One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From the beginning of work at the Power Station to the news of the murdered stool pigeons
The members of Gang 104 begin walling up the second floor of the Power Station, working to keep out the cold so they can continue working later at a temperature at which they can survive. They labor for their own good, understanding that if they do not succeed in keeping out the cold, they will die. They also know that the gang is more important than the individual, and that rewards will be distributed collectively, not to one man alone, so it is to their advantage to work well together. Shukhov begins fitting pipes together to form a smoke outlet to keep the stove from smoking up the place, though he lacks the necessary tools to do so. He remembers he has a trowel hidden nearby, but does not mention it to any of his coworkers. As he works, Shukhov empties his head of every other thought, focusing wholly on the labor at hand.
Shukhov sends the rosy-faced sixteen-year-old Gopchik to go fetch wire for the pipes. Meanwhile, some of his fellow workers try to sidle up to the stove, which has been lit to dry sand, not to warm people. Tyurin issues a blunt warning, and the workers back away. Shukhov hears Tyurin speak to Pavlo, telling him to maintain order while he goes off to see about “percentages,” or the production quotas that must be met. The narrator reflects on how the appearance of meeting quotas matters more than actually getting work done. Gopchik returns with wire. He and Shukhov hide some wire that they can use later to make a spoon. Gopchik’s crime, we learn, was to bring milk to starving Ukrainian nationalist rebels hiding in the woods. Gopchik climbs toward the ceiling to fit wire onto the pipes. The workers have brought the fire to a roar, warming the room somewhat. Kildigs jokes that he will need to be paid a hundred rubles for his labor. The workers inspect the place where the cinder blocks will be laid to form walls. Shukhov imagines how windy it will be as he executes this work.
Shukhov is amazed to see that it is almost dinnertime. He reflects on how quickly time passes while he works. Shukhov notes that the sun is at its highest point, and concludes that it must be twelve o’clock. Buynovsky jokes that the Soviet government has ordained that the sun will be at its highest at one, not twelve. Pavlo, the deputy foreman, allows the workers some rest before eating, and they sit by the stove. Kildigs points out that Shukhov’s ten-year sentence is almost over. But Shukhov, who enjoys hearing people talk about him, remarks that no one can be sure the government will not extend a sentence.
The narrator reveals Shukhov’s crime of treason. Shukhov was in the army, starving, and was captured by the Germans in February 1942. When he escaped, the Soviet authorities did not believe his story, and were convinced that he was a German spy. Threatened with death if he did not sign a confession to treason, Shukhov signed, and was then officially imprisoned as a Soviet traitor. The men talk about Shukhov’s first camp, imagining that he was able to sleep with women in it, a fantasy Shukhov firmly puts to rest.
“Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.”
“Who decreed that?”
“The Soviet government.”
The men’s work situation illustrates a tension between communist ideology and ideas of fairness. Though it is punishment, Shukhov takes pride in his work, but only because the dehumanizing camp environment has stripped his life of everything else. The Soviet regime aimed to instill this sense of pride and ownership of labor in the working class, and, with Shukhov, it achieves this goal. Clearly, however, the Soviet government is not compensating Shukhov and the other prisoners fairly for their hard labor. The power station that Gang 104 is building will benefit many, but the gangmembers themselves will reap little, if any, reward for their hard labor. Kildigs’s joke that he expects one hundred rubles for his work emphasizes how unfair it is that he and the others are being paid nothing for their efforts. The Soviet state believes that the sort of working-class pride that Shukhov takes in his work is payment enough for his labor, but this ideology does nothing but exploit the prisoners.
Solzhenitsyn depicts the Soviet state as a distant and incomprehensible force more powerful than nature. For the characters, laws are both unavoidable and arbitrary. The Soviet people have little say in their government, and must do what it tells them to do. The government’s arrogant sense of superiority to the natural world is absurd yet cannot be argued against. Buynovsky’s joke that the Soviet state has decreed the sun must be highest at one o’clock rather than twelve underscores the Soviet regime’s delusions of grandeur. Though his joke is funny, its humor rests on the somber fact that the government can change the truth whenever it wants. Shukhov’s forced, false confession to being a traitor to his country exemplifies the way in which the Soviet government tailors the truth to its needs. The Soviet regime imagines itself stronger than not only the sun but also reality itself.
Unlike many prison narratives, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich does not focus on the hope of escape. Shukhov aims the small rebellious acts in which he does engage only at making life in the camp easier, not at actually leaving. He does not seek to end his imprisonment but rather to find meaning in each individual day. He does not count down the days until his release, and he seems skeptical that his day of freedom will ever come, fully aware that the government can extend his sentence at will. But he also seems indifferent to the very idea of being released. He has no past left behind him, and no radiant future ahead. He lives fully in the present, in the one day that is his.
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