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The arctic freeze continues creating havoc in our country, even into late February. Stories abound of utility outages, food shortages, and health issues, even death. Necessary errands present challenges.

In such circumstances, I reach for the slim novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich written by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn; its protagonist is drawn from the author’s experience as a bricklayer in one of the Gulag slave labor camps in Karaganda, northern Kazakhstan.

The novel begins in 1951, five o’clock in the morning—Twenty-seven degrees below zero and another work day, outdoors, for Ivan and the five hundred prisoners in Hut 6. The ragged noise of the hammer awakening them was “… muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows.” From then until lights out, the reader follows Ivan’s efforts to survive.

Extremes of stale black bread and gruel in the mess hall, extremes of ragged clothing triple-wrapped around emaciated bodies, extremes of frostbite and blinding snow, extremes of cutting winds with no shelter, extremes of armed guards and attack dogs, extremes of multiple roll calls—all described in terse words, with no respite for the killing chill.

Aside from its gripping story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, its 1962 publication by the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir is significant. Until then, the atrocities of the Gulag system had been kept hidden from the world. With Stalin’s death in 1953 and with the de-Stalinization programs instituted by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this novel revealed its egregious secret. Solzhenitsyn continued writing from his Russian heart, until his death in 2008.

“Thanks to be to Thee, O God, another day over!” Ivan says as the novel ends.

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