2014 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Young adult first place
What it Means to be Cold

“How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?”

So asks Shukhov one day during his ten year imprisonment in a Siberian gulag in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Placed in a machine designed with precision to destroy the body and spirit, Shukhov’s fellow prisoners strip away their humanity in an effort to survive. It does not work. A veteran of the gulag states early on, “The ones that don’t make it are the ones who lick other men’s leftovers” (4). Faced with an impossible fight, Shukhov alone wages an all-out war against the very core of the gulag—that which seeks to destroy the humanity of its prisoners.

A thousand miles and two decades apart, Han Pyongt’ae is faced with the tyranny of an unjust system that only he is willing to fight against in Yi Min-yol’s Our Twisted Hero. Om Sokdae, the sadistic tyrant, imprisons his class in a totalitarian society with calculated politics, the promise of protection, and when necessary, brawn. Most students are nervously complacent with Sokdae’s rule, but the outsider Han Pyongt’ae sees it as a social injustice. Although Pyongt’ae is partially motivated by his own desire to be the most respected student in the class, his fight against Sokdae is mostly philosophical from the start. After being demeaned by Sokdae on his first day of class, Pyongt’ae says, “What had happened violated completely the principles of reason and freedom by which I had been reared all my life” (16). The battle was on.

Both Pyongt’ae and Shukhov fight against their incarcerators while those around them submit. The populous literati in the gulag who so often spoke in ideals give those ideals up: “There at the table, before dipping his spoon in, a young man crossed himself… A new arrival… As for the Russians, they’d forgotten which hand to cross themselves with” (13).

Fetiukov, a prisoner with Shukhov, has forgotten what it means to be human. He is motivated solely by shallow desire. He practically licks the boot of another prisoner in hopes of getting a drag on a cigarette: “’Tsezar,’ slobbered Fetiukov, unable to restrain himself. ‘Give us a puff.’ His face twitched with greedy desire” (25). One can be sure that he did not last long in the gulag.

Meanwhile, Shukhov retains his ideals and stays human. At meals, “He removed his hat from his clean-shaven head—however cold it might be, he could never bring himself to eat with his hat on” (14). He offers challenges to the guards who strip search him in the Siberian winter four times a day: “Come on, paw me as hard as you like. There’s nothing but my soul in my chest” (28). Shukhov fights the necessary fight to keep his humanity. It is a way of rebelling against the gulag without explicit antagonism. He is rebelling against the ideaof the gulag, which wants nothing more than to break his spirit. He refuses to bend.

Pyongt’ae’s classmates, knowing full well that they were Sokdae’s serfs, rationalize their serfdom. Pyongjo, whose father’s expensive gold lighter was effectively stolen by Sokdae, stays silent when the teacher confronts the class. Asked if anybody had been slighted by Sokdae, the students respond forcefully: “No one!” (42) Again and again, they submit to Sokdae’s injustices.

In the end, neither Han Pyongt’ae nor Shukhov explicitly win their battles. After a day of theft, fear, and backbreaking labor, Shukhov is simply glad that “they hadn’t put him in the cells…And he hadn’t fallen ill” (139). He never thinks that he resisted against the gulag. The adult Han Pyongt’ae, in his own eyes, is a failure. It took an outside savior to free Pyongt’ae and his class from Sokdae. No such savior existed in the adult world, and a familiar injustice returned: “It was as if I had been thrown into a cruel kingdom that ran things as it wished. Here Om Sokdae began to reappear from the dim past” (122). His fellow students, willing to unquestioningly flow along with the current of society—with all its vices—were now rich. Pyongt’ae bitterly states, “I wanted to squeeze into a corner of their rich table. But my very urgency buried me that much deeper into the slime of my life” (121).

But the reason one reads Our Twisted Hero and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not to hear how an infallible hero slew his enemy single-handedly. It is to hear how an ordinary person retained, at all costs, the most important thing in a world of blood, tears, and solitude: his humanity. This act turned out to be of utmost importance. With One Day, Solzhenitsyn exposed the horrors of the gulags to readers in both Russia and the West. Yi Min-yol, with Our Twisted Hero, was the first writer to negatively portray South Korea’s post-totalitarian democracy. Both writers stuck to their ideals and decided that they would fight for their cause by simply writing the truth, no matter what public sentiment might oppose them.

The lessons these books carry have not faded over time. The next time our government allows bankers to ruin the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, spies on us, and has an approval rating of nine percent, we should wonder what culture put that in place. Was it Shukhov’s unwillingness to sacrifice his humanity? Was it Pyongt’ae’s willingness to denounce what he sees as an unjust system?

In the end, both books give us the same warning, as applicable today as it has ever been: a man who submits willingly to unjust imprisonment has wrought the iron of his cell with his own mind. When Shukhov asks us what it means to be cold, we may not understand, but we must always remember what it means to be warm when the water begins to freeze.

Works Cited:

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: New American Library, 1963. Print.