By Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
.......Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is short novel centering on one prisoner's experiences during a single day in a Soviet labor camp identified as HQ. The author of the novel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, based it on his own experiences in a labor camp at Ekibastuz, a town in the northeastern region of present-day Kazakhstan, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. (See Setting for a description of this camp.) The story first appeared in a Soviet journal, Novy Mir (New World), in November 1962 and in book form in 1963. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in literature in recognition of his literary achievements.
.......The action takes place on a single day in January 1951 at a prison camp in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union. This fictional camp represents an actual one to which authorities transferred Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1950. That camp was at Ekibastuz, a town in the northeastern region of present-day Kazakhstan, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Here is a description of this camp:It was located in the middle of the arid Kazakh plain, dusty and stifling hot in summer, in winter buffeted by snow, ice, and winds of shocking force for weeks at a time. The camp, with its double rows of barbed wire fencing, perimeter ploughed strip, machine gun coverage of every conceivable area, its use of floodlights the entire night, was emblematic of the Gulag as it has become known to us. It is the model for the camp depicted in Solzhenitsyn's most widely read work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
.......The Soviet Union established the first of its forced-labor camps in 1918. Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), the leader of the Soviet Communist Party from 1922 to 1953, began increasing the number of camps in the late 1920s to (1) incarcerate and punish accused political dissidents, criminals, saboteurs, prisoners
of war, and traitors and (2) provide the massive labor force required to improve the Soviet infrastructure and industrialize the nation. In 1930, the Soviet secret police took control of the labor-camp system, which became known as the Gulag. (Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagery, the English transliteration of the Russian name for the system in the
Cyrillic alphabet. The English translation of the name is Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.) Soviet authorities wrongfully imprisoned many citizens in the Gulag system, one of whom was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
.......In 1957 he began writing of his experiences in the Soviet detention system. The result was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The Soviet premier at the time was Nikita Krushchev, who was engaged in a campaign to condemn the tyranny of Joseph Stalin. As a result, Solzhenitsyn's novel earned a favorable review from Soviet censors. It was published in 1962 and became a bestseller.
.......A narrator tells the story in third-person point of view from the perspective of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. The narrator not only sees what Ivan sees but also knows what he is thinking. The narrator is, of course, the voice of the author, Solzhenitsyn, who is presenting a fictionalized account based on his
own experiences in a Soviet labor camp.
Protagonist: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Based on Gillon Aitken's Translation of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971)
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
.......Vdovushkin checks the thermometer. Ivan's temperature is only slightly high, not even a hundred, so he returns to his hut. Everyone in his work group is dozing except Pavlo, the second-in-command of Gang 104, and Alyoshka, who is reading the Gospels from a notebook that he hides in the wall. Pavlo gives Ivan his bread ration for the day. Ivan breaks it in half and puts one portion in his coat pocket and the other in his straw mattress.
.......Andrei Prokofyevich Tyurin, the leader of Gang 104, then orders all the members outside to the parade ground. Every gang member is there except Pantaleyev, who has reported off sick. The gang members whisper to one another that he is not sick at all but is ratting on someone. The warders often put him on the sick list so that he can provide them information at the infirmary.
.......On the parade ground is one of three inmate artists who paint prisoners' numbers on their hats and coats and do free pictures for the warders. The warders use the numberslarge enough to see at a distanceto identify prisoners who violate rules. If a number begins to fade, a prisoner must get it repainted or face punishment. Denisovich decides it is time to have his coat number repainted and gets in line.
.......Afterward, he sees Tsesar, a member of his gang, smoking a cigarette. Hoping Tsesar will offer him a drag, Denisovich goes over and stands next to him. (Denisovich believes it is crude to request a drag.) Meanwhile, Fetyukov comes over and has the gall to actually ask Tsesar for a puff. Tsesar then turns to Denisovich and gives him the rest of the cigarette. Hungry for a tobacco fix, Denisovich smokes the cigarette down to a stub that burns his lips.
.......Warders then begin searching prisoners for concealed weapons such as knives and for evidence (such as extra food or extra clothes) indicating that a prisoner plans to escape. The feared Lieutenant Volkovoi is supervising the search, a routine procedure in the camp. Volkovoi once carried a whip with which he lashed the men, sometimes at random. Now, for whatever reason, he no longer brandishes the whip. All the prisoners must open their coats in the brutal cold. Buinovsky, a new arrival at the camp, is found to be wearing a vest over his shirta violation of the rule against extra clothing. When he objects to having to undress in the frigid weather, Volkovoi gives him ten days in the cellblock, a sentence that is to begin in the evening after he completes his work for the day.
