The Subtext Of Christian Asceticism In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich


Svitlana Kobets, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


The Slavic and East European Journal,

Volume 42, Issue 4 (Winter, 1998), 661-676


The phenomenology of Christian asceticism has long been a part of the Russian literary tradition. It has served Russian writers as a rich source of ideas, images, literary themes, and techniques. Representatives of different types of Russian Christian asceticism (saintly monks, hermits, pilgrims, holy fools, etc.) populate the pages of Russian classics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They may exhibit the traditional behavioral modalities of the ascetic (Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, Leskov’s The Musk-ox (Ovtsebyk)), be passionate advocates of the ascetic worldview (Ferapont and Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov), exhibit an allegiance to ascetic values without being ascetics in the institutional sense (Sonia in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Leskov’s righteous ones in, for example, Single Thought (Odnodum) and The Death-Defying Golovan (Nesmertel’nyi Golovan)), or be fully-fledged bearers or exponents of the ascetic ideal (pilgrim Makar Dolgoruky in Dostoevsky’s Adolescent, Tolstoy’s Three Hermits).  Gorky’s revolutionary matriarch, Nilovna (Mother), and Pilniak’s visionary-turned-drunkard, Ivan Ozhogov (Mahogany), are more recent examples of the representation of the ascetic type in Russian literature.

As an heir to the great Russian writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Solzhenitsyn continues the exploration of the ideal and practice of Christian asceticism. In many of his works he describes situations—the subjection of men and women to extremes of poverty, disease, human cruelty, political oppression—in which the ascetic mode of thought and behavior tends to come to the fore. His novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is a valid example of this aspect of his oeuvre.

Christian topoi are scattered throughout the text of the One Day. They are adumbrated by means of visual images, linguistic formulas, and conventional symbols. These topoi function as similes (e.g. an artist renewing the numbers on inmates’ caps resembles a priest anointing a man’s forehead with holy oil; R. 24[1]); they are incorporated into the text as temporal landmarks (Shukhov recalls that the outbreak of the war coincided with Sunday Mass in Polomnia; R. 32); they serve as means of characterization (a Ukrainian, Pavlo, crosses himself after a meal; R. 60). These topoi bring into the text a religious dimension, which acquires a notable verbal and narrative importance as religious discourse (unity of vocabulary, power, and social allegiance). Religious discourse is incorporated in the direct speech of Alioshka’s and Shukhov’s prayers, in the expression of their hopes set on God (R. 111), or in the aesthetic judgment of Soviet art by Tsezar’s intellectual interlocutor X-123 (R. 63). These discursive narrative layers serve subtly to introduce a number of religious notions, which are central to the story as a whole. In fact, it is possible to argue that One Day is an essentially religiously oriented narrative.

While the novella contains a variety of coded and overtly stated themes relating to Christian cosmogony, mythology, ontology, and ritual, the most dominant theme is that of Christian asceticism. As the author develops this theme he places the ideals of Christian asceticism at the center of the narrative. He endorses these ideals as high ethical norms. Moreover, they serve as criteria for the characterization of the story’s protagonist. Ascetic ideals, being inescapably ethical and religious, not only inform the spiritual stance of the story’s protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukov, but furthermore are identified in the text as an indispensable condition for survival in the Gulag. Survival in that evil environment, in its turn, will be treated not as a biological issue, but in terms of an individual’s spiritual reawakening (or at least the chance for such). The prisoner’s survival as a spiritual being stands in opposition to the allegedly free Soviet citizens’ spiritual death through allegiance to and espousal of the false and evil values of the totalitarian state. The contrast between the protagonist—who, as I will show, is a carrier of Christian virtues associated with asceticism—and the demonic, hellish environment of the camp is maintained throughout the tale. Shukhov’s fortitude in the face of active and rampant evil is truly ascetic. Just like a medieval holy man he resists and overcomes the terrors and blandishments of evil and attains a higher level of spirituality.

It must be noted that the concept and phenomenology of asceticism (from the Greek askesis, “spiritual accomplishments”) have an inherently radical quality. The two main stances in asceticism comprise the abnegation of one’s social self, which is attached to the material world, and the cultivation of one’s spiritual self. These two spiritual practices form the core of ascetic doctrines in Christian as well as other religions. An ascetic rejects the values of the profane world and by means of constant prayer and the denial of his physical and social self makes his life a spiritual path to God. He withdraws from society—forms of this withdrawal range from individual seclusion (hermits) to collective seclusion (monks)—and practices the physical austerities of fasting, exposure to heat and cold, lack of sleep, etc., in combination with mental discipline.

