could start debating issues and even be somewhat critical of Stalin.
It was during the Thaw that Solzhenitsyn could finally publish his work. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in a literary journal called Novy Mir (which means New World) in 1962. Khrushchev himself read and approved of the novella before it was published. Khrushchev was all about sticking it to Stalin in order to shore up his own political power, but when it came right down to it, Khrushchev wasn't all that much of a reformer. He was still running an oppressive state and the Thaw was starting to end by the close of Khrushchev's reign. Khrushchev was thrown out of office by Leonid Brezhnev, a pro-Stalin guy, in 1964.
After Brezhnev came to power, Solzhenitsyn's works were pretty much banned, and a black-market rose up where people read his work in secret. Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported from Russia in 1974 and his works, including One Day, weren't openly available again until 1989, when the Soviet Union began to crumble. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was an international sensation when it was first published and it has remained influential since it was first published. It was the first literary work to openly discuss the oppressive policies of Stalin and the gulag system, and it did a lot to inspire future dissidents, or people who opposed the Soviet government. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature" (source).
Why Should I Care?
So, if you are down with learning about Russian history, this is totally the book for you. It's got World War II references, Stalin references, gulags, winter weather, people with Russian names that are hard to spell. It's a party.
If, however, you aren't super-psyched about Russian history, then you might think this book isn't going to float your boat. So why bother reading this, outside of some sort of history class? Well, when you put aside all the historically specific stuff here, this book is about a guy who just doesn't want to get out of bed in the morning. And who hasn't had mornings like that? Granted, going to school/work isn't at gulag-levels of badness, but the basic principle is the same. Sometimes you just have to get up, plow through a terrible day, and hopefully make the best of it.
Shukhov definitely does this. Even though his life sucks, he still tries to be a decent person and to find some measure of happiness amidst all the challenges and suffering he has to deal with on a daily basis. In the face of oppression, Shukhov doesn't give up or give in. Whether you're resisting some nasty peer pressure or keeping up that horrendously dull study regime, Shukhov's attitude and his struggles are both identifiable and admirable.