One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From the narration of Shukhov’s leaving home to the beginning of work at the Power Station
The narrator reveals that the story takes place in 1951. We also find out that Shukhov left home around ten years earlier, on June 23, 1941, when the Soviet Union entered World War II. Shukhov wonders about the news from back home. He is entitled to write two letters per year, but he reflects on the futility of doing so. He has more to talk about with his fellow camp inmates than with his family. He recalls his wife’s letter’s report that the kolkhoz, or collective farm, on which she works has a new head, and other tedious announcements he has little interest in hearing.
One thing his wife mentions does interest Shukhov, however. She says that some people are becoming wealthy by making carpets out of sheets with designs stenciled on them. This work is not government-controlled, she notes, so some bribery is required. She urges her husband to consider taking up this work when he gets out of the camp. Shukhov acknowledges the practicality of this plan but has no interest in dyeing carpets. He also resents the idea of giving bribes. He reflects that he may be forty and balding with poor teeth, but he does not want to stoop to bribery as a way of life.
The gang has reached the Power Station work site. Shukhov notices Alyoshka smiling blissfully, and reflects on how camp life has not destroyed Alyoshka’s religious faith. Even the sentence delivered to Alyoshka and to other Baptists in the camp, twenty-five years of hard labor, means nothing to them. Shukhov waits for orders from the foreman, Tyurin, a beefy pockmarked man whom Shukhov knew at his first camp, Ust-Izhma. Tyurin is a strong, silent type who inspires respect in everyone. Shukhov notes that one twitch of Tyurin’s eyebrow will send a prisoner off to do a task.
Gang 104 enters the auto-repair shop on the building site, where another gang has been making concrete slabs. The other gang is resting by the stove. Gang 104 also enjoys a brief moment of peace before the work begins. His back aching, Shukhov sits and slowly eats his hidden half-ration of bread. He watches two Estonian inmates chat. The gang discusses when the next blizzard will come: a blizzard means days off work. Though they know that all missed days will be made up later, they still yearn for a holiday.
Tyurin informs the gangmembers that they will wall in the second story. The gang realizes that it must stop up the windows to retain some heat in which to work. A Latvian inmate named Kildigs remembers having hidden some tar paper, and proposes to go with Shukhov to fetch it. On their way to get the tar paper, they meet some men from another gang who are digging fence holes in stony frozen ground. Shukhov and Kildigs find the tar paper and carry it back to the site upright between them, so as not to attract the attention of the guards. Back at the site, the next step is to build laths on which to mount the paper, and to repair the mortar trough. The narrator asks why the inmates show such industry instead of dawdling through the day. His answer is that every man is responsible for the fate of his gang: he works not only for himself but for the others too, since they would all be punished together for any failing.
Writing letters now was like throwing stones into a bottomless pool. They sank without a trace.
Shukhov’s lack of desire to communicate with the outside world reflects his feeling that self-expression is pointless. Shukhov takes pleasure in simple physical comforts, such as food and warmth, rather than in intellectual discussions or creative pursuits in which he might offer his views on life. Just as he is better served by Kolya when Kolya stops writing poems and attends to his sickness, so is Shukhov better served by tending to his physical needs than by attempting to make sense of his world. Shukhov’s world has shrunk in the time that he has been confined to the camp. His musing that he has nothing to say to his wife and two daughters back home demonstrates how unable he is to think about anything beyond the daily aspects of camp life, such as acquiring food and avoiding punishment. Though Solzhenitsyn shows that Shukhov is uneducated, he does not blame him for not wanting to communicate his experiences. Rather, Solzhenitsyn understands that in such dehumanizing circumstances, one necessarily becomes cynical about the worth of trying to share traumatic experiences with those who have not undergone them.
Ironically, Shukhov exemplifies the principles of the Soviet state he is accused of having betrayed. Although he is in prison for treason against the Soviet regime, his mindset and work habits represent a pinnacle of Soviet industriousness. He has left the middle-class household far behind, and his work site has become his life—in exactly the way the Soviet regime intended it to happen according to Communist theory. The fact that Shukhov feels closer to his fellow inmates now than to his own family illustrates the early Soviet ideal of eliminating middle-class family life and making a worker care more about the international working class (that is, foreign workers—like the Latvian Kildigs) than about his or her own spouse or offspring. Solzhenitsyn shows us how radically the camp world can infuse its prisoners with Soviet values, much more effectively than Soviet society outside can do.
Shukhov’s reaction to his wife’s suggestion that he manufacture dyed carpets shows that his economic viewpoint, like his work habit, embraces Soviet ideals. The carpet-dyeing, not sanctioned by the Soviet government, is a capitalist endeavor that affords its practitioners dazzling private fortunes. Shukhov resists the prospect of making these fortunes because he does not want to engage in meaningless work. Compared to the personal satisfaction of building a power station by hand, the job of stenciling sheets seems vulgar and meaningless to Shukhov. Ironically, Shukhov’s labor camp work appears more meaningful than much of the work carried out in free Soviet society.
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