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,
(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
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.
Ekibastuz, more than anywhere, Solzhenitsyn learned firsthand the horrors
of living in a “special prison" from which it was not expected that a prisoner
would normally be released: the commandant of Ekibastuz even boasted that
only three men had gone free under his rule. The daily, brutal labor, the
marches to work in rain, or slush, or cold so intense it was like a knife
against the skin, the endless searches before you left the camp in the
morning, the searches on your return, the waiting in line morning and night
for thin gruel, the absence of books, the conscienceless brutality of the
criminal prisoners. All of this for 330 days a year (there were three days
of rest each month) killed thousands upon thousands of prisoners, or turned
the survivors into cowed, zombielike men. Much of the time at Ekibastuz,
he was a bricklayer, occasionally even experiencing the exhilaration of
hard physical labor performed with comrades he had come to trust and indeed
at times to rely on for survival. (Climo, Jacob J., and Maria G. Catell,
eds. Social Memory and History: Anthropological Perspectives. Lanham,
Md.: Rowman Alta Mira Press, 2002, page 151.)
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
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.
was earning a mathematics degree at Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don
when World War II broke out. Shortly after he graduated, Germany invaded
the Soviet Union (June 1941), and about three months later Solzhenitsyn
entered the military. In the winter of 1941-42, he drove horse-drawn vehicles
for the Soviet army, then served in an artillery company on the front lines
from 1942 until authorities arrested him in 1945. In a short autobiography
that he wrote in 1970, Solzhenitsyn explained what happened:
I was arrested on
the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in
my correspondence with a school friend [N.D. Vitkevich] mainly because
of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to
him in disguised terms. As a further basis for the "charge", there were
used the drafts of stories and reflections which had been found in my map
case. These, however, were not sufficient for a "prosecution", and in July
1945 I was "sentenced" in my absence, in accordance with a procedure then
frequently applied, after a resolution by the OSO (the Special Committee
of the NKVD), to eight years in a detention camp (at that time this was
considered a mild sentence). (Nobelprize.org)
served the first four years of his sentence in various camps and in confinement
at research institutes that used his skill in mathematics. In 1950, Soviet
authorities transferred him to a labor camp for political prisoners at
Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan. There he mined coal, laid bricks, and worked in
a foundry. After completing his sentence, the Soviets exiled him to a region
in Kazakhstan. There he taught school from 1953 to 1956, when he gained
his release. After living and teaching in the Vladimir oblast (province)
east of Moscow, he relocated to the city of Ryazan, about 120 miles southeast
of Moscow. .......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.
and Point of View
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.
Solzhenitsyn presents most
of the narration and dialogue in the simple, everyday language of working-class
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Soviet Overseers, Prison Life, Certain Other Inmates
. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov:
Forty-year-old inmate from the village of Temgenovo who is in the eighth
year of the a ten-year sentence at a Soviet labor camp in January 1951.
He is stone mason of peasant stock, with a wife and two daughters he left
behind when he entered military service in 1941 after the Germany army
invaded the Soviet Union. During fighting, the Germans captured him, but
he later escaped and returned to the Soviet army. Soviet officials then
accused him of high treason, saying he deliberately joined the German cause
and then returned to the Soviet army as a spy or perhaps a saboteur. Although
innocent of the charges, Soviet authorities forced him to sign a confession
under penalty of death, then sentenced him to labor camps. Ivan is practical
and resourceful, with a strong will to survive while maintaining his human
dignity. He gets along with his fellow inmates and knows how to circumvent
rules without provoking overseers. Ivan has a wife and two grown daughters.
He had a son who died in his youth.
Andrei Prokofyevich Tyurin:
Nineteen-year prisoner who leads Gang 104, the work group to which Ivan
belongs. Tyurin is a strong leader who watches out for the welfare of his
men. He first became acquainted with Ivan when the two men were serving
part of their sentences at another prison camp.
Alyoshka the Baptist:
Quiet, saintly inmate who bunks next to Ivan. In his spare moments, he
reads the New Testament of the Bible from a notebook that he keeps hidden
from overseers. (Books of any kind are forbidden in the camp.) His faith
sustains him—so much so that he has no trouble coping with the harsh conditions
under which he must live and work. He readily cooperates with other inmates
and does what he is told.
Guard who projects fearsomeness but is actually more humane than other
The Tartar: Guard
who sentences Ivan to three days in the cellblock for failing to get out
of bed when reveille sounds. The Tartar later relents and assigns Ivan
to duty scrubbing floors in a guardhouse.
Pavlo: Second in
command of Gang 104.
captain in the Soviet navy and a recent arrival at the labor camp. Because
he is accustomed to giving orders instead of taking them, he has difficulty
adjusting to life in prison. On the day recounted in the novel, he is caught
wearing a vest over his shirt during the morning check of inmates. Camp
rules expressly forbid the wearing of extra clothes as a measure to prevent
escape in the brutally cold climate. For his violation of the rules, authorities
sentence Buinovsky to ten days in the cellblock, where he will occupy a
cold cell, sleep on boards, and receive meager food rations.
