The titular character of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wrongfully convicted as a spy and sentenced to ten years in a 1950’s Soviet forced-labor camp, trudges through his daily life with a strange companion: “[Ivan Denisovich] Shukhov pulled his spoon out of his boot. His little baby. It had been with him his whole time in the North, he’d cast it with his own hands in sand out of aluminum wire, and it was embossed with words ‘Ust-Izhma 1944.’” Can something as simple as a spoon be so precious?
The conditions of Ivan Denisovich’s prison dehumanize the inmates, and the prisoners try to regain their humanity through various means: Alyosha the Baptist reads the Bible; Buinovsky, a former naval commander, cites articles of the Criminal Code against the guards; and Tsezar converses about films. Religion, law, and art are pillars of a vibrant, dynamic civilization. Yet culture has been suppressed from the prisoners’ memories and its pillars perverted. Morning prayer has become soldiers barking orders, and artists who repaint the numbers on the prisoners’ hats are likened to priests who anoint the brow with chrism oil. The state has become an unloving God, and the schedule of the prisoners’ day has become the new degrading liturgy.
Yet, their lives are not entirely monotonous or meaningless. The prisoners find ways to circumvent the cruel system while trying not to get caught as they barter, conceal items in their clothing, sew bread into their mattresses, or wear extra layers of clothing under their uniform. These acts or items become echoes of their former lives. Ivan Denisovich carries his spoon with him, which he conceals in his boot and cradles like a baby. He crafted and created this spoon out of meager materials with his own hands. The act of creation raised him, however slightly, out of the dehumanizing mire of prison.
This boost in Ivan Denisovich’s humanity is what my 10th-grade students called “The Spoon Elevation.” In and of itself, the spoon does not elevate Ivan’s humanity, but Ivan’s creation of the spoon, a work of craftsmanship, elevates his humanity while in prison. This craftsmanship is an act that resonates with the creations of God the Father, which Pope St. John Paul II articulated in his “Letter to Artists:” “The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator.”
Although he is in a labor camp, Ivan works with the dedication of a craftsman. To elaborate, after his noonday meal, Ivan and his squad return to their work. Their task is to mortar a wall. Ivan fixates on the wall: “And now [Ivan] was no longer seeing that distant view where sun gleamed on snow. He was no longer seeing the prisoners as they wandered from the warming-up places all over the site… [Ivan] was seeing only his wall.” As he examines “his” wall, Ivan observes the patchy work of former prisoners and strategizes how to fix the wall:
At the spot he was working on, the wall had previously been laid by some mason who was either incompetent or had stunk up the job. But now [Ivan] tackled the wall as if it was his own handiwork. There, he saw, was a cavity that couldn’t be leveled up in one row; he’d have to do it in three, adding a little more mortar each time. And here the outer wall bellied a bit—it would take two rows to straighten that. He divided the wall mentally into the place where he would lay blocks, starting at the place where Senka was working, on the right, up to Kilgas’s section… And while they were puttering around the corner, [Ivan] would forge ahead and have half the wall built, so that his pair wouldn’t be behindhand.
From his spoon to his wall, Ivan creates works of art, making something beautiful, something precious to him, in the midst of debasing nihilism. He does not have to care overmuch about the quality of his work—he is in prison with a few more years to serve. In fact, they may even tack on more years to his sentence. Nevertheless, Ivan works and makes with zeal, trying to fix previous prisoners’ sloppy handiwork and cherishing his own handmade spoon. His work and the things he makes are dignifying. Craftsmanship is a reminder of man’s identity as children of God, not children of the state. Pope St. John Paul II distinguishes the creator from the craftsman in his “Letter to Artists” and how the craftsman reflects man’s identity:
What is the difference between ‘creator’ and ‘craftsman?’ The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing—ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it—and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God.
Ivan Denisovich is not a creator like God, but he gives shape and form to the raw materials that he finds in prison. By creating a spoon and a wall, Ivan raises his humanity in a particular way that echoes the divine act of creation as he waits for his redemption from his oppressors.
We are waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We trudge through our life sentence on this earth in hopes of returning to God. It can be easy at times, however, to lose sight of our final destination—which is to lose sight of our identity. How often are we, as T. S. Eliot phrases it in the Four Quartets, “distracted from distraction by distraction?” How often do we let hours slip away idly or even mindlessly on cellphones, television screens, and the latest fads? How often do we let our materialistic, fast-paced culture tell us what will bring us happiness and believe it? Our materialistic culture has trapped us in a gilded cage and tells us instantly what we need to know and to have. If we are in a plushy prison, how do we escape it?
Ivan Denisovich can help us to think through this question. He is in the Soviet gulag, struggling through daily existence. Yet, the ending of Solzhenitsyn’s book is hopeful. We are given a glimpse of a “good day” in Ivan Denisovich’s life. Like Ivan with his spoon, we should make and keep small, simple items or perform humble tasks in our everyday lives to remind us of our humanity. Knit a hat. Bake cookies. Weed the garden. Repaint the walls. We tend to the gifts God has given us, and in acts of creation, we imitate Christ who makes all things new. By doing so, we escape the prison guards of our materialistic culture, elevate ourselves, and become more like Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity and became a craftsman.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, Nobel laureate Aleksander Solzhenitsyn poses on the balcony of his country house in 2002 in Troitse-Likovo, Moscow, Russia. (Photo credit: Laski Collection/Getty Images)