Shukhov, the title prisoner of the novel, is a poor and uneducated man. As such, he is an unusual protagonist in Russian literature. He is not an aristocrat, like most of the heroes of nineteenth-century Russian novels. He is also not a brilliant intellectual or impassioned sufferer, like some of nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s characters. As a peasant, Shukhov comes from a class not often featured in Russian novels. He may even be illiterate. When he sees the poem Kolya is copying out, for example, he does not recognize the strange way of writing each line directly beneath the preceding one. He is amazed by men such as Tsezar who have lived in Moscow, which to Shukhov is an exotic, faraway land. Nor is he a gifted or sensitive emotional soul: he shows almost no affection for his long-forgotten wife and daughters, no romantic nostalgia for his lost home, and no dreams of a better life elsewhere. Shukhov is an ordinary Russian, as implied by his name. “Ivan” is one of the most common names in the Russian language, like the English “John.” Solzhenitsyn makes this undistinguished man the hero of his novel in order to represent the uneducated peasant mainstream of Soviet society.
Shukhov’s struggle shows us the peasant’s inner nobility in the face of degradation. His full acceptance of his new identity and of his camp life, and his amazing ability to build a meaningful existence for himself out of the arbitrary camp system, make him a spiritual hero. His intensity in living, eating, and working puts him in control of his world. For example, when Shukhov works on a brick wall, the narrator says that he focuses on it as if he owned every inch of it. In a way, although he is a slave, he is still the king of his little area of the world. He is not an aristocrat by blood, but inwardly he is proud, supreme, and untouchable.
Tyurin, a foreman at the labor camp, is tough and heroic. Shukhov notes that Tyurin does not even squint when the fierce icy Siberian wind blows straight into his face. At the beginning of the novel, Tyurin is a distant and terrifying authority figure, associated with the dread of punishment. But he transforms into a more sympathetic character when, at the Power Station, he narrates his life history. Tyurin’s shift from an imposing authoritarian to an accessible comrade shows the humanity hidden deep within even the fiercest Soviet law enforcers.
Tyurin’s character shows the camp’s lack of justice since, like everyone else in the camp, he has been thrown into prison without deserving this fate. Tyurin is a prisoner only because his father belonged to the kulak, or rich peasant, class that Stalin has vowed to exterminate. Like almost everyone else in the camp, Tyurin is an essentially good person unfairly condemned to a life of misery. Tyurin’s misery is compounded by the fact that he is not part of a social group in the camp. His experience shows us that the life of a camp officer may be even worse than that of a common prisoner. Without the community or camaraderie of the prisoners, Tyurin is treated as a representative of the state and feared as a Soviet authority, even though he is still a prison inmate like the others.
Tsezar is a well-to-do, cultured prisoner who strikes awe in Shukhov and who represents worldliness and abundance. His regular parcels of lush food items grant him special privileges in the camp that make his fellow prisoners envious. He is allowed to eat in the camp office rather than in the mess hall and to wear a fur cap, for example, and the fact that he has obtained such privileges from the frigid Soviet officers greatly increases his stature. But Tsezar’s relative glamour derives also from his cultured background. He is from Moscow, a wondrous city of which Shukhov can only dream, and he enjoys discussing film with Buynovsky.
Tsezar’s material abundance gives a deeper significance to his name, which is a Russian form of “Caesar,” a title that many Roman emperors adopted. Tsezar’s name reminds us of Jesus’ reference in the New Testament to Caesar as a symbol of worldly pursuits that stand in the way of spiritual well-being. For Shukhov, Tsezar represents the earthly pleasures that Alyoshka, the spokesman for nourishing the soul, urges Shukhov to reject at the end of the novel.
A sniveler and incorrigible beggar, the prisoner Fetyukov is the opposite of the dignified and self-reliant Shukhov. While Shukhov earns extra bread by breaking his back at the Power Station work site, Fetyukov gets extra bread by playing on others’ pity. Surprisingly, given the limited food and tobacco resources of the camp, Fetyukov does quite well for himself—he is often seen hoarding the little bits that have been handed to him. But Solzhenitsyn criticizes Fetyukov for his lack of dignity, which sets him apart from almost everyone else in the novel, even the cruel Volkovoy and the starving old prisoner who sits near Shukhov at dinner. In a sense, Fetyukov is a degraded version of Tsezar. Whereas Tsezar desires finer thingss because he enjoys quality, Fetyukov seems to hoard what he can merely for the sake of hoarding.
The prisoner Alyoshka is a Christ figure in the camp. He is incredibly resilient in the face of adversity, and reads every night from the half of the New Testament that he has copied into a notebook he keeps hidden by his bed. Forced by the prison camp to give up physical pleasures, Alyoshka relies instead on spiritual fulfillment. Shukhov, taking note of this Christ-like spirituality, realizes at the end of the novel that Alyoshka actually enjoys his life in the prison camp. Like a medieval monk whipping himself to focus on the goods of the spirit, Alyoshka finds pleasure in the pain of camp life.
Solzhenitsyn emphasizes the way that Alyoshka’s spirituality allows him to love his fellow man. Alyhoska is generous to his fellow prisoners, even though he has very little to offer them. Near the end of the novel, Shukhov notes that Alyoshka does favors for everyone in the camp and never expects anything in return. Shukhov is bewildered by this generosity, especially in a place where the struggle for survival separates people rather than binds them together. But Alyoshka is more concerned with feeding his soul than his body, and his eagerness to give of what little he has represents the triumph of the human spirit in oppressive conditions.