.......Escort guards with machine guns then count the men as they go to their jobs outside the camp. Some guards stand by with attack dogs. It turns out that Ivan and the rest of Gang 104 will be working inside the power station, now under construction, instead of outside at the site of the socialist community center. Gang 64 got that thankless job. As Gang 104 marches off to the power station, the members pass a wood-working factory and other buildingsall constructed by prisoners. Out on the steppe, there is no scenery except for snow in every direction.
.......Ivan Denisovich had left his home and his wife on June 23, 1941. When he was at Ust-Izhma, he was allowed to write home once a month. But at this camp, he is permitted to write only twice a year. However, there is not much news to report anyway. His wife has a job painting carpets. She hopes that Ivan will be able to take up the trade when he gets out in two years so that, together, they will be able to raise themselves from poverty and pay for the education of their children at a technical school. Ivan is not keen on the idea of painting carpets. But if he got back his civil rights after his release, he could see himself making stoves, becoming a joiner, or working with metal.
.......The work detail comes to a halt outside the power station while guards take up positions in six watch towers. The wind is blowing. Ivan's hands are numb. In a few moments, the prisoners march inside. Group leader Tyurin and his second-in-command Pavlo go to the office accompanied by Tsesar. Tsesar receives two packages in every month's mail and uses some of the contents for bribes that make life easier for him. In the power station, he has an easy office job.
.......Ivan and the rest of Gang 104 report to a large room where automobiles are to be repaired. Gang 38 is there making concrete blocks. While waiting for work orders, Ivan sits in a corner nibbling on his bread. One good thing about this room is that it is warmnot to make the men comfortable but to dry concrete during construction. All the men are sitting around: the two Estonians, likable fellows who keep together; Fetyukov, who had collected cigarette butts from spittoons and is now using them to roll a new cigarette; Buinovsky, who tells Fetyukov he will get an infection from smoking others' tobacco; Senka Klevshin, who had spent time in Buchenwald; Alyoshka, praying.
.......Kilgas, a Latvian, mentions that it has not snowed in a while. When it does snow, it often is so heavy that inmates have to tie a rope between the mess hall and the hut, then follow it back and forth to avoid getting lost. Prisoners do not work during storms, which can last up to a week, but they have to make up for lost time by working on Sundays.
.......Tyurin comes in and tells gang members Klevshin, Gopchik, and the Estonians to carry a large box to an unfinished section of the power station. There, it will be used to mix mortar. Others receive orders to get tools, sand, water, boards, and coal for the fire. Several are told to clear snow surrounding the power station so trucks can pull in and unload blocks for wall construction. Tyurin selects Ivan and Kilgas, the best workers in the gang, to seal the three windows in the room to help keep heat in. Afterward, they are to lay wall blocks on the second story. Ivan and Kilgas find panels and roofing felt outside to do the job. Tyurin is pleased but now needs Ivan to repair a stovepipe and Kilgas to repair the mortar box, which has fallen apart. Gopchick assists Ivan.
.......If the inmates do high-quality work, they receive extra rations of bread in the evening. That is how the system works.
.......Soon, the windows are covered, the stove is going, and three trucks pull up with blocks for the second-story wall.
.......Time passes swiftly for Ivan when he is working. However, his prison sentence seems to drag. Although he is nearing the end of his sentence, he is not counting on release at the designated time. Soviet authorities not infrequently extend a prisoner's sentencefor whatever reasonand sometimes exile him.
.......Ivan's crime was high treason. According to charges brought against him, he had surrendered to the enemy, intending to betray his country." The Germans then sent him back to the Russians to carry out certain instructions, the charges further maintain. The Soviets had no evidence to support their claims against Ivan. However, they told him that if he did not sign a confession admitting wrongdoing, he would be shot. He signed.
.......After lunch in the mess hall, Ivan finds a piece of hacksaw blade in the snow and puts it in his knee pocket. It might come handy sometime. Back at the power station, he borrows tobacco from one of the Estonians and rolls a cigarette in a scrap of newspaper. He smokes it while the gang leader, Tyurin, tells a story about why the Soviet authorities arrested and imprisoned him. His "crime" was that he was the son of a peasant farmer, or kulak, who opposed the Soviet policy of collective farming. After authorities found out about Tyurin's background, they issued him a dishonorable discharge from the army and later arrested him and sentenced him to a labor camp.
