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Compare and contrast Ivan Denisovich and Venichka

The tough social reality was creating unbearable social pressures upon a personality. Individuality and individualism had to be hidden behind the curtains of social uniformity and daily struggle for survival in a half hungry socialist state. One Day in Life of Ivan Denisovich and Moscow to the End of the Line are the two brightest examples of postmodern socialist literature. Ivan Denisovich and Venichka are traditionally considered as the images of “little man” in Russian literature. Both novels describe the inability to cross the existing social boundaries and to become a real “self”.

Thesis statement: the essence of a “little man” in Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is in a physical and / or moral isolation of a personality, which helps find the real “self” under the pressure of the gray uniform mass of social standards. In many aspects, Venichka and Ivan Denisovich are trying to prove the priority of absurd over the common sense. Certainly, it is nothing else but absurd, when social uniformity does not provide a person with an opportunity to grow into individuality.

It is nothing else but absurd when a person requires physical or moral isolation from the rest of the society to finally find the real “self”. “The inherent phenomenon in me is my self-motivated logos” (Erofeev 1994, p. 104). That self-motivated logos was inherent to the then social personality: the Soviet Union was initially creating the social conditions which hid the self-motivated logos of each little citizen behind the bars of earthy daily needs. Moral isolation for Venichka finally becomes a revelation; his alcoholic addiction provides him with sufficient space to think about his life, God, and his role in the world which surrounds him.

In his alcoholic delirium he finally feels the master of the Universe – a feeling which makes his social image even “smaller”. To become physically isolated is a luxury which Venichka cannot afford; this is why the crowded train becomes the world in which he fights for his “self”. The role of wine in his life is dubious. On the one hand, alcoholism and wine put Venichka down to the bottom of the social reality; on the other hand, wine provides Venichka with an opportunity to reach metaphysical highs: “Me, the thoughtful prince, the analyst lovingly inspecting the souls of his people” (Erofeev 1994, p. 41).

The image of a “little man” in Erofeev’s book is strengthened by the unavoidable loneliness which Venichka experiences in his daily life. His social individuality is erased by the Soviet reality, while his metaphysical “self” governs the world. Spiritual loneliness of Venichka is the proof of his “little” exceptionality as compared to the gray mass of the Soviet citizens. In distinction from Venichka, Ivan Denisovich does not consciously seek to prove the superiority of absurd over the common sense. However, his imprisonment is the continuous proof for this absurdity and is the indispensable element of Ivan’s way to revealing his “self”.

Certainly, it is nothing else but absurd that prison may turn into freedom. Ivan risks his life to save even the smallest piece of the Soviet property behind the bars. “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” (Solzhenitsyn 2005, p. 7). It is absurd that to become morally and spiritually free, a person has to be imprisoned, but that was the essence of the Soviet reality which “shaped” millions of “little men” similar to Ivan Denisovich.

The “little” essence of Ivan Denisovich is in his inability to cross the physical boundaries of the prison and in the moral superiority over the already mentioned gray mass of Soviet imprisoned. The slavish position of a Soviet person invariably resulted in the feeling of guilt for being free; both Venichka and Ivan Denisovich are familiar with that feeling. However, as Venichka constantly hides his guilt in the glass of wine, Ivan Denisovich escapes this guilt through work. “Normal working hours was only half punishment. You got warm food and there was no time for brooking.

Full punishment was when you weren’t taken out to work” (Solzhenitsyn 2005, p. 29). Besides the fact that a day without work leaves a person without a food, a day without a work gradually kills an opportunity for a person to escape guilt. The Soviet reality emphasized the absurdity in which millions of “little” men had to exist – the absurdity which turned individuality into punishment and made people feel guilty for being “self”. Hopeless life of Venichka and hopeless imprisoned existence of Ivan Denisovich “is a microcosm for the hopeless life of the Russian people, nominally free, in villages under Stalin’s system.

It also provides a universally accessible depiction of human sufferings” (Clark 1998, p. 56). In Soviet reality, suffering remains the only means of fighting for real “self”; an attempt to cross the boundaries of grayness. Simultaneously, by looking for the “self” through suffering the “little soviet man” in drunken Venichka or imprisoned Ivan Denisovich turns back to his own “littleness” and again proves the absurdity of the Soviet reality and the inability to break the traditional structure of socialist attitudes.

Moreover, both Venichka and Ivan Denisovich constantly prove the absurdity of physical and moral isolation which gives some freedom for their individualities, which they are compelled to hide in the glass with wine or behind the bars. In Soviet reality, the desire to overcome traditional behavioral boundaries is invariably linked to religion. With religion being a forbidden notion in the Soviet Union, God frequently served the indication of social opposition between individualism and uniformity. To develop an image of a “little man” in postmodern Soviet literature, Solzhenitsyn and Erofeev successfully exercised the basic religious notions.