Sadistic security officer who sentences Buinovsky to the cellblock. The
first syllable of his name, volk, is Russian for wolf.
who takes Buinovsky to the cellblock.
Tsesar (or Caesar) Markovich:
Former film director from Moscow who was wealthy on the outside. He receives
packages of food, some of which he barters for favors or special privileges
that help to ease the harshness of his life in prison. Ivan is among those
who do favors for him and benefit from his bounty.
Like Tsesar, he is from Moscow. He shares with Tsesar a copy of the Evening
News he received in the mail.
Senka Klevshin: Tall,
nearly deaf member of Gang 104. He is a hard worker who gets along well
with Ivan and assists him in work at the power station. Klevshin spent
time in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp, where he was tortured.
who was an office manager on the outside. He begs and scrounges for food
and cigarettes, which annoys other inmates. On one occasion, inmates beat
him when he tries to take leftovers at mealtime. On another occasion, Captain
Buinovsky punches him after Fetyukov shouts at him. Because of his inability
to get along with others, Ivan thinks he will not outlast his prison sentence.
Ivan Kilgas: Hard-working
member of Gang 104 who gets along well with Ivan.
Medical assistant in the infirmary.
Dr. Stepan Grigorich:
Infirmary physician. He believes work is the best therapy for ill prisoners.
104 prisoner who frequently receives sick time in the infirmary. Other
gang members believe he spies on them and goes to the infirmary to give
Estonians: Two likable
members of Gang 104 who always confer with each other before reaching decisions.
Ivan borrows tobacco from them and makes sure to pay them back.
Kuziomin: Gang leader
at Ust-Izhma prison camp, where Ivan spent part of his prison term, who
instilled survival techniques in Ivan before Ivan was transferred to his
lad who asks Ivan to show him how to make a spoon from wire. Ivan likes
Gopchick, who received an adult's sentence for supplying bread to forest-living
Ukrainians who rose up against the Soviets.
Prisoner X-123: Elderly
inmate who argues with Tsesar about the merits of Ivan the Terrible,
a film directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). Tsesar says it is an
artistic triumph. X-123 says it is a bad film because it glorifies a tyrant.
assigned to guard roofing materials at the power plant. While he isn't
watching, Ivan and Kilgas manage to snatch roofing felt to board up windows
to keep the frigid wind out of the room in which Gang 104 is working.
Der: Prisoner from
Moscow who serves as building foreman at the power plant. When he notices
the roofing felt on the windows (the material taken by Ivan and Kilgas),
he threatens to inform on Gang 104's leader, Tyurin, saying Tyurin will
likely end up with another prison term. But Tyurin tells Der that he will
die if he breathes a single word about the roofing felt. The other members
of the gang close in on Der in support of Tyurin. Der meekly backs down.
Chief Work Superintendent
at the Power Plant: Overseer who complains to his foremen that prisoners
have been using building materials to burn in stoves and that they have
been spilling cement when pushing it in wheelbarrows.
The Latvian (the Lett):
Latvian prisoner from whom Ivan buys tobacco.
orderly who uses a birch staff club to keep order in the line of prisoners
waiting for a free table to eat. His name means lame in Russian.
Assistant to Khromoi:
Orderly who helps Khromoi keep order.
Chief of the Mess Hall:
Fat man with a pumpkin-shaped head who rules the mess hall.
Squealers: Two prisoners
whose throats were slit while they were sleeping for informing on fellow
Prisoner mistaken for a squealer. He was found dead in bed.
who work in the office at the power station.
The Moldavian: Prisoner
from Gang 32 who is late for an evening count because he fell asleep on
Second in Command, Gang
32: Prisoner who beats the Moldavian about the neck and face for being
of Gang 32 who kicks the Moldavian for being late.
of Lieutenant Volkovoi. Pryakha takes the Moldavian into custody for confinement
in the cellblock.
member of Gang 104 who was sentenced to ten years in labor camps for being
captured by Germans.
Prisoner U-81: Elderly
prisoner from Gang 64 who has spent a long time in prison camps. Whenever
one of his ten-year sentences ends, the Soviets tack on another. But the
old man holds up remarkably, never giving up and always maintaining his
Prisoner H-920: Man
who gets in Ivan's way in the mess hall.
Overseer who makes the camp rules. He once decreed that no prisoner could
walk through the camp alone except to the infirmary or latrine. But the
rule died of its own stupidity. As the narrator notes, "Say someone was
summoned by the security people—did he have to go in a group of other people?