.......After the men set to work laying the blocks, they have a run-in with Der, a building foreman who notices the roofing felt on the windows and tells Tyurin he will get another sentence for stealing it. Ivan is not worried for himselfTyurin would never snitch on one of his menbut he is worried for Tyurin. But Tyurin stands up to Der, telling him that if he breathes a word about the felt, it will be his last breath. The other men support Tyurin, surrounding Der with blood in their eyes. Tyurin, frightened now, backs down and asks Tyurin what he is to say to the superintendent. Tyurin tells him to say that the felt was already in place when the gang entered the room to begin work.
.......With Ivan are several others slapping on mortar and laying blocks. The gang makes good progress. When the men hear the banging hammer that signals the end of the workday, the men still have a box of mortar left. If they do not use it now, it will harden overnight. In the morning, they will have to smash the box and make a new one. So they hurriedly work on. By and by, they notice that all the other gangs are walking toward the power-station guard room. They then collect their tools, which have to be handed in, and leaveall except Ivan and Senka Klevshin, who continue to lay blocks. Ivan does not want to waste the remaining mortar, so he and Senka work furiously until the last of it is gone, then run off.
.......Luckily, they arrive when the guards are still counting the men. No penalty is assessed against them for being late. However, the guards discover a man missing from Gang 32a Moldavian. This development means that everyoneno matter his gangmust wait in the bitter cold while a search is conducted. Two men from Gang 32 go off to look for the missing man. It is possible, of course, that the Moldavian has escaped. It is also possible that he is hiding in the camp to wait for the right moment to slip under the wire fence. In such a situation, guards remain in the watchtowers twenty-four hours a day, for up to a week, to look for him. The waiting prisoners, impatient for supper and time for themselves, see three men in the distancethe searchers from Gang 32 and the Moldavian. He had fallen asleep while doing some plastering. When he arrives, the waiting men curse him. One of his discoverers slugs him, and another man kicks him in the back. The guards then recount all the men.
.......When Gang 104 finally reaches the checkpoint at the camp entrance, they line up to be searched. Ivan's hand automatically goes into his knee pocket to make sure he has not brought back a forbidden item. The piece of hacksaw blade! He had forgotten about it. Ivan plans to use it to repair shoes to make extra bread. Now what should he do? If a guard finds it, he will probably receive time in the cells. He decides to put the blade in one of his mittens. When his turn comes, he opens his coat while holding the mittens in one hand. An elderly guard pats him down, feels the coat, and checks all his pockets. Then, to Ivan's horror, he squeezes one of the mittensthe empty one. Just when the guard is about to examine the other mitten, Ivan prays in desperation, "Oh, Lord, save me! Don't let me be put in the cells." At that moment, a supervisor tells the guards to begin searching the next group. Ivan makes it through.
.......Later he holds a place in line at the parcels office for Tsesar, who is expecting a package of food. Tsesar rewards him by giving him his portion of supper gruel. After deciding to save his bread for the next day, he enjoys his bounty of gruel, which again contains fish and cabbage. He finds a boon: a small potato in Tsesar's bowl.
.......Feeling quite satisfied, he next goes to Hut 7 to buy two mugs of tobacco from the Latvian with two rubles he had earned by making or mending articles of clothing for other prisoners. He then returns to his hut, where Tsesar has opened his package. Ivan has saved Tsesar's bread allotment, but Tsesar has so much food from his parcel, including sausage, that he tells Ivan to keep it. Ivan now has 600 grams of bread, plus 200 more in his mattress. Not bad.
.......After climbing onto his bunk, Ivan hides the hacksaw blade in an opening of a cross beam. Fetyukov comes in just then. He is sobbing. His face is bloodied. He had probably gotten himself beaten up for begging or stealing other people's food. Here is a man who just does not know how to get along in a camp. He will probably die before his sentence is up.
.......Tsesar asks Ivan whether he can borrow his ten days, a reference to Ivan's small penknife. (He would get ten days in a cell if the guards discovered it.) Ivan takes it from the same cross beam and gives it to Tsesar, who uses it to cut up his sausage. Ivan then pays back the tobacco that he had earlier borrowed from the Estonians.
.......A warder named Snub-nose enters and informs Buinovsky that he must serve ten days in a cell for being caught wearing extra clothing in the morning. Before he leaves, Tsesar gives him a few cigarettes. Gang 104 had built the cellblock that will house Buinovsky. In each cell, there are four walls, no windows, and a stove kept only warm enough to melt ice formations on the walls. Occupants must sleep on boards. They receive a bowl of gruel once every three days. On the other days, they get water and about 10.5 ounces of bread. After an inmate serves ten days, he usually comes out in poor health.
