From the news of the murdered stool pigeons to the beginning of Tyurin’s story
In their conversation during the break before dinner, the men recount the recent murders of a couple of “stoolies,” or stool-pigeons who have snitched to camp authorities about fellow prisoners. Two of them were killed in their beds by an unknown assailant, and a third innocent prisoner was killed when the murderer apparently got confused about whom he meant to kill. A third stoolie has run for protection to the officers’ quarters.
The men are called to their meal. On the way Shukov notes that the weather has warmed to a balmy eighteen degrees below zero, a good temperature for bricklaying. Pavlo, Shukhov, and Gopchik enter the mess hall. The narrator explains that the cook gives extra rations to certain men who carry bags of meal, wash and collect dirty bowls, and do other tasks that should be the cook’s. The foreman also receives a double ration.
Waiting for the gang to come in, Shukhov helps place the bowls of oatmeal gruel on the table, taking them from Pavlo, who takes them from the cook. Through some bold and clever deception in the counting of the bowls, Shukhov manages to get extra rations for the gang. The men come in and sit down to eat their oatmeal. Shukhov eyes the extra bowls, knowing that Pavlo can do what he likes with them even though Shukhov got them. Pavlo lets Shukhov have one bowl, telling him to take the other to Tsezar, who never eats with the others. Buynovsky is looking sluggish, so Pavlo generously hands him an extra ration, which Buynovsky regards as a miracle. The jealous Fetyukov gives Pavlo an evil look.
Shukhov leaves the mess hall to take the bowl of gruel to Tsezar in the camp office. In the office he overhears the manager chastising his subordinates for all the waste he witnesses in the camps every day: dry cement blowing away in the wind and valuable wooden boards being burned as firewood. Shukhov quietly goes past him and heads toward Tsezar’s desk. Tsezar is in the midst of a heated conversation in which he defends the early-twentieth-century Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, about a fearsome medieval Russian tsar. Tsezar appreciates the film’s artistic qualities, while the prisoner he is talking with, an old man identified only as Kh-123, maintains that art should be less flashy and more nourishing to the soul. Shukhov puts down the gruel. He hopes to be offered a drag on Tsezar’s cigarette, but his wish is not granted, and he leaves silently.
When Shukhov returns to the Power Station he finds the men in good spirits: the foreman, Tyurin, has been commended for his gang’s work. This work will mean good rations for five days—a real windfall. Shukhov joins the men around the fire and listens in on the story Tyurin is telling.
Tsezar and Kh-123’s discussion about cinema reflects an artistic debate that was going on in Russia during the time that Solzhenitsyn was writing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Their conversation focuses on the disagreement between avant-garde and realist artists. The Soviet state believed that it was destined to bring to the rest of the world an artistic revolution; artists argued, however, about how best to bring about this revolution. Some believed wholeheartedly that art needed shock and innovation, such as the cinematic experiments of Sergei Eisenstein, in order to break from traditional art and evoke a reaction from the masses. Others, however, felt that simple, easy-to-grasp realism, exemplified by the cartoon-like simplicity of Soviet “socialist realism,” would better meet these goals.
Although Solzhenitsyn’s literary style does not break from many of the conventions of Russian literature, his novel is still strikingly innovative. Unlike most writing of the time, it is geared for peasants rather than intellectuals. The words and syntax are simple, and the narrator frequently uses peasant proverbs. The novel’s style is not at all similar to the shocking effects of Eisenstein or the avant-garde writers. The irony here is that while the avant-garde believed that they were the true pioneers, Solzhenitsyn’s old-fashioned simple style is actually blazing a new trail. This novel, with its unprecedented depiction of camp life and its daring criticism of the official regime, is as much a landmark in the history of Russian art as Eistenstein’s films.
While Gang 104 appears to be unified, basic matters of survival such as the need for food reveal each man’s inevitable selfishness. The gangmembers do work together, fully aware that only a good work effort from the whole group will earn them extra rations. But each man is interested only in getting more for himself, not for his peers. Fetyukov’s leer at Pavlo after Pavlo gives an extra ration to Buynovsky stems from jealousy. Fetyukov finds no happiness in Buynovsky’s relief at what Buynovsky considers a miraculous gift since he cares about nothing except his own well-being. While Shukhov does risk punishment in his deception to grab extra bowls of gruel, he does so only because he has his sights set on getting an extra bowl for himself. Additionally, the report of the stool pigeons’ murders demonstrates that certain individuals are more than willing to rat on their colleagues for personal profit. The gang may appear officially as a tight-knit unit, but in reality each man is looking out only for himself.