Though it is a common belief that a commitment to ascetic ideals is a self-conscious act, there are many examples from ascetic traditions around the world that make it possible to argue otherwise.[2] In Russian Orthodoxy it is not imperative that an ascetic assumes his feat with full self-awareness; the latter can be thrust upon him or her. For example, the “Life of Pimen” in the Kiev Cave Paterikon indicates that his condition of health provided him with the original motivation for embracing monastic life. To the category of “unintentional” ascetics also belong numerous holy fools (holy foolishness being, according to George Fedotov, “a form of extreme asceticism”), whose health or mental condition often contributes to assuming their feat.[3] Among examples that can be adduced is that of Pelagia Ivanovna Serebrenikova (1809-1884), who had never fully recovered from a childhood disease and eventually became a fool in Christ.

The topos of an individual’s determination to overcome the ties with the profane plane of existence in order to achieve oneness with the sacred constitutes an important feature in the hagiographies of ascetics. Yet the hero’s perseverance in fulfilling this task and maintaining his daily routine is of no less importance. The individual becomes an ascetic through uninterrupted effort and perseverance. In fact, it is possible to argue that the popularity of hagiographic literature has always rested less on the fairy-tale miracles performed by the saints than on their heroic resistance to the lure of mundane life. Hence the Russian term podvizhnik, which roughly corresponds to the English “ascetic;” it connotes the meaning of persistence in one’s feat. The hagiographies treat as miraculous not only the curing of the sick or the acquisition by the saint of the gift of prophecy, but also the ascetic’s persistence in the superhuman effort to overcome his human limitations.

Note that the word podvizhnik entered the vernacular Russian as part of the expression “vesti zhizn’ podvizhnika” (to lead the life of a podvizhnik), which means to accept hardships in one’s existence and to humbly deal with them without revolting or falling into despair. Synonymous with the phrase “vesti zhizn’ podvizhnika” is the expression “nesti svoi krest” (to bear one’s cross). Here the idea of emulating Christ’s Passion and accepting one’s destiny is employed to describe a person who humbly endures the unendurable. Such a lifestyle is an expression of the kenotic stance.

The kenotic idea, which is the source of all Christian asceticism, comprises meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, “non-resistance,” acceptance of suffering and death. These components of the kenotic mode of being supply the ascetic with a means for purifying his heart and thus for bringing himself closer to the Godhead. The central importance of kenosis in the Russian religious consciousness is unanimously accepted by both theologians and philosophers of Russian spirituality. As John Gregerson puts it,


For many centuries before the Divine Kenosis as such appeared in Russian religious thought and theological writings, there was an almost unconscious application of its far-reaching implication in regard to the spiritual life. Man’s salvation was seen as being intimately connected with the degree to which he imitated or one might say shared in and partook of the Divine Self-giving, sacrifice, lowliness, and humiliation. Such an attitude enters into nearly every facet of Russian spirituality; it may be seen in Russian asceticism and general world outlook; it may be seen in the lives of countless saints and ordinary laymen; and among the truly religious it led to a profound recognition of the presence of the indwelling Christ in the “lowliest and least,” in beggars, in prisoners, and in the downtrodden—although, of course, in a very different sense than in the fully sanctified kenosis of the holy man. (31-32)


Thus, the kenotic mode is not only the core and the goal of asceticism but can also be a mark of those who did not formally embark on the ascetic quest. It is suffering that brings about kenosis by degree. Indeed, asceticism was never treated as an end in itself, or as being important per se. Ascetic practices are merely a method employed by the most radical and determined believers for fulfilling their spiritual quest. In other words, the phenomenology of asceticism can be described as a form employed in achieving a certain spiritual content, that of a state of grace or holiness.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is set in a Soviet concentration camp which is divided into two incompatible worlds: that of the zeks (inmates), represented by the protagonist Shukhov, and that of those in power. The opposition between these two worlds is presented by means of religious images and notions, which relate to the antitheses of spirit and matter. As we follow Shukhov’s itinerary through one of his better days in the camp, we are shown how the demarcation line between these two worlds is drawn. The lot of the inmates is depicted first of all in terms of physical privations. Every morning they leave the camp “in the dark, in the freezing cold, with a hungry belly, and the whole day ahead” (R. 23; E. 28).

Just like ascetics whose links with the world have been permanently severed, the inmates are virtually isolated from the outside world. They are outcasts. When Shukhov visits the camp hospital he is impressed—and oppressed—by the clean white furniture, the bright lights, and the sparkling uniform of Vdovushkin, a zek appointed to work at the hospital. The hospital is a little island of comfort and warmth in the midst of the icy hell of the camp. Shukhov demonstrates his disquiet and sense of being and intruder by his awkward body language: “Shukhov sat on the very edge of a bench by the wall, just far enough not to tip over with it. He had chosen this uncomfortable place unconsciously, intending to show that he wasn’t at home in sick bay and would make no great demands on it” (R. 18, E. 21).

