"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" – inferring North Korean brutality by way of a 1950s Soviet gulag

"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" – inferring North Korean brutality by way of a 1950s Soviet gulag
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Otto Warmbier was returned to his family in the United States after being held captive for 17 months by the Kim Jong-Un regime. He had journeyed to North Korea on a student tour. He was returned comatose – and died hours after Father’s Day was celebrated in the U. S.

The young man was never able to describe the deprivations and tortures he suffered. Immediately upon his long-hoped-for return, doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center reported that he showed “no signs of understanding language,” could not respond to verbal instructions, had no awareness of his surroundings. His imprisonment since January 2016 (on utterly ridiculous charges and a rigged one-hour trial) resulted in his suffering “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain.”

Three U. S. citizens are still imprisoned in North Korea – their circumstances are not known.

What can be inferred from escapees’ reports

2009: In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick published interview testimonies from those who had managed to escape North Korea.

2012: In Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden chronicled the odyssey of a young man who may be the only escapee who was born in a North Korean prison camp; those camps having been born and nurtured by the Kim-family dynasty, in Stalinist and Hitlerian fashion.

2015: Released prisoner Kenneth Bae, an American missionary, begins giving interviews describing the horrors of North Korean slave labor camps.

Satellite images (some obtained by Amnesty International), along with the accounts that manage to escape North Korean gulags, challenge the imagination and heighten the worst fears. The evidence that can be gathered points to massive brutality and inhumanity on a scale and to a degree that would seem to be unimaginable in our time.

A 1950s frame of reference

Stalinist brutality and inhumanity were made vivid by the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and historian who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 – and who was imprisoned in a Soviet Union gulag from 1951 to 1953.

In his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was first published in 1962 in a Moscow literary magazine, Solzhenitsyn related what he had seen and experienced in slave-labor work camps:

“Into the wind and the reddening sunrise,” the prisoners were herded to a desolate work site. “Out on the steppe, not so much as a sapling was to be seen; nothing but bare white snow to the left and to the right.”

“Nothing has ever been known to grow on that steppe, least of all between four barbed-wire fences.”

The prisoners’ deprivations and sufferings were made pronounced in descriptions of the labor camp’s mess hall and barracks.

“living” conditions in Josef Stalin’s gulags

The labor-camp prisoners (zeks) passed exhausted and troubled nights on mattresses made of sawdust, in “huts where two hundred men lay on half a hundred bug-ridden bunks.”

The five a.m. reveille was delivered by the banging of a hammer on a frozen metal rail. The sound was muffled by ice on the barrack’s windows that was “two-fingers thick.”

Every minute of every waking hour was scrupulously and fearfully devoted to surviving desolate 27-degree-below-zero slave-labor sites and rigors; to enduring another day’s hardships and indignities just to be able to return to the barely-habitable confines of an overcrowded hut; to not succumbing to all-consuming despair and resignation, which would have a dropout unceremoniously deposited – “toes turned up” – into “a wooden overcoat.”

What passed for sustenance in Stalin’s gulags

The zeks stampeded into the mess hall, their tundra attire compounding the bodily congestion. At tables, they were “packed as tight as seeds in a sunflower.”

As cold as the hall was, the zeks “took their time, angling for gluey scraps of rotten little fish under the leaves of frost-blackened cabbage.”

Solzhenitsyn tells the reader that there was nothing much left to whatever had disintegrated into the skilly in which fish bones lurked; “the flesh had come away and dissolved, except for scraps of head and tail.” Ravenous, the zeks eyed each-others’ shallow tins.

Teeth had been lost to scurvy, so zeks “champ and suck on scales that still cling to brittle fish skeletons.” Gills, tails, and even eyes are consumed – “if the eyes had not been boiled out of the head and were not floating loose.”

“For the moment – that brief moment for which a zek lives – that ladleful of scalding hot water means more to him than freedom, more than his whole past life, more than whatever life is left to him.”

One’s daily bread

Bread, hardened by frost, was cut and parceled out ungenerously. It did no good to complain.

No matter how slim the slice, no matter the pangs of hunger, a portion was saved. Solzhenitsyn explained that “food swallowed in a hurry was food wasted.” In the novella, his stand-in squirrels a portion away in a secret compartment he managed to fashion in his jerkin. Still another portion was sewn into his mattress for later, furtive, consumption.

As for the morsel secreted in his jerkin: When he could remove himself from the scrutiny of guards and other zeks, he would retrieve the piece of bread that had been stowed away, wrapped in a rag. He “held it under his coat so that not a crumb would fall past the rag… he had carried the bread under two layers of clothing, warming it with his body…. He’d learnt to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating… taking a tiny nibble, softening it with his tongue, and drawing in his checks as he sucked it…. He nibbled his bread until his teeth met his fingers….”

Fueling survival

As the zeks trudged, tramped, stamped, and crunched over the tundra, they were on the lookout for wood chips, sticks, and bits of broken board that the piercing wind had (ever-so-fleetingly) carried into their path, and which they furtively snatched up and hid under their coats. “If every man in the work gang made it back to the hut with just a stick or two, the hut would be just a bit warmer that night.”

And there was the temporary relief of returning to the hut (past the search lights that flooded the yard as with sunlight), to find that a shared mattress had not been turned upside down in the course of a daytime search.

What was longed for

Exhausted, depleted, Solzhenitsyn’s literary stand-in tries for even just a brief respite in the camp’s sick-bay. Shivering, he fitfully dreams of a blanket that is not worn thin.

In this semi-autobiographical novella, the stand-in doesn’t dare dream of socks. He must make due with thawed rags that he rewinds every morning to accommodate whatever pair of boots he has been allocated for the season.

Time out of mind

“No zek ever lays eyes on a clock or a watch. What good would it do him anyway? All a zek needs to know is – how soon is reveille? How long until work parade? Until dinner-time? Until lights out?

A creature comfort: “Every third day, with luck, each work gang got a chance to dry its boots.”

Bearing up, to bear witness

Political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn managed to survive his slave-labor camp deprivations and sufferings – and, beginning in 1962, through the novella initially “set free” in a Moscow literary periodical, he was able to bring a bill of particulars against an utterly ruthless and inhumane regime.

It is not at all inconceivable that Kim Jong-Un’s regime intentionally rendered 20-year-old Otto Warmbier unable to speak of his unspeakable mistreatment. Rendered without faculties, the young man could not provide an account of the deprivations and torture he suffered. And yet, his tragically and fatally diminished state speaks volumes.

In his honor, we can hope that in one of Kim Jong-Un’s gulags, there is a North Korean “Solzhenitsyn” – maybe several – who will endure, survive, and escape with the faculties necessary to deliver very personal testimonies, indictments, condemnations, and damning verdicts.

Otto Warmbier’s “unresponsive wakefulness” may finally be the wake-up that engenders an effective response.

Maybe it’s time for Russia and China to do some existential meddling.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community