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).
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.
Solzhenitsyn on the Nobel Prize Website
Contains an autobiography, various speeches on the 1970 Nobel Prize, and general information on Solzhenitsyn and his work
Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives
An online exhibit and database about the gulag hosted by George Mason University's Center for History and New Media.
Gulag Online Exhibit
Online exhibit for a History of the Gulag Museum located in Russia (site is in English).
"Remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn"
Time magazine article on Solzhenitsyn's death in 2008.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn News Archive
Extensive list of articles on Solzhenitsyn from the New York Times.
"The Legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn"
Article on Solzhenitsyn's reputation, legacy, and his reception in America over the years.
Soviet History Archive
Online database with pictures, primary documents, articles, etc. on the Soviet Union.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1970
1970 film production of the novella.
Khrushchev's "Secret Speech"
Full text of Khrushchev's Secret Speech on Stalin delivered before the 20th Party Congress in 1956.
"A World Split Apart" Speech by Solzhenitsyn
The text of a famous 1978 commencement address that Solzhenitsyn gave at Harvard University.
Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives
Documentary film on the gulag and its history from George Mason University's Center for History and New Media.
Gulag: A Documentary
1999 documentary made by Angus McQueen and produced by the BBC.
Russia Today Coverage of Solzhenitsyn's Death
Video coverage of Solzhenitsyn's death in 2008, with archival clips of Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Address
Audio, with pictures, of his Harvard Address in 1978.
"Mother Russia" by Renaissance
Live concert footage of a song based on One Day by the British rock band Renaissance.
Al Stewart's "Roads to Moscow"
Live performance of the Stewart song, which he says is partially inspired by One Day.
A Man With a Mission
NPR Radio show on Solzhenitsyn and his legacy.
Solzhenitsyn's Life in Pictures
Small photo archive on the BBC News website.
Image of Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag
Taken sometime between 1945 and 1953.
Search of Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn getting bodily searched in a gulag by a guard.
Solzhenitsyn Accepts his Nobel Prize, 1974
Solzhenitsyn receiving his Prize, originally won in 1970.
Solzhenitsyn in Germany 1974
This was taken shortly after Solzhenitsyn was forcibly deported from the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn Writing, 1976
Image of Solzhenitsyn working after he had moved to America.
Image from Solzhenitsyn's Funeral
Image of mourners at Solzhenitsyn's funeral on August 6, 2008.
Solzhenitsyn Back in Russia
Solzhenitsyn preparing to depart on a train tour of Russia after his return to the country in 1994.
Prisoners Building the Belomor Canal, circa 1931-33
This canal, and the convict labor used to build it, is referenced in One Day.
Liberation of Buchenwald, 1945
An image taken April 16, 1945, the day American forces liberated the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, which is where Senka Klevshin had been incarcerated in One Day.
Photograph of Joseph Stalin, taken circa 1945.
An image of Khrushchev taken during his time as leader of the Soviet Union.