The antinomical opposition between the Gulag’s two worlds is delineated in Christian terms. The world of Soviet officialdom is in control of the material side of human existence and is the diabolic world of materia. This world is that of hell, which is Solzhenitsyn’s central, albeit hidden, metaphor for the Soviet regime (cf. the title of The First Circle). It is a world founded on lies, the domain of the devil. This world embraces all mortal sins. Murder, anger, theft, pride, greed, and wrongdoing are the sins of those in authority as they kill, torture, humiliate, rob and cheat the zeks. They represent the Soviet State, a true Empire of Evil. For the inmates, it goes without saying, the camp is an anti-world, the real world turned inside-out to become hell. Hence the ironic remark about the wrong thermometer: “It doesn’t work properly… Think they’d hang it where we can see it if it did?” (R. 11; E. 11).

The incompatibility of the world “outside” and the world “inside” is reflected in Shukhov’s query: “Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?” (R. 20; E. 24). And further on, as Alioshka reads aloud from the Gospels, it is epitomized in the evangelical truth: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God” (R. 22; E. 27). This evangelical formula serves not only to identify Christian values embraced by Alioshka. It is also the unstated (and unthought-of) motto of Shukhov himself, whose stance is thereby defined in Christian terms and put in contrast with the cruelty and depravity of the Gulag’s officials. By giving the antagonism of these two worlds an evangelical wording, this maxim elevates it to the religious and universal level. At the same time it implicitly brands the representatives of the Soviet state as “wrongdoers” (zlodei) while on the other hand it characterizes the inmates as the Gulag’s sufferers (strastoterptsy) and martyrs.

            From the time of its origins, Christianity regarded martyrdom as the highest good. Martyrs were among the first canonized Christian saints who suffered for their faith (St. Apostles, St. Sebastian, St. Bartholomew, the Forty Martyrs). Martyrdom has always been welcomed by Christian ascetics who, when not subjected to persecution, sought suffering of their own free will (e.g. Alexis, the Man of God). In Russian Orthodoxy the concept of martyrdom, though still seen as being of the utmost importance, was modified, with the emphasis placed on its kenotic aspect. Gregerson writes,


The “kenotic life” not only involves lowliness and humiliation but also non-resistant acceptance of suffering, both spiritual and physical. This perception has found expression in Russian life in general and especially in the cult of holy “sufferers,” a type of saint found only in Russia where they replaced, to a considerable degree, martyrs for the faith in the popular cults. (32)


            Thus, the first Russian canonized martyrs, Boris and Gleb (1015), were not martyrs for faith, but innocent victims of a political crime. The canonization of these first two Russian saints as innocent victims and sufferers was an assertion of Russia’s predilection for the kenotic ideal. This ideal found its expression in the orientation toward the idea of suffering and imminent death, whether the martyr was a lay member of the religious community or a high-ranking member of it. This orientation is clearly seen in a large number of lay people canonized by the Russian Church, which has not been the case in Byzantium. The twentieth century, perhaps, yields the largest number of Russian holy sufferers, both martyrs for faith and laymen.

            A distinctive characteristic of martyrdom—as perceived in both Eastern and Western Christian spirituality—is that it allows a Christian to partake of Christ’s Passion and thus makes it possible for him to gain an understanding of himself, the Creation, and God. (Note that the English term “martyr” is rendered into Russian as “strastoterpets,” the one who experiences Christ’s “strasti,” Passion). In other words, martyrdom facilitates one’s eschatological quest for enlightenment. The theme of enlightenment is related to the theme of martyrdom. There is also a different kind of enlightenment described in the story. It has to do with the individual’s awareness of the real situation in the country and the true nature of the regime. Even the possibility of independent thought is viewed by the authorities as a threat to the established order. That is why so many of the prisoners are convicted “spies.” Some of the zeks were arrested for being in German captivity (Senka Klevshin), while others for simply having met with foreigners (Buienovsky). A man becomes a prisoner of the Gulag because of possessing an awareness, or at least a potential awareness, of the truth (in Greek “martyr” means witness). Prison gives him a unique chance to spiritually awaken, to develop his soul, and thereby to escape the net of the devilish world of lies and spiritual death. Thus, martyrdom in the Gulag opens the path to enlightenment for the prisoner. But only those who embrace their suffering and patiently bear their cross become chosen for spiritual fulfillment.        

            The first sign that a prisoner is undergoing this radical change is when spiritual awareness begins to replace ideological blindness. The camp novice Buienovsky cries out his realization of the truth right to the face of he guards: “You are not Soviet people! You are not communists!” (R. 28). His denunciation of evil is presently confined to the camp authorities and, as indicates his Soviet discourse, he continues to embrace communist ideals. Yet Buienovsky is starting to see that the world is not what he was told it was and what it seemed to be; he is already embarking on the path to enlightenment through suffering.