Those notions helped reveal the “true soul” of a “little” Soviet person. That however, does not mean that Venichka and Ivan Denisovich believe in God. They are equally distanced from true religion, but in distinction from Ivan Denisovich, Venichka uses the image of God as the source of his anti-societal inspiration and the means of communicating his thoughts. For Venichka, God is the reflection of his intellectual irony – the tool which he successfully utilizes to defend himself from the external intervention into the depth of his soul.

Speaking to God, Venichka initially distances himself from the rest of the Soviet society and recognizes the alienation which he experiences towards daily Soviet ideals. Venichka does not conceal the weakness of his “so-called” faith. “I’m not saying that now the truth is known to me, or that I’ve approached it close up. Not at all. But I’ve gotten close enough to it so that it’s convenient to look it over” (Erofeev 1994, p. 46). From time to time, he comes to the thought that God might have forever left Russia, but this state of mind is temporary and does not change Venichka’s “little” Soviet essence.

The mere fact that Venichka does not speak openly about his religious ideas confirms the fact of his “little place” within the huge Soviet machine, which destroys everything individual, and turns religion into an instrument of irony over the soviet reality. Everything is different with Ivan Denisovich. His rejection of religion is obvious. The image of a “little man” in Ivan Denisovich is connected with opposition to everything religious which was characteristic of Soviet reality. However, as Venichka combines his deceptive religiousness with sharp cynicism: “I’ll spit on their social ladder. Right, spit on every rung of it” (Erofeev 1994, p.

41), religious negligence in Ivan Denisovich is generated by his weakness to fight the circumstances, his inability to answer the basic question “Why is it all happening to me”, and the striving towards “demonstrating grace under pressure” (Clark 1998, p. 57). Solzhenitsyn’s “little man” looks more like a powerless slave, and Solzhenitsyn has to look for the figure of Ivan Denisovich among thousands of similar imprisoned “little” men. Religion in Venichka emphasizes the philosophic side of his alcoholic existence; for Ivan Denisovich, religion is the failed attempt to find the reason of his punishment, his loneliness, and his imprisonment.

“I’m not against God, see. I readily believe in God. But I don’t believe in paradise or in hell. Why d’you take us for fools and stuff us with your paradise and hell stories? That’s what I don’t like” (Solzhenitsyn 2005, p. 139). Ivan Denisovich rejects religion and adopts his own set of moral rules and the rules of behavior in prison. He completely abandons his attempts to find the truth and the reason of his imprisonment. Similar to Ivan Denisovich, Venichka sets his own rules of “alcoholic” conduct, and he is completely satisfied with the fact that he is able to follow these standards.

There is nothing else a “little man” in the Soviet system can do to survive. Although Solzhenitsyn seeks dignity and morality in such Ivan Denisovich’s behavior, he evidently fails to eliminate the slavish stigmatization of Ivan Denisovich’s life. Although Erofeev tries to emphasize that Venichka is able to preserve his morality and to address God, religion for him is nothing more than entertainment. Such religious visions are the by-products of the distorted socialist propaganda. Alcoholism and imprisonment are the two reflections of the one reality, in which a person seeks for his “self”.

In Venichka and Ivan Denisovich, this “self” comes to the surface already damaged, distorted, and deprived of human dignity and morality. A “little man” in Solzhenitsyn’s and Erofeev’s literary works is nothing more but a victim of his own impotence and the overwhelming social unfairness. Conclusion The essence of “little man” in Solzhenitsyn’s and Eroffev’s novels is invariably linked to the notions of absurdity, social pressures, and the inability of self-realization. Individuality and the soviet nation are the two incompatible phenomena.

Ivan Denisovich’s striving towards individuality ends up in prison; his further continuous struggle for real “self” leads to even more slavish position behind the bars. Venichka’s search of his “self” ends up in the glass of wine; his talk to God turns religion into the mere instrument of social irony which borders on cynicism. Social impotence, social cynicism, social anger and irony are the indispensable characteristics of the “little man” surrounded by the uniformity of the Soviet social realities. The tragedy of the “little man’s” position is in that to reach the real “self” a person has to isolate oneself from the rest of the society.

It does not matter, whether this isolation takes form of constant alcoholic delirium, or turns into a more serious form of real imprisonment.


Clark, K. (1998). Socialist realism in Soviet literature. In N. Christian & N. Cornwell (eds), Reference Guide to Russian Literature, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, pp. 55-59. Erofeev, V. (1994). Moscow to the end of the line. Northwestern University Press. Solzhenitsyn, A. (2005). One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich: A Novel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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