.......At 9 p.m., Hut 9 assembles outside for the evening check. Among the first to go back inside inside is Ivan, who guards Tsesar's food until the latter returns from the head count. Alyoshka is praying and suggests that Ivan do the same now and then. But Ivan says he never seems to get what he prays for. (Apparently, he has forgotten about what happened during the evening search after his return from the power plant.) Alyoshka replies that Ivan may not be praying often enough or may not be praying with his whole heart. Or he may be praying for the wrong things.
.......Ivan Denisovich, you mustn't pray to receive a parcel or an extra portion of gruel, Alyoshka says. Things which men put high value on are an abomination in the sight of the Lord. You must pray for things of the spirit, that the Lord will drive out all wickedness from our hearts. . . .
.......Ivan then tells him about a corrupt Russian Orthodox priest in Polomnya, near his home. He grows rich through his parishioners and pays alimony to three women while living with a fourth woman. He then says, [H]owever much you pray, it's not going to take anything off your sentence. You've got to sit that out, every day from reveille to lights-out.
.......Their discussion continues several more minutes. Then a warder comes in and orders the men out of bed for a recount inside the hut. Before the men assemble, Tsesar gives Ivan some biscuits, a piece of sausage, and two lumps of sugar from a bag of food. Ivan then hides Tsesar's bag for him so that no one takes it during the recount. The men line up on one side of the hut and in a corridor. After the count, Ivan is among the first to get back in bed. When Tsesar comes back, Ivan passes down the bag to him. When Alyoshka returns, Ivan notices how pleasant he is to everyone even though he never profits by his behavior, the narrator says. Ivan gives him a biscuit, then samples the sausage. How good it tastesreal meat.
.......Before going to sleep, Ivan reviews the day, deciding that everything went well for him. It was almost a happy day, he thinks.
.......Solzhenitsyn presents the novel in episodes, one leading into the next, without chapters or section divisions. However, there are scenery shifts and time divisions. The scenes take place inside Hut 9 on the grounds of the fenced-in camp, inside the camp mess hall, inside the infirmary, inside the rooms of warders and guards, on the grounds outside the camp, inside the power plant, inside the parcels office, and inside Hut 7. The time divisions are as follows: Part 1: reveille, head counts, searches, breakfast, and work assignments; Part 2: the workday, with a lunch break; and Part 3: cessation of work, head counts, searches, supper, and various activities preceding lights out.
Inhumanity of the Soviet Gulag
.......The central theme of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the inhumanity of the Soviet Gulag. In Ivan's labor camp, the Gulag system uses men as workhorses in severe weather conditions to help build the Soviet infrastructure and bolster the economy. Yet Soviet overseers provide the men only meager food rations and woefully substandard housing. Cold, hunger, and disease dog the inmates. Rigid restrictions limiting contact with the outside world isolate them from their family and friends. Punishment for minor infractions imperils their well-being. Books are forbidden. Meanwhile, sadistic overseers like Volkovoi sometimes beat the prisoners for no reason at all, and guards rob men of their dignity by addressing them by their numbersIvan as S-854, for example, or the Moldavian as K-460.
.......Ivan carried out his duty as a soldier, fighting the Germans and later escaping after they captured him. But when he rejoined the Soviet army, his superiors accused him of having become a spy for the Germansa false charge. Although Ivan is a fictional character, he represents many real-life personsincluding Solzhenitsynwho suffered years of imprisonment even though they were innocent. Many of them died in prison.
.......The will to survive remains strong in Ivan despite the harsh conditions of everyday life in the prison camp. For example, to earn money or extra food, he performs services for other inmateseverything from keeping a place in a long line to making shoes and slippers with a handmade knife. As a member of Gang 104, he works hard to help the group earn enough points to merit extra bread at the end of the day. Unlike Captain Buinovsky, he avoids provoking warders and guards by protesting maltreatment. Instead, he cleverly finds ways to circumvent them altogether, as he does when assigned to scrub a floor. To maintain his psychological well being, he does not dwell inordinately on the injustice that landed him in prison. In addition, he accepts the fact that exile could follow his release from prison. Through all his trials, he never gives up and avoids indulging in self-pity.