            The Christian kenotic ideal holds that only a spiritual life is authentic (e.g. Serapion of Thmuis’s eucharistic prayer: “make us truly alive”). On many occasions Solzhenitsyn, like the great champion of suffering Dostoevsky before him, pointed to the formative influence of the Gulag on the individual and affirmed that Gulag offered its prisoners a chance to find, cure, and develop their souls (e.g. “suffering molds the soul”; “[there] soul has a chance to evolve,” Gulag Archipelago Two, 454). Therefore the hell of the Gulag becomes a place of initiation, the place “where your soul … ripens from suffering” (First Circle). Consequently it acquires the meaning of a spiritual birthplace and spiritual homeland. Only those who gain awareness of the real situation in the country become truly alive, hence Tiurin’s remark about the happy young Soviet girls on the train: “They didn’t know they were living—they’d had green lights all the way” (E. 92). If rendered into English literally, his words mean: They were passing life by (R. 68). The implication of this remark is that their happiness is but ignorance. Moreover, their life of blindness is but a waste: they exist rather than live. People’s lack of awareness of the true state of affairs in the country as well as ignorance inflicted on them by the lies of the ruling ideology make their spiritual selves, or their souls, inarticulate and paralyzed.

            For the zek his former life, his family and friends exist on the fringes of his memory. The distance between him and them becomes insuperable. Shukhov no longer yearns for an opportunity to write to his family. Communication with them is completely thwarted. He cannot understand the essence of life in his native village. The values of that world have become completely alien to him. Nor is he eager to tell his family about his life in the camp:


Writing letters was like throwing stones into a bottomless pool. They sank without trace. No point in telling the family which gang you worked in and what your foreman, Andrei Prokovyevich Tyurin, was like. Nowadays you had more to say to Kildigs, the Latvian, than to the folks at home. (R. 30; E. 41)


            The common path through the Gulag draws the inmates close because of their shared experiences, values, and vision of life. Together with the other prisoners, Shukhov is part of a cast segregated from the rest of the world, a cast whose members are given a unique chance to discover and develop their souls. Therefore their camp experience acquires the religious significance of a chance for spiritual restoration, or, in terms of Christian asceticism, a chance for liberating their souls from the net of the profane world.

            Yet spiritual fulfillment does not become the lot of each and every zek. It does not offer itself to those zeks who persist in their attachment to or rely on the values of the outside world. For example, Tsezar, who regularly receives packages from home and whose interests and thoughts outreach the confines of the camp, does not really share the lot of other zeks. He stands in sharp contrast to them, and is presented as someone who in his thoughts, tastes, and even appearance (he still wears a mustache) belongs to the outside world. Indeed, Tsezar does not work with the team, he does not depend on camp food, his suffering is minimal, and unlike Shukhov, Tsezar does not fear his return home. A member of the elite in both his pre-camp and camp lives, Tsezar has never known the kind of suffering that makes one embrace ascetic values and consequently facilitates one’s initiation into a new awareness. Since Tsezar’s thoughts center on his material possessions, which are the source of his well-being, he is not free from the material world. Another exception in the community of zeks is Fetukov, the scavenger. Unlike Tsezar, whose detachment from suffering is supported by his privileged status, Fetiukov cannot reduce his suffering by bribing camp authorities, he tries to safeguard his physical existence by all means. In fact, he suffers, but he does not embrace his suffering, nor does he preserve his human dignity. Being outsiders, neither Tsezar nor Fetiukov are granted a chance for spiritual awakening.

            Camp space and time present a new ontological reality for the development of one’s soul, which in One Day is the central metaphor for a zek (e.g. “A vot prishla 104-ia. I v chem ee dushy derzhatsia?”; “now Gang 104 had arrived. What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery.” R. 45; E. 60). It is also made explicit by the spokesperson of Christian consciousness Alioshka, who defines the space of the camp as the place where “you have time to think about your soul” (R. 130; E. 177). On the other hand, time is referred to as eternity: inmates have no watches; there is no past or future, but only an eschatological time of the ascetic, time of here and now (R. 125). Besides, it is common knowledge that no one has ever been released after serving out his term in this camp (R. 27). The human soul—which in Christian mythology has always been at the center of the confrontation between God and the Devil, evil and good—in the novella is also at the center of this struggle. The reader comes to this realization when he finds himself in the atemporal dimension of camp life and is forced to see the real borderline between good and evil. In his article “Repentance and Self-Limitation,” Solzhenitsyn describes the metaphysical location of this borderline:


The universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between countries, not between nations, not between parties, not between classes, not between good and bad men: the dividing line cuts across nations and parties, shifting constantly, yielding now to the pressure of light, now to the pressure of darkness. It divides the heart of every man, and there too it is not a ditch dug once and for all, but fluctuates with the passage of time and according to a man’s behavior. (108)


