January’s bluster mandates thermal underwear, bulky sweaters and scarves, fur-lined boots, and so much more. Shopping, working, even walking in the chill, fill our days, all made bearable between lengthening sun-filled days. Fortunate are our circumstances enabling us to brave the onslaught of winter.

But not so in other parts of the world where others hunger for warmth, where winter’s bite congeals spirits and hastens physical death.

An extreme example of this is found in the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). In 1962 the Soviet magazine Novy Mir published his slim novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, its protagonist drawn from his experience as a bricklayer in one of the Gulag slave labor camps in Siberia. There, the extremes of nature exacerbated the extremes of men.

It is January 1951, five o’clock in the morning; twenty-seven degrees below zero, another work day for Shukov, as Ivan is called, and the five hundred prisoners in Hut 6. The ragged noise of the hammer awakening them is “… muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows.”

Atop his bunk, aching and shivering, Shukov considers the sickbay, but thinks better of it and joins his Gang 104 for skilly (gruel) and twenty grams of bread in the mess hall; then, to the work parade in the midway for the first of many searches and counting throughout the day by armed guards; then, five abreast, hands behind their backs, they trudge to the construction site and work until dark; then, the final search, more gruel, and lights out. Never is there respite from the killing chill. “Thanks to be to Thee, O God, another day over!” Shukov says.

It was precisely this spirit that empowered Solzhenitsyn to survive the horrors of the Gulag. Through his later writings and lecturing around the world, he manifested the evils of the Soviet ideology. He still teaches us much.

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