One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

As usual, at five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail.

Imagine waking up every morning, long before sunrise, underneath your jacket and blanket and yet so cold. A nightmare lies ahead of you: Climb out of the bunk bed, get into your sordid felt boots, collect a grim and meager breakfast. Gather outside in the bitter frost, where the guards search you and strip you of any unsanctioned warm clothing you may wear under the prison uniform. Hunger bites your stomach, the food is never enough, some bread, perhaps a watery kale soup. It is a miracle that you are still alive. As dawn is approaching, you march to the construction site, where you will spend the day working, gladly working as it makes you forget about the cold for a while.

Work changes everything. Suddenly there is a goal, a purpose even: Work needs to be done, or your entire team may have your food rations shortened. So you lay bricks, stone after stone, skillfully build up the wall. You catch a slacker, anger rises as you see the food rations at risk for his negligence. You feel compelled to punch him, but the team leader spots him and assigns him a job simple enough for that fool. When the evening comes, and you see the work is still unfinished, it pains you to stop. You even risk punishment to lay a few more bricks with the remaining mortar. Then, you gather outside the construction site, an endless hour of counting, re-counting: A man is missing. He is found, he had fallen asleep in a corner. The crowd of freezing prisoners is furious. If they could, they would have beaten him to death. And you may have gladly joined in.

You return to the camp, and endless queuing for the paltry dinner ensues. You guard your bowl like a hawk so your ration doesn’t get nipped: The prisoner’s worst enemies are other prisoners. Yet, it pays to preserve some sense of honor. You don’t lick your bowl, and you don’t peach on your mates. Just the other night, someone in your barracks had his throat cut for being suspected of peaching. After dinner you might queue at the parcel office. Not that anybody would send you a parcel, you told your wife many years ago not to waste her little money on expensive parcels, with much of the content lost to the camp guards. But you might be able to scrounge a cigarette if you keep the spot in queue for a more lucky prisoner. By now, you are dead tired, but before you can crawl under your thin blanket, there is yet another counting in your barracks. As you lie down, your are content that you got through the day without falling ill, and without getting sent to the cells for any of the small transgressions you need to commit to survive the gulag. The day had passed quickly. Yet the years, they do not. And just as they are about to release you, they might give you another ten years.

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. The three extra days were for leap years.