            In One Day this borderline divides the population of the Gulag, excluding the camp officials and collaborators from the category of those chosen for a spiritual path. This special status of the inmates is acknowledged, however unknowingly, by their enemies, when the sentries refer to the inmates as flock (stado; R. 29, 126). The word evokes the image of God as the prisoners’ shepherd. But those who are in charge of this “flock” are usurpers and impostors. Their nature is reflected in their names, Volkovoi (Russ. ‘volk’ means wolf) and Tatarin (Russ. for Tartar. In Russian this is a byword for a hostile invader). They are also mockingly presented as incapable of adequately attending to their assumed responsibility: “Any herdsman can count better than those good-for-nothings. He may not be able to read, but the whole time he’s driving his herd he knows whether all his calves are there or not. This lot are supposed to be trained, but it’s done them no good” (R. 126; E. 173).

            The failure of camp authorities to adequately perform their duty as “shepherds” is emblematic of the futility of the Soviet system of camps and repressions to subdue the human spirit. It can be further paralleled to Satan’s abortive attempt to assume control of God’s world. While the religious image of inmates as flock articulates their meaning of spiritual beings, it also accentuates the spiritual import of the path of the Gulag. In One Day this path is presented by means of topoi of Christian asceticism.

            Traditional practices of asceticism entail austerities of life, suffering, and mental discipline, all of which are experienced by the inmates. These physical austerities are directly connected to the monastic values of obedience, brotherhood, and mutual help. In fact, these values of communal asceticism comprise the zek’s unwritten code of honor, references to which can be traced throughout the story. Interdependency is the law of the zek community. The camp may seem as a kind of monastery, where evil is the organizing and controlling institutional authority but where the “monks” (zeks) have recourse to Christian values and practices. In fact, allegiance to, rejection of, or deviation from the zek code of honor, which is based on ascetic (cenobitic) values is directly related to the status of the zek in the community and his belonging to the cast of those who follow the path toward spiritual reawakening. The prisoners who do not embark on this path are shown as essentially anti-ascetic.

            The anti-ascetic Fetiukov, who constantly violates the rules of this code, stands in opposition to such genuine adherents of ascetic values as Shukhov, Alioshka, Pavlo, Tiurin and other members of the work team. Unlike these men, Fetiukov has acquiesced, fallen into despair. He is outside the ascetic paradigm. He licks plates, steals food from others, begs, and scavenges. He does not contribute to the community: by slacking off at work, he forces the work team to do his job. He truly tries to live by bread alone.

            If Fetiukov is the embodiment of anti-asceticism, Yu-81, an old zek whom Shukhov admires, is the embodiment of the ascetic ideal. Yu-81 is a camp legend:


With hunched-over legs all round, he was as straight-backed as could be. He sat tall, as though he’d put something on the bench under him. That head hadn’t needed a barber for ages: the life of luxury had caused all his hair to fall out. The old man’s eyes didn’t dart around to take in whatever was going on in the mess, but stared blindly at something over Shukhov’s head. He was steadily eating his thin skilly, but instead of almost dipping his head in the bowl like the rest of them, he carried his battered wooden spoon up high. He had no teeth left, upper or lower, but his bony gums chewed his bread just as well without them. His face was worn thin, but it wasn’t the weak face of a burnt-out invalid, it was like dark chiseled stone. You could tell from his big chapped and blackened hands that in all his years inside he’d never had a soft job as a trusty. But he refused to knuckle under: he didn’t put his three hundred grams on the dirty table, splashed all over, like the others, he put it on a rag he washed regularly. (R. 112; E. 154)


Yu-81, the archetypal ascetic, has retained and affirmed his human identity and has achieved spiritual knowledge. The allegiance to or deviation from ascetic values and mode of life result in the establishing of one’s communal and personal identity. In this respect one’s choice can be seen as the tool for one of the major tasks of an ascetic: the quest for self-identity and self-knowledge. The truth about a zek, like the truth about an ascetic, is revealed through his everyday practices and demeanor, as may be seen in Yu-81’s case.

            The vices denounced by both Christian ascetics and zeks are gluttony, sloth, lust, avarice, melancholy, anger, boredom, vainglory, and pride. The elimination of these vices does not constitute the goal of zeks, yet it is an imperative condition for their survival. It is the gluttony and sloth of Fetiukov that make him a despicable figure within the community. On the other hand, it is the lack of avarice—perhaps his chief, if not his only, virtue—that makes Tsezar a positive character. To give vent to one’s anger and pride, as Buienovsky does during the check-out, means to die or, at best, to completely ruin one’s health in the punishment cell. Humility, the highest Christian and ascetic virtue, is the key to survival. It is the force, which allows zeks to endure the harshest conditions. Shukhov agrees with Senka Klevshin that “Kick up a fuss … and you’re done for… Best to grin and bear it. Dig in your heels and they’ll break you in two” (R. 75; E. 102).

