This specific work was the first work featuring gulags to be published in the USSR. What’s ground breaking, on top of just being published, is that it was published while the camps were being run. This is quite different from the concentration camp survivors who wrote after the camps were shut down.
Another unique facet of the novel is that it all takes place in a day. Not in a diary fashion, but an in-depth analysis of the actions and thoughts of the main character, Ivan Denisovitch Shukhov. He’s a very complex fellow who, by the novel’s end, I didn’t want to part with.
His struggles to survive the harsh realities of the gulag life throws a lot of shadows on everyday decisions you and I wouldn’t spend too much time on. Is stealing wrong if it means a few more calories to fight off starvation and hypothermia? Is stealing from your captors ethically permissible? Why does my outlook on life going to influence whether I live or die?
The harsh simplicity of the camp life actually complicates his life and reveals to readers the grey areas we don’t always consider. I am thankful for not having been thrown in a camp for trumped-up reasons, for an unlimited sentence, and not reprieve in sight. At the same time, I’m appreciative of those who have given voice to the millions who did and survived or those that didn’t see the end of their imprisonment. I am grateful for those brave enough to share their stories. For now I’m asking myself questions and realizing life isn’t always as black and white as it seems.