If nothing else, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a reminder of just how bad we can be.
Three points I wanted to make, two of which are raised in the afterward by Eric Bogosian:
First, despite having himself been sentenced to the gulag, Solzhenitsyn crafted a novella, not a memoir. True, you might say he did that later with Gulag Archipelago, but the point still stands: why would Solzhenitsyn take recourse to fiction when he might have crafted a history instead? It's a simplification, of course, but I think the answer has something to do with the ability in fiction to manipulate - and with it, to exact revenge. For years, Solzhenitsyn was subject to inhumanity: he was manipulated at will. It's through his fiction - through A Day in the Life - that he exacts revenge, that he constructs characters who are beholden to him, despite their cruelty.
The second point that Bogosian makes - and I think it's a smart one - has to with the uniquely Russian character of the gulag. Unlike Primo Levi or Eli Wiesel - individuals subject to the penal systems of a foreign power - Solzhenitsyn was trapped in a universe designed by fellow Russians. There's an element of exasperation here, but also of resignation. It's as if to say - "Let me out of here, this place we've created." That dynamic generates an odd literary atmosphere, one in which fear is supplanted by a curious sense of detachment.
Finally, I wanted to highlight the pity of it all: Denisovich is imprisoned because he can no longer be trusted. And yet he can no longer be trusted because the state itself has failed him: Denisovich was captured by the Germans because the Russians could not protect him. And when Denisovich escapes and returns, he's welcomed with perverse skepticism. The question immediately becomes: Is he a spy?
He's not, of course. He's a victim of the modern order, and a prisoner resigned to the enormity of the state. In Denisovich, we see Solzhenitsyn, and in his story, we see the merging of history and fiction. We're witnesses to an apocalyptic vision: both of state control, and of a society gone terribly bad.