            Mental discipline, which comprises silence, meditation, contemplation and prayer, is an integral part of the ascetic experience. It is indispensable for gaining an understanding of the nature of the evil desires and thoughts one has, so that one may rid oneself of them. And of all the ascetic practices, prayer is the single most important one. The topoi of prayer and meditation are among the most prominent in the story. The narrative contains petitions (e.g. zeks pray for blizzards; R. 41), benedictions, and references to the inmates’ meditative states; it comprises several full-length prayers, and culminates in a discussion between Shukhov and Alioshka about the meaning of prayer. The meditative state is inseparable from the inmates’ physical condition and is marked by the quality of permanency: “There they all were, sitting on slabs, on the molds, on the bare ground. Tongues were too stiff for talk in the morning, so everybody withdrew into his own thoughts and kept quiet” (R. 39; E. 51). The spontaneous meditation of the zeks is epitomized in the figure of Alioshka, a true Christian and a man of prayer: “Alioshka sat silent, with his face buried in his hands, saying his prayers” (R. 40; E. 52).

            The core of meditation is complete mental concentration. By focusing one’s attention on a single thought or a particular object, one precludes the mind from wandering, which is otherwise its natural inclination. In everyday situations, the endless chain of associations makes one mentally stray from one thought to the next, e.g. one first sees someone’s face, or an object, or hears a certain phrase; one relates it to one’s memories, or a recent experience; then one elaborates on these thoughts. Daydreaming is an experience of everyday life. Such endless and aimless chains of thought condition a person to constantly participate mentally in the mundane (i.e. profane) life. An ascetic opts to eliminate such thoughts through mental and spiritual concentration, whether by means of meditation or prayer. By means of such practices an ascetic seeks liberation from the ties of the world. As he cleanses his mind from all things extraneous, he endeavors to transfer himself to a sacred dimension and thus to achieve a union with God. One common meditative technique is to focus on one’s immediate reality. This mental state is especially characteristic of Shukhov (e.g. R. 46; E. 55). His thoughts encompass only the immediate: “A convict’s thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually” (R. 31; E. 40).

            One’s mental concentration on a narrowly circumscribed, limited temporal and spatial plane results in the change of one’s perception and consequently in the eradication of the import of the mundane. As a result, one’s perception of self and of the world is restructured. Thus, Shukhov, who is conditioned by his existential situation to adopt a meditative state of mind, is unburdened by anything irrelevant to his human essence. In his own words, he is an unthwarted combination of body and soul (grud’ da dusha; R. 28). Indeed, unlike Tsezar, he does not have any emotional attachment to possessions; unlike Vdovushkin, he does not have a privileged position he would fear to lose; nor can he be threatened by extension of his term, because he does not really count on getting released. As a result, there is nothing, which could make him stray from the sacred dimension of existence, which he has unintentionally and unconsciously created for himself. In a large sense, Shukhov is not a prisoner deprived of everything that comprises a conventional human life, but an ascetic freed from the yoke of the material world. This freedom gives him strength. Indeed, Shukhov is not bothered by either melancholy or despair, nor is he overwhelmed by anxiety or envy. On the contrary, like a true ascetic, he is serene, content, and strong in his sense of self and his sense of belonging to a community. He shares his meager food with Alioshka, forgets himself in communal work and the building site, and cares about the people around him (e.g. Buienovsky, Alioshka, Tsezar). Thereby he achieves the ascetic’s goal: he transfers himself to the higher sphere of human existence, where one is unfettered by materia and is ruled by the spirit.

            Shukhov engages in constant meditation. The change that is gradually taking place in his understanding of the world is exemplified by his thoughts about food:


Since he’d been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village—whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the cauldron, and, in the days before the kolkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting. But he knew better now that he’d been inside. He’d learned to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating. Like now he was taking tiny little nibbles of bread, softening it with his tongue, and drawing in his cheeks as he sucked it. Dry black bread it was, but like that, nothing could be tastier. (R. 38; E. 50)


            The topos of meditation on food is as prominent throughout the text as the theme of food in general.[4] The very process of eating itself turns into a form of meditation, which, as any meditation, offers one recourse to the sacred dimension. Alioshka reiterates the importance of meditating about food by saying: “The Lord’s behest was that we should pray for no earthly or transient thing except our daily bread, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’” (R. 128; E. 176).

