From the opening of the novel to Kolya’s taking of Shukhov’s temperature
It is winter at a Soviet labor camp called “HQ,” in Siberia. A worker sounds the wake-up call for the inmates by pounding a hammer on a rail outside, but it is so cold that he soon gives up.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, an inmate at the camp, usually wakes up quickly at the wake-up call, but today he is aware of severe aches all over his body and a high fever. He listens to the sounds of other zeks, or camp inmates, trudging off to work. He hears signs that his own team, Gang 104, is preparing for labor as well. Shukhov recalls that this will be the day when it is decided whether Gang 104 will stay in HQ or be sent to the freezing, barren plains to work on a building project. Shukhov reflects that in such cold, with no place to get warm even for a moment, the only hope for survival is to dig feverishly and never stop.
Shukhov is relieved to notice that the warden on duty is Ivan, who never throws anyone into the camp prison, which the prisoners call “the hole.” Shukhov thinks he can sleep in a bit longer, until it is time for breakfast. Feeling the bunk bed shake, he knows that two of his bunkmates are getting up: Buynovsky and Alyoshka, who is also known as “the Baptist” for his unshakable religious faith. While Alyoshka is whispering his prayers, Shukhov hears the foreman of the neighboring gang mention that the gang’s rations have been shortchanged, which means that somebody will have to go without their full allotment of bread that evening. Meanwhile someone announces that the temperature is thirty degrees below zero. Shukhov decides that he will report to sick bay.
A new warden whips off Shukhov’s blanket. The warden informs him that Shukhov—identified officially as prisoner “Shcha-854”—will be punished for not getting up at the proper time. He says that Shukhov’s sentence will be three days in the hole. Shukhov is led outside by the warden. The warden does not put him in the hole, however. Shukhov follows the warden to the wardens’ quarters and is ordered to wash the floors—a much better fate than being shut in the hole. Shukhov takes off his shoes to avoid getting them wet, meditating on how precious his shoes are to him. He finishes the job quickly, noting that the important thing is to make the floor look good rather than actually to clean it.
Shukhov goes to the mess hut when he is done washing the floors. He sees a new Ukrainian prisoner cross himself before eating. Shukov thinks that this prisoner will lose this religious habit with time. From his boot, Shukhov withdraws a spoon he has had with him his since his days in another camp: it is one of his few possessions. Shukhov removes his cap, as he always does before eating. Since he is late to mess, there is not much food left, but he eats fish leftovers and gruel before heading to sick bay.
In the sick bay Shukhov finds the medical orderly Kolya Vdovushkin on duty, writing poetry. Kolya tells Shukhov that the clinic is closed, and that Shukhov should have come last night; Shukhov answers that the pain didn’t start until this morning. Kolya agrees to take Shukhov’s temperature, and while waiting for the results he returns to his poetry.
Next, he removed his cap from his shaven head—however cold it was, he wouldn’t let himself eat with his cap on.
Shukhov’s experience illustrates the unjust nature of the Soviet legal system. In the camp, characters struggle against arbitrary punishments. Although we do not know what crime Shukhov has committed, our impression of Shukhov is that he is a sympathetic, simple character. It seems likely that his inhumane punishment is too extreme for the crime he has supposedly committed. As we learn more about Shukhov’s moral, upstanding character, we find it hard to believe he did anything truly wrong. However, the arbitrary justice of the camp means that people are punished regardless of their guilt or innocence. Shukhov’s punishment for being sick reinforces the sense that the camp’s system of justice is illogical. His crime of being ill is not an act of free will, but he is punished for it nonetheless. Theoretically, the purpose of punishment is to teach people to be responsible for themselves so that they refrain from harmful actions. But when people are punished for things they cannot control, this ideal of personal responsibility becomes meaningless.
The text’s reference to Shukhov by his last name emphasizes the way that the camp sets him at a cold, official distance. “Ivan” is Shukhov’s first name and Denisovich is his patronymic, a name that is derived from one’s father’s name (Ivan’s father was apparently named Denis). In Russian society, addressing someone by his or her first name and patronymic is cordial but respectful. The early Soviet Communist regime tried to eradicate this form of address because the respect it entails suggested class differences among people, which communism seeks to eliminate. On the other hand, addressing someone by his or her last name has a bluntly official ring. The Soviet manner of addressing people as “Comrade” followed by their last name was an attempt to replace the old formula with a new one better adapted to a class-free utopia.
The novel’s title refers to the protagonist as “Ivan Denisovich” rather than as “Shukhov,” reinforcing the importance of remembering personal identities in an inhuman political regime. Referring to Shukhov as “Ivan Denisovich,” Solzhenitsyn leads us to expect a story about an individual character with a clear social identity. This kind of character is common in the works of earlier Russian writers. However, the first paragraphs of the novel reveal that Shukhov has little social standing or sense of identity. The differing names in the title (“Ivan Denisovich”) and the narrative (“Shukhov”) imply that there are two different Ivan Denisoviches. Shukhov’s life in the camp has changed him so that he is no longer the person he used to be. He is now only a number in the camp’s documents: the guard who whisks him out of bed in the first pages addresses him by his uniform’s number, “Shcha-854.” The transition from familiar name to a meaningless combination of letters and numbers shows the decay of Shukhov’s individual identity.