The following is a creative piece I wrote for an externally assessed folio/study last year on my chosen text, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Written as a sort of prequel, I wanted to detail a possible account of the events leading to Shukhov's imprisonment. I decided to post this piece online for two reasons, the first being that I'm oddly proud of the piece and the second being that I'd like to share it with more people than just the undoubtedly ageing old bitties that marked the piece. Enjoy.
Frozen hearts, frozen minds – the soldiers lumbered on through the forest. Every bit as stiff as the unflinching oak trees that surrounded the group, they held their rifles steadily as their eyes scanned the wintry horizon for silhouettes. This act was a ruse, a reassurance for their trembling minds. The only protection the rifles offered the group was a false sense of security – their ammunition had long since run out, along with their rations. In desperation some of the group had even begun scraping the hooves off dead horses; once boiled, they offered protein devoid of pleasure. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov had learnt to accept the reality of living in two worlds, one of hopes and dreams and the other, of brutal honesty.
In Shukhov’s war, it was often the world of stark truth that prevailed. “They will send supply planes,” hope would tell him. “Nonsense!” declared reality, “They have no planes to send.” But Shukhov knew that for him to survive the desperation of his situation he must kindle his spirits by distracting himself with dreams, to take pleasure in the thought of better times. His mind began to drift him away from the tense, sullen forest to more pleasant times. His imagination toiled with the thought of embracing his wife as his grip loosened on his rifle. A thousand miles away in a quiet village Shukhov was living in his dream world and while he existed in this place it seemed that nothing could harm him. As Shukhov's mind wandered through the halls of his home, his body wandered through the silent tundra – surrounded by desperate men, many of whom had forgotten to keep hope alive and lived solely in the present. Reality's terrifying grasp tightened the noose around their necks with thoughts of reason and truth. Ultimately these thoughts were the death of such men. They were not fools to reside in such a place, the real world rarely disappointed.
The first gun shots shattered the icy sheet of serenity in Shukhov's mind and brought him crashing into freezing waters of reality. The soldiers were surrounded, out of ammunition, food, and out of their minds. Their fear told them to cling onto their lives and so they submitted. Rifles fell into the powdery snow at their feet, as useful now, as they were minutes ago. Shukhov felt the cold steel of a German rifle barrel prodding his lower back as his group of soldiers was led through the forest, surrounded by the trees that now watched over the men, silent witnesses to their misfortune.
Two nights had passed in German captivity and Shukhov once again found himself wandering through a forest. This time, however, Shukhov was not sheepishly plodding along with a combat patrol, dreaming of better times to keep himself going, in order to avoid sinking under the harshness of the deprivation of freedom, food and human dignity that he had experienced in the under-supplied Red Army. This time Shukhov held no rifle and oddly felt a sense of security that no firearm could provide. He had done it, he and four other men who shared the same drive, the same spirit to push on and overcome adversity. Instead of accepting their fate and grovelling at their captors' feet like animals desperate for a feed, the five chose to take action and escape. Silently overpowering one of the few guards whom the Germans had decided could be spared to watch over such a pathetic group of malnourished, defeated men, the group made its escape. Shukhov could not forget the look on the German's face as the group struggled to choke the last breath of air from his lungs. It was not a look of pure terror as one might expect, but one of utter disbelief. It was as though he could not comprehend why any Russian would actually want to return to their situation of suffering, to a situation so dire that Shukhov's army didn't even have the materials to wage war, let alone feed its troops. The German side didn't have it any easier. They had rations and ammunition but the clothing was inadequate for the cold Russian winter and fighting on several different fronts was beginning to take its toll on the German supplies. With the German camp's flood lights long faded into the white mist of a wintry night, Shukhov began to think the whole situation of this war to be a little odd. Shukhov could still remember when the Soviet officials of his village talked of Germany as an ally; now a few years later, they spoke of the German people as fascist swine who did terrible things to the Russian people.
His mind settled slowly as the early morning chirping of birds began to cascade down from the bare branches of oak trees. The simple pleasure it gave Shukhov reminded him that the war may have taken away his personal freedom, but it had not taken away the freedom to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. In this place, listening to the soothing ambience of the forest, it seemed like nothing in the world could stop him from returning home to his wife and surviving this unfortunate situation he had been forced into. Despite his grumblings of discontent towards Red Army life, he had risked all to escape and re-join it. Although the German sentry would have undoubtedly have called him insane, had he not been throttled, his decision made perfect sense.
He had chosen to return to the sufferings of deprivation rather than a less complicated POW camp life because he needed that familiarity of suffering to fight against, to overcome through the power of his spirit. Shukhov was terrified that if he accepted the easier path, his dreams and hopes of returning to his wife would cease. He feared that he would have nothing to fight against to remind him just exactly what it was he was fighting for. In his army, every day was a fight for survival, but with each new day he forced himself to find pleasure in life, to dream and to find hope from those dreams, to fight for his integrity by not lowering himself to the level of those who scrape horses' hooves.
He had actually embraced the life of hardship, because when this war was over, he would have survived because of his ability to keep his spirit alight in the frozen wastes of hardship. He would no longer have to live in two worlds; his dreams would become reality. That was his dream anyway; the greeting machine-gun fire of an over zealous Russian Tommy gunner served as reality's rebuttal to such thoughts.
©2012 ~ Sierra-93