Trust vs Betrayal
.......Ivan and many other members of Gang 104 trust one another and rely on one another to get by from day to day. Their leader, Tyurin, protects the members of the gang and, as Ivan observes, would never tattle on a member who failed to observe camp rules. However, there are informers, such as Pantaleyev, a Gang 104 member who apparently reports to authorities what he believes are suspicious activities or violations of rules.
.......The inmates are under almost constant surveillance and scrutiny. They are searched, counted, recounted, spied on, and observed from watchtowers. The camp is, in effect, a microcosm for the totalitarian Soviet state under Joseph Stalin.
.......One of the most difficult tasks facing the prisoners is waiting. They wait in terrible cold to be counted or searched. They wait with empty stomachs for food to be served. They wait for packages from the outside. Most of all, they wait for the day far off when they will be released from prison.
.......The saintly Alyoshka prays whenever he has a spare moment. The fact that he occupies the same bunk as Ivantheir mattresses are parallelsuggests that God remains close to Ivan even though he lacks Alyoshka's fervidness. Although Ivan tells Alyoshka that he does not pray, he says a desperate prayer at the time of the evening body search, when a guard is on the verge of discovering the piece of hacksaw: "Oh, Lord, save me! Don't let me be put in the cells." A second later, another guard orders an end to the count.
.......The Soviets group the inmates in gangs that work and live together. It is a shrewd and productive policy that motivates the members of the gangs to work hard to uphold the reputation of their comrades and to earn extra bread rations.
.......When Ivan lines up at the checkpoint upon his return from work at the power plant, he discovers that he had forgotten about the piece of hacksaw blade in his knee pocket. If they caught him with that bit of blade and decided to classify it as a knife, he could get ten days in the cells, the narrator points out. The climax occurs in the next moment, when Ivan hides the blade in one of his mittens. He is holding the mittens in one hand while an elderly guard pats him down, checks his coat, then squeezes a mittenthe empty one. Here is the narrator's account:Shukhov [Ivan] felt as if his heart were being squeezed with it. One such squeeze on the other mitten, and he'd be in cells on 300 grams of bread a day and hot food once every three days. He imagined at that moment how enfeebled and hungry he would become and how difficult it would be to get back to his present condition of being neither starved nor properly fed.
.......And the vital prayer surged up within him: Oh, Lord, save me! Don't let me be put in the cells."
.......All these thoughts passed through him while the warder squeezed the first mitten and reached out his hand to squeeze the one behind it. . . . But at that moment the voice of the warder in charge, anxious to be free as quickly as possible, was heard shouting to the guards:
.......Come on, bring up the men from the machine factory!
And, instead of taking Shukhov's other mitten, the old warder . . . waved him through.This lucky break is a significant moment in the novel. First, it maintains the morale boost Ivan derived from his hard work at the power station. Second, it keeps intact his contribution to Gang 104's record of accomplishment for the day, a record that earned Ivan and other gang members extra bread. Third, it enhances Ivan's chances for survival by allowing him to keep a tool that can make money for him and satisfy his need to feel useful. Fourth, it confirms for Ivan his ability to defy and deceive his overseers in order to insure his continued well-being. Fifth, it gives reasonthrough the prayer he utters: Oh, Lord save me!for Ivan to hope that there is a God who will come to his aid at crucial moments
Ivan's Spoon: Individuality, personal accomplishment, ownership. Ivan had made the spoon himself from aluminum wire. Because it is one of a kind, it represents his uniqueness as a human being, as well as his ability to fend for himself. It also belongs to him, not the camp or the Communist state.
.......The novel presents both external and internal conflicts. Among the external conflicts are these: prisoners vs overseers, prisoners vs the unjust Soviet system, prisoners vs prisoners, and prisoners vs the weather. Internal conflictsthose inside a personinclude various prisoners' inability to conquer weaknesses that make it difficult for them to survive.
.......In the scene in the office at the power station, Solzhenitsyn obliquely condemns Stalinism when the elderly prisoner, X-123, sharply criticizes film director Sergei Eisenstein for his glorious depiction of the title character in his motion picture Ivan the Terrible. Czar Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) had instituted government reforms early in his reign. But later his rule became a reign of terror in which he seized land, enslaved peasants, exiled members of his Chosen Council, ordered the murders of the head of the Orthodox church and a prince chosen as a possible successor, and massacred citizens who were acquaintances of his suspected enemies. He even killed his own son after he defended his wife against Ivan's charge that she had dressed immodestly.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1....Besides Ivan, who is the most admirable character in the novel? Who is the least admirable? Explain your answers.
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