One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From the body search by Volkovoy to the story of Shukhov’s leaving home
The dreaded disciplinary officer Volkovoy, whose name in Russian means “wolfish,” orders the prisoners to unbutton their shirts for the body search. Shukhov recalls the time he watched Volkovoy use a braided leather lash to whip a prisoner for falling out of line. The prisoner silently wiped the blood from his neck, and carried on. The guards slap the sides of everyone’s jacket, and feel the one pocket each prisoner has on his right knee. They look for hidden rations of food, illegal letters, and articles of civilian clothing. The men are allowed to keep their shirts and undershirts, but must take off everything else.
Shukhov submits silently to the search, reflecting on how he has nothing to hide. He notes that he has only regulation clothing, and underneath has a human chest with a soul inside it. But Buynovsky makes a fuss, announcing that according to Article 9 of the Criminal Code it is illegal to undress prisoners in the freezing cold. This argument has no effect on Volkovoy, so Buynovsky goes a step further and accuses Volkovoy of not being a true Soviet citizen. This statement angers Volkovoy, who punishes Buynovsky harshly. Gang 104 prepares to march off to the Power Station, where it is to work. The gangmembers are lined up in groups of five, and are counted and re-counted. They begin to march into the biting wind, warned that anyone falling out of line will be shot without notice. At first, the guards make loud criticisms of those prisoners not marching properly. After a while, however, their criticism subsides, since it is too cold to keep their mouths uncovered. Shukhov reflects that the job of the guards is not an easy one.
Volkovoy represents the extreme of inhumanity. Even the higher administrators of the camp are scared of him. His beastly name—volk means “wolf” in Russian—evokes the Russian proverb “Man is a wolf to man.” In other words, Volkovoy feels no obligation to shows kindness to his fellow men. Rather, he personifies the sadistic exercise of power for its own sake. The purpose of his plaited leather lash is to keep the prisoners in line, but Shukhov’s anecdote about the blood appearing on the neck of one victim suggests that Volkovoy uses his lash for more than simply keeping order in the camp. Like a crazed wild animal, he revels in the bloodshed itself. He does not draw blood to instill respect for the Soviet government but rather to satisfy some primordial bloodlust of his own.
Ironically, Volkovoy’s officer status does not so much raise him to a rank above the prisoners as bring him down to their animalistic level. Camp life has made them like wild beasts too: they scrounge for scraps of food, stand naked out in the field during the body search, and possess no greater goal in life than mere survival. Shukhov’s later reflection that the guards do not have an easy job, since they have to march through the cold wind alongside their prisoners, reflects his belief that the prisoners and the guards share a common ground. The emphasis is not on the administrators’ human superiority to the wild animals they guard but rather on the entire camp as a zoo filled with a variety of beasts. In another novel, Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn ends with a scene in a zoo, implying that Soviet culture has reduced humans to jungle inhabitants—or perhaps that all humans everywhere are basically animals at heart.
Volkovoy’s differing responses to Buynovsky’s charges reveal Volkovoy’s self-absorbed hypocrisy. He ignores Buynovsky’s assertion that strip-searching in subzero temperatures outdoors violates an article of the Soviet Criminal Code, showing his lack of concern for right and wrong. We might imagine that a Soviet officer would rush to defend actions performed in the name of his country, such as a prison body count, but Volkovoy does not. He is altogether indifferent to others’ opinions of state-sponsored actions. Yet when Buynovsky goes a step further and accuses Volkovoy of being a bad Soviet citizen, Volkovoy gets violently indignant. He knowingly violates Soviet law and is thus, in a way, a bad Soviet citizen, but he is unwilling to admit as much. He cares much more about making himself look good than making his country look good. Though he disrespects his country’s laws with his actions, he wants, hypocritically, to be seen as an ideal Soviet citizen.
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