            The characters of Alioshka and Shukhov, both of whom are presented as carriers of Christian and ascetic values, are juxtaposed throughout the story and can be considered counterparts. They argue, but in fact they are in agreement. Indeed, Alioshka embodies Shukhov’s eschatological ideal of a perfect society. In his words: “Never says no, that Alioshka, whatever you ask him to do. If everybody in the world was like him, I’d be the same. Help anybody who asked me. Why not? They’ve got the right idea, that lot” (R. 80; E. 109).

            The textual sacralization of the existential experience in the Gulag is expressed by means of the Shukhov/Alioshka parallel, which acquires utmost prominence in their last conversation. This conversation encapsulates the Christian import of the story. Although on first reading it may seem to be an attempt by the believer Alioshka to convert the non-believer Shukhov, in fact it is a dialogue between two exponents of high ethical norms and spirituality, two practitioners of asceticism. One of them is a conscious believer, while the other is an unconscious one. We could even say that it is a conversation between a Christian in whose life ascetic practices are supported by the conviction proceeding from his faith and a person whose ascetic form of life brings about his spiritual stance identifiable with a Christian worldview. Thus, comparing the cases of Alioshka and Shukhov, we can say that in the first case the form (asceticism) originates from the content (Christian worldview) while in the second one the form generates the content.

            The respective spiritual positions of these two heroes are directly related to the two major hagiographical types represented by the vitae of “conventional” and secret saints. “Conventional” sanctity has found its expression in the majority of hagiographical works that characterize the hero by means of certain traditional hagiographical topoi. Among those topoi we invariably find the hero’s predisposition from very childhood to embrace Christian ideals, his ascetic exploits, and, finally, his recognition by the community as a miracle-worker and a saint.[5] This narrative pattern can be found in both Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) vitae of Christian saints. Yet the image of the secret saint, or “God’s secret servant,”[6] is a distinctive and defining feature of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

            Unlike his “conventional” counterpart, the secret saint is an individual who does not deliberately pursue either Christian ideals or holiness. In many cases the secret saint does not even dare to call himself a Christian! See, for example, Leskov’s short story Pamphalon the Mountebank (Skomorokh Pamfalon), which was modeled on one of the so-called “beneficial tales” (hagiographical accounts about secret, or lay, sanctity).[7] The secret saint is invariably unaware that he is being pleasing to God or that he has been chosen. His state of grace is unknown not only to himself but also to other members of the Christian community. Moreover, his occupation or social position makes him a most improbable candidate for the status of either a righteous one or a saint. Stories about such saints are usually interpolated into the vitae describing the lives of committed ascetics. The latter asks God if there is another Christian whose ascetic exploit is equal or superior to his own. After that he has a dream or a vision in which God shows him just such a person. The ascetic sets off to meet this person, who turns out to be anything but what the community would regard as a devoted Christian: he may be a mime, a tax collector, or a brothel-keeper. Yet that person’s set of mind and life-style (unnoticed and unappreciated by other people) make him pleasing to God and therefore a saint in absolute (i.e. extra-institutional) terms. Stories about these “God’s secret servants” not only show the reader the limitations of human judgment but also express a uniquely Eastern Orthodox worldview, according to which God’s creation is a holy place where sanctity/grace perpetually seeks the opportunity to manifest itself.

            If Alioshka is explicitly presented as a saintly person then Shukhov’s saintliness is far less obvious. In fact, his character reflects the paradigm of God’s secret servants. While Shukhov’s spiritual stance is presented implicitly, it attains textual prominence through being paralleled and equated to Alioshka’s own position. An ardent Baptist believer, Alioshka is visually and verbally God’s servant, while Shukhov is God’s servant invisibly and mutely. Their last conversation is conducted on two stylistic and lexical levels: the vernacular of Shukhov’s uneducated speech, which is saturated by camp jargon, and Alioshka’s high-flown evangelical rhetoric. These discursive differences yet again parallel the forms (explicit and implicit) that the two characters’ respective allegiance to Christian spirituality has taken. Moreover, Alioshka’s Christian ideals are incarnated not only into his own but also into Shukhov’s life. Thus, Alioshka says that the only true values are not of this world (“What people prize highly is vile in the sight of God!”; R. 129; E. 176), and so are the values embraced by Shukhov. Alioshka teaches that prayer has to be incessant (R. 128) and centered on one’s daily bread, and so it is in Shukhov’s life. Neither of them believes in the traditional institution of the Russian Orthodox Church. Alioshka is a Baptist, a member of a minority denomination, which in Russia has traditionally been rejected as a sect and has been continuously persecuted since its appearance in the mid-nineteenth century by both Church and State. Shukhov’s protest is based on his intuitive rejection of the Church, which in his experience accommodates itself to secular needs and employs corrupt priests.[8]

            The Russian Orthodox Church has been repeatedly guilty of involvement in worldly matters and interests and has a long history of willingly subordinating itself to the state, its policies, and its requirements. In the Soviet era those representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church who were not banished or murdered often collaborated with the state. Indeed, Alioshka accuses the church of collaborating with the Soviets and of being worldly in character. “Orthodox Church has turned its back on the Gospels—they [Orthodox priests] don’t get put inside … because their faith is not firm,” he tells Shukhov (R. 129; E. 177). Church and state are treated in the story as belonging in the same camp because they are both rooted in the profane plane of existence and both serve an evil political system, which promotes lies.

