A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisivich is set in the forced-labor camp of Communist Russia during a time of great internal struggle. The story describes a typical day in the life of an inmate and follows a prisoner through 24 hours of his lengthy incarceration.
When first published in 1962, it brought to the world's attention the horrors of life for political dissidents in the Russian labour camps.
Solzhenitsyn himself spent time in the gulags--he was imprisoned for nearly a decade as punishment for making derogatory statements about the political leader of the time, Joseph Stalin, in a letter to a friend.
The hammer banged the wake up call on the rail outside camp HQ at five o'clock as always. Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering. Outside it was still as dark as when Shukhov had got up in the night to use the bucket – pitch black, except for three yellow lights visible from the window, two in the perimeter, one inside the camp.
Shukhov never overslept. He was always up at the call. That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade – time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side. He could stitch covers for somebody's mittens from a piece of old lining. Rush around the store rooms looking for odd jobs – sweeping up or running errands. Go to the mess to stack bowls and carry them to the washers-up. You'd get something to eat, but there were too many volunteers, swarms of them. And the worst of it was that if there was anything left in a bowl you couldn't help licking it.
Shukhov always got up at once. Not today though. Hadn't felt right since the night before – had the shivers, and some sort of ache. And hadn't really got warm all night. In his sleep he kept fancying he was seriously ill, then feeling a bit better. Kept hoping morning would never come. But morning arrived on time. He hoped today he could finally be warm, if even for a little while.
Some hope of getting warm with a thick scab of ice on the windows, and white cobwebs of hoar frost where the walks of the huge hut met the ceiling. Shukhovstill didn't get up. He lay on top on a four-man bunk, with his blanket and jacket over his head, and both feet squeezed into one turned-sleeve of his jerkin.
Through the character of Shukhov and his actions, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates that humanity can survive even the harshest conditions. Though the prison camp system seeks to destroy, by its very nature, expression of fellow-feeling and actions based on morals and ethics, Shukhov and his fellow prisoners maintain their humanity through small acts and rituals.