Orthodox Priest in Polomnya:
Clergyman who grows rich on the contributions of parishioners and is paying
alimony to three former wives while living with another woman. Ivan Denisovich
tells Alyoshka the Baptist about the priest's hypocrisy during a discussion
about religion. The priest operates the parish at Polomnya, near Ivan's
short while later, he finishes up and goes to the mess hall, still feverish
and achy, where Fetyukov—a member of his gang—sits with bowls of gruel
and porridge he had saved for Ivan. Withdrawing a spoon from his boot—a
spoon he himself had cast from aluminum wire in 1944 while serving part
of his sentence at another prison camp, Ust-Izhma—Ivan eats the gruel,
now cold, which contains cabbage and fish. Then he goes to work on the
porridge, made from grass. It is frozen, but he eats all of it. Afterward,
he reports to a medical assistant, Vdovushkin, in the infirmary to explain
his illness. After Vdovushkin gives him a thermometer to take his temperature,
Ivan sits on a bench and hopes that he is just sick enough to qualify him
for a three-week stay in the hospital, where he would have nothing to do
but lie on his back. Then he remembers that Stepan Grigorich, a new doctor
who recently arrived from another camp, likes the idea of putting patients
to work as a form a therapy.
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.
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.
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 numbers—large enough to see at a distance—to 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.
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.
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 shirt—a 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.
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 buildings—all
constructed by prisoners. Out on the steppe, there is no scenery except
for snow in every direction.
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.
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.
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 warm—not 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.
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.
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.
the inmates do high-quality work, they receive extra rations of bread in
the evening. That is how the system works.
the windows are covered, the stove is going, and three trucks pull up with
blocks for the second-story wall.
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 sentence—for whatever reason—and sometimes exile him.
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.
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.
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 himself—Tyurin
would never snitch on one of his men—but 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
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 leave—all 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.
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 32—a Moldavian. This development means that everyone—no matter
his gang—must 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 distance—the
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.
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
mittens—the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. . . ."
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."
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 tastes—real meat.
going to sleep, Ivan reviews the day, deciding that everything went well
for him. It was “almost a happy day," he thinks.
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
Inhumanity of the Soviet
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 numbers—Ivan as S-854,
for example, or the Moldavian as K-460.
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 Germans—a false charge. Although
Ivan is a fictional character, he represents many real-life persons—including
Solzhenitsyn—who suffered years of imprisonment even though they were innocent.
Many of them died in prison.
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 inmates—everything 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
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.
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.
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.
saintly Alyoshka prays whenever he has a spare moment. The fact that he
occupies the same bunk as Ivan—their mattresses are parallel—suggests 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.
Soviets group the inmates in gangs that work and live together. It is a
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.
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 mitten—the 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.
the vital prayer surged up within him: “Oh, Lord, save me! Don't let me
be put in the cells."
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:
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 reason—through 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.
Piece of Hacksaw Blade:
Survival. Ivan plans to use it to craft items that he can sell or use for
himself to help him ease the ordeal of prison life.
charity. Ivan gives Alyoshka a biscuit he received from Tsesar without
expecting anything in return. His Christian charity is a step forward in
his religious progress. Hammer: Labor, in particular labor associated
with industrialization. The hammer bangs out reveille in the morning, alerting
the prisoners that it is time to rise and get ready for work at the power
plant or other locales in and around the camp. The national flag of the
Soviet Union displayed a picture of a hammer and a sickle, the hammer representing
factory and other industrial labor and the sickle representing farm work.
Knife: Peaceful use
of technology. Ivan does not regard and does not use his knife as a weapon.
He regards it as a useful tool.
Camp HQ: The labor
camp itself symbolizes the Soviet Union. The camp has overseers who oppress
the people within its borders and do not let the people travel beyond those
borders. Also, like the country itself, the camp has a variety of ethnic
and national groups: Estonians, Latvians, Modavians, Ukainians, Russians.
The camp is, in short, a microcosm for the Soviet Union.
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
conflicts—those inside a person—include various prisoners' inability to
conquer weaknesses that make it difficult for them to survive.
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
. Study Questions and Essay
Ivan, who is the most admirable character in the novel? Who is the least
admirable? Explain your answers.
an inmate of a prison in your area about what a day in his or her life
is like. Then write an informative essay entitled "One Day in the Life
of ___________________ ." Before embarking on this assignment, obtain the
permission of your parents (if you are under 18), your teacher, and the
warden of the prison or his or her representative.
an essay that compares and contrasts Ivan Denisovich with Fetyukov.
does Ivan keep the piece of hacksaw blade when he knows that its discovery
by guards could land him in the dreaded cellblock?
quality in Ivan does Gopchik bring out?
three types of footwear Ivan wore during his imprisonment.
Fetyukov be pitied or despised?
poses the greatest threat to Ivan and other prisoners: the climate, the
overseers, or the diet?
you had lived in Solzhenitsyn's time, could you have survived a ten-year
sentence in a Soviet labor camp? Explain why or why not.