            Shukhov recognizes that the rigors of camp life do not break the Baptists (“Life in the camp was like water off a duck’s back to them”; R. 35; E. 45). But the same is true of Shukhov himself! He not only survives, but also finds in life a measure of joy and contentment, which stem from his spiritual fulfillment. Shukhov’s friend Alioshka is willing to be in the camp and views life outside its perimeter as perilous and evil: “What good is freedom to you? If you’re free, your faith will soon be choked by thorns. Be glad you are in prison” (R. 130; E. 177). These words are not foreign to Shukhov, who does not know any longer if he wants to be set free. Thus in the story the issue of freedom is ultimately transferred onto the metaphysical dimension where it is defined not by the existential criteria of spatial confinement, but as a matter of spiritual integrity and clarity of vision. Survival in the camp acquires the meaning of spiritual survival, as opposed to the spiritual numbness and even death, which is the lot of the vast majority of Soviet people belonging to the so-called free life.

            In conclusion, we can say that the kenotic meaning of the story is engendered first through the religious themes and allusions in the narrative, and second, through the descriptions of the main character’s ascetic mode of being. Such an approach to the novella allows for a conspicuous re-reading. The suffering inflicted on the zeks by no means extinguishes their human essence. On the contrary, like the martyrdom of the ascetics, it becomes a step toward the achievement of a higher spirituality. The main character, Shukhov, now comes to be viewed as an unconscious ascetic, one of God’s secret servants who transfers himself into the numinous dimension, thereby overcoming the evil of the empirical world.





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Averintsev, S. S., Meshkov, A. N., Popov, IU. N. Khristiianstvo, Entsiklopedicheskii Slovar’ in 3 Vol. Moskva: Bol’shaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 1993.

Barksdale, E. C. Daggers of the Mind. Lawrence, KS: Coronado P, 1979.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Des Pres, Terrence. “The Heroism of Survival.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. Ed. John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1975.

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Fedotov, George. The Russian Religious Mind, Vol. 1 & 2. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960.

Gorodetzky, Nadezhda. The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1938.

Gregerson, Jon. The Transfigured Cosmos. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1960.



1 The page references are preceded by letters R, E, and e, which stand for: R-Russian text in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Sobranie sochinenii; E-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Trans. H. T. Willetts; e-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Trans. Ralph Parker.

2 For example in the Buddhist tradition young children are committed to monastic life by their parents or guardians.

3 For centuries theologians believed that holy fools consciously assume their feat of enlightening folly and only feign madness. Yet the phenomenology of this ascetic practice did not stay intact and later in the history, when a cult of the mentally deranged became a prominent feature of Russian Orthodox religiosity, many individuals who in psychiatric terms could be regarded as mentally ill were included into the category of saintly fools. Involuntary holy foolishness should be viewed in this context.

4 It is interesting to note that hunger and not lust has always been the ascetic's most disturbing predicament. In the Body and Society, Peter Brown discusses socio-economical, cultural, and religious aspects of the ascetic's resistance to his need for food. He concludes that "the most bitter struggle of the desert ascetic was … a struggle … with the belly" (218). The zek's perpetual concern with food, therefore, is in keeping with the anxieties continually experienced by the ascetics.

5 See Margaret Ziolkowski's discussion of hagiographical topoi.

6 For the discussion of 'God's secret servants' see Sergei Ivanov.

7 The motif of secret sanctity had been prominent in Byzantine "beneficial tales," which later on were included in Russian Prolog and other hagiographical compilations. It has always been immensely popular with Russian writers who created a great number of characters rooted in this Orthodox Christian sensibility (e.g. a number of characters in Leskov's Prolog stories, for example Zenon in The Mountain, Tolstoy's Pashen'ka in Father Sergius, Dostoevsky's Sonia Marmeladova in Crime and Punishment, Solzhenitsyn's Matrena in Matrena's House).

8 Christian ascetics also reject the institutional structures. Institutional Christianity is seen as accommodating itself to worldly society and therefore as losing the vision of the true faith defined by the scriptures (cf. Baptism). This rejection by ascetics of the Church's involvement in mundane matters in Russia can be illustrated by the example of the sixteenth century struggle between the possessors and non-possessors. The latter upheld ascetic values and advocated non-involvement of the Church into the mundane matters of the State.

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