Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is mostly written in chronological order with the exception of flashbacks that appear unsystematically throughout the novel’s narrative. This does not only become a method for the further understanding of characters but it is the most significant way to reveal the themes of the novel like; the theme of Identity, Power and Oppressive Soviet Russia. Moreover, as it is impossible to underline the whole injustice of the Soviet Union in a man’s one day, flashbacks acts as the ultimate medium for Solzhenitsyn to criticize the ideologies of the government in completion. In retrospect, because of this the novel appears to be written with different layers bringing out details of the setting of time and place under the Soviet rule.
To illustrate the negativity that surrounds the people of Communist Russia, flashbacks were written in a hopeless and dispiriting manner. It becomes responsible in creating a depressive tone to the novel’s setting as well as to elaborate to the readers the living conditions of not only the prisoners of the camp but also of the ‘free citizens’ that are living outside of the gulags. Solzhenitsyn employed the use of disheartening descriptions for the Stalinist Russia to give the impression that melancholia and despair permeates the whole oppressed nation. Through Shukov’s backstories, it becomes evident that it is no longer clear who’s situation is more in favor and there was no knowing “whether Shukov’s life would be any better there than here – who could tell?”. “There was short weight in every ration” as Shukov contemplates on the shortage of food inside the gulag. It’s apparent that inside the camp the Zek’s suffer on their food rations. However this dilemma also applies to the common people living outside of the prison camps as the Soviet farmers “…were failing to fulfill their quota of work-days…” and the fact that “…the people in the kolkhoz hadn’t grown by a single soul…” The steady use of negative dictions ‘short weight’, ‘failing to fulfill’ and ‘hadn’t grown’ in backstories and flashbacks gives the impression that the people living under the rule of Soviet Russia, all lives in hopelessness and despair. Shukov’s backstory when he was in Ust Izhma highlights the poverty and hunger outside of the prison camps when Shukov told his wife to stop sending parcels because it “takes food out of the kid’s mouths”. This enforces the idea that the ‘free citizens’ are struggling to keep up with even the most basic necessities of life and thus implying that the government is defective.
Flashbacks also plays a role in indirectly but effectively exposing the deeper characteristics of Shukov’s prison camp inmates. These work well in evoking the readers emotions and feelings of sympathy toward the prisoners. The exposé allows the prisoners to become the main protagonist of the story with the Soviet Government as the main antagonist. The pessimistic-toned backstories is instrumental in evoking sympathy from the readers. The team-leader, Tiurin, was introduced as a character of tough and serious nature as Solzhenitsyn uses the simile “as tough as bark” to describe his skin and the imagery “heavily pock-marked” face was awarded to him to describe how the harsh wind and hard life had shaped holes in his face and thus also reshaping his soul. This does not win sympathy from the readers. Instead it gives a dark first-impression on the character. However, readers can begin to sympathize with him knowing that he “had no jokes or smiles for his team, but took pains to see they got better rations” and to prevent his team from working in the ‘Socialist Way of Life’ settlement where “there wouldn’t be a warm corner for a whole month”. Furthermore through Tiurin’s past narrative, we get to see his compassionate side as he helped a little girl for he “didn’t want her feet trodden on or scalded” even though Tiurin was only surviving on “a couple of loaves”. The contrast in the diction “no jokes or smiles” and “took pains for better rations” presents the conflict between the harsh exterior that’s helped him shelter himself from the world and the benign-compassionate interior that is his own inherent nature.
As mentioned above, the conflict between the Soviet Union as an antagonist and the prisoners as the main protagonists of the novel is made apparent by Solzhenitsyn as he uses the element of flashbacks. The theme of Power that exists in the Soviet regime surfaces through Shukov’s backstory as he describes that “a prisoner cannot possess two pairs of footwear at the same time”. It highlights absurdity of totalitarianism in Communist Russia. In Tiurin’s past narrative, Solzhenitsyn characterized the “Red Army man” as an obscene man who discharged him from his military position and “stripped him out of his winter uniform” while calling him a “rat” for being a “kulak’s son”. This elicits anger from the readers and creates a biased perspective on the oppressive regime as they gradually begin to sympathize more with the protagonists. The phrasing of “Red Army man” and “deceiving the Soviet Power” indicates to the readers that the Stalinist State is the sole and ultimate perpetrator of the prisoners miseries and bleak fates. And it also shows the ludicrousness of Stalinist Russian ideology as well as its hatred towards a particular social class – kulaks. In this way, flashbacks becomes a significant medium for Solzhenitsyn criticism on the Soviet government for its nonsensical ideas and brutal actions towards its people at the time.
The significance of flashbacks however, could be seen as being the most effective medium for Solzhenitsyn to express his critical opinions on the totalitarian government of Stalin’s USSR. This also contributes in the movement to the theme of Oppressive Soviet Russia. It was forbidden at the time of publishing to perform any kind of criticism on the Soviet government. However, Solzhenitsyn achieved this through a more delicate way – entwining it with the novel’s flashback narratives. Through Gopchik’s flashback, it becomes apparent that the USSR has absurd ways of arresting commoners. After a brief encounter with Gopchik, the readers learn that he was arrested for “taking milk to the forest for Bendera’s men” (enemies of the USSR). This mundane action awarded him “an adult’s term of imprisonment”, which seems ludicrous considering Gobchik hasn’t performed any treachery or betrayal towards the Soviet government. Solzhenitsyn purposely highlighted the absurdities and cruelty of the government through underlining that life is not only hard inside the ‘special camps’ but also for the common people living outside of the gulags. Solzhenitsyn also mocks the Soviet government by showing its excessive-paranoia. Through Shukov’s past narrative, we learn that Stalinist Russia works like a double-edged knife. Shukov had been a soldier during the war and was captured and remained “in German captivity” until he escaped and “told the truth”. Because of this the Soviet government charged him for “high treason”. They were too paranoid and had no belief in the loyalty of their people that they wrongly accused Shukov for “betraying his country” and carrying out “a mission for German intelligence”, although “neither Shukov nor the interrogator” could say what sort of mission it was. The overtly paranoid Stalinist regime uses its power to punish anyone that seems even remotely guilty of a crime against the government. Flashbacks constantly remind readers of the skeptical and unjust Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn crosses out all the exemplary attitudes that the USSR wanted to convey and built a negative reputation for the authoritarian government instead.
Flashback contributes to the building up of characters in an attempt to gain sympathy from the readers. It powerfully develops and changes the reader’s perspectives on the antagonistic Soviet government. It also helps in the completion of the three major themes in the novel which is ‘Identity’, ‘Power’ and ‘Oppressive Soviet Russia’. In addition to this it was a tool used as the perfect medium for Solzhenitsyn’s criticism on Stalin’s USSR. It exposes the cruelty as well as the paranoid nature of the Soviet Union rule of the time to the readers and satisfies the author’s message of protest against the totalitarian government.