One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From the start of Tyurin’s story to the foreman’s check
The foreman of the gang, Tyurin, tells his tale of being discharged from the army, despite a commendable performance, for being the son of a kulak, or rich peasant. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin swore to eliminate this class in Russia. Tyurin was told the authorities had been after him for two years. When Tyurin was discharged, the Soviet army gave him a last meal, then left him stranded at a remote outpost with neither rations to get by on nor a travel pass with which to go anywhere. At this point in Tyurin’s story, Shukhov begs his Estonian friend for a cigarette. The friend gives him just enough tobacco for one cigarette, which Shukhov puffs on, feeling immediately dizzy.
Tyurin’s tale continues. Stranded, Tyurin hocked his belongings and bought bread under the table. He managed to sneak onto a train, hiding among some students who protected him. When he got home he found his family under siege. As a last hope for his younger brother, Tyurin gave him away to a gang of roughnecks, hoping that a life of crime would be good for him. Tyurin says he never saw his brother again, adding that the Power Station is his new home, as well as that of the whole gang.
“Come on, boys, don’t let it get you down! It’s only a Power Station, but we’ll make it a home away from home.”
Shukhov reminds the men that they should apply the mortar before it gets dark. The men wonder who should be involved; four men are needed. Thinking a while, Tyurin agrees to be the fourth man on the mortar team. Pavlo jumps up, eager for work. The narrator comments that love for one’s foreman can be a great motivator. The men must chip away the ice on the walls before applying mortar. Shukhov sets to work with total concentration, getting to know “every inch of that wall as if he owned it.” Shukhov never makes mistakes, even though he works quickly.
A business overseer named Der chastises Tyurin for the tar paper in the windows. He warns Tyurin that the tarpaper could mean another sentence for him. Shukhov feels bad for Tyurin. Meanwhile Gang 104 continues to work furiously, even though Gang 82 is quitting. Alyoshka politely and efficiently delivers more cinder blocks; Shukhov reflects that he wishes all the men could be as helpful as Alyoshka. Buynovsky hauls in another load of blocks, and Shukhov compares him to a horse he once owned, who survived under Shukhov’s loving care but died soon after the collective farm took possession of him.
The sun has set. Tyurin inspects the work, pleased with the gang’s achievements in half a day of labor. Tyurin tells Shukhov to throw away the rest of the mortar and return to camp. Shukhov, addressing Tyurin in a spirit of equality as “foreman” rather than by his full name, tells him to go back without him. Senka, another member of Gang 104, and Shukhov continue laying blocks after the quitting signal. Senka urges Shukhov to stop, but Shukhov realizes he must hide the trowel, and tells Senka to go on ahead. When he has finished, Shukhov races to catch up. The guards are gathered, ready for the count.
Shukhov asks Buynovsky where the moon goes when it wanes. Buynovsky gives a scientific explanation that Shukhov rejects, asserting that the moon is not hidden each night but destroyed, and that God breaks it up to make stars. Meanwhile the guards note that a prisoner is missing. Tyurin worries that one of Gang 104 was left behind. The gang stays behind for a recount. Finally it is announced that all members of Gang 104 are present.
Whoever had been laying there before was either a bungler or a slacker. Shukhov would get to know every inch of that wall as if he owned it.
This section marks a change in the depiction of Tyurin’s character from distanced foreman to sympathetic companion. Once we find out that Tyurin’s punishment is just as unfair as the others’ punishments, we begin to see him as their equal. Before this point in the story, Tyurin has been a vaguely sympathetic figure in the background. He is a decent fellow, but at a mental and emotional distance from the prisoners. He is above them in rank and power; he is not one of them. But when the prisoners gather around the fire and listen to Tyurin’s biography, they warm up to him without losing any of their earlier awe or respect. Tyurin’s crime of being the son of a kulak is not his fault, just as Shukhov’s own crime for which he is punished at the opening of the novel, being sick one morning, is not Shukhov’s fault either. The similar undeservedness of Tyurin’s, Shukhov’s, and others’ punishments leads us to see Tyurin as a friend to the other inmates rather than their oppressor.
Shukhov’s growing warmth toward Tyurin shows the communist ideal of hard work fostering camaraderie. Shukhov’s hard work earns him the right to address Tyurin as an equal rather than as a superior. He feels instinctively that because he has performed extraordinarily well as a bricklayer he can address Tyurin familiarly as “foreman,” rather than as the more official and polite “Andrei Prokofyevich” that he usually calls him. Labor is the key to equality in Shukhov’s mind, a sentiment that fits neatly with Soviet propaganda. According to communist theory, class distinctions result from an unfair division of labor in the capitalist system where some work and others do not. When everyone works together, according to this logic, those distinctions disappear. Tyurin and Shukhov become true comrades in their common labor.
Buynovsky’s and Shukhov’s chat about the moon contrasts peasant oral traditions with cold Soviet logic. Shukhov is interested in understanding the way the moon waxes and wanes in terms of mythology, not in terms of scientific fact. He really does not know that when the moon wanes in its monthly cycle it is simply hidden from view. He prefers the fanciful theory of God breaking up the old moon into stars because it presents a strong visual image that he can readily understand. Buynovsky, on the other hand, offers a strict, logical explanation—the kind of rational analysis that the Soviet government would offer. Shukhov rejects it, however, because it is too abstract for him—it does not offer a visual picture that makes sense to him. Shukhov’s clinging to peasant notions is symbolic of his general resistance to the Soviet state.
Shukhov’s moon theory shows how relying on his own perception of the world rather than on scientific logic has helped Shukhov survive the prison camps. Shukhov conceives of the world with himself at its center. He shuns the idea that the moon could hide every night because he believes that if he cannot see the moon, it does not exist. He does not rely on others’ researched explanations. Likewise, Shukhov does not try to interpret the injustices of the camp in terms of abstract notions of right and wrong. Rather, he focuses on his own daily experiences. This personal point of view allows Shukhov to survive in the camp when the more objective perspective that he is nobody, an official statistic forgotten by society, would kill him off. He is sturdily and stubbornly fixed at the center of his existence, with nothing but questions of work, food, and colleagues keeping him occupied.
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