An inmate of a Stalinst labor camp somewhere in Siberia in 1951. Shukhov is the novel’s protagonist. He is a working-class, somewhat uneducated man, and his daily struggle represents that of the average Russian citizen. He believes in God but is not religious. His conversation with Alyoshka at the end of the novel, however, shows that he may experience a turn to spirituality, when for the first time he does someone a favor without hope of payback.
The foreman of Gang 104. Tyurin is a strict but fair man who illustrates how the job of prison camp officer can be isolating. Tyurin’s transformation at the Power Station work site is one of the most emotional moments in the novel, since we stop despising him as a cold-hearted law enforcer and start sympathizing with him as a victim of injustice.
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A fellow prisoner in Gang 104 of uncertain national background and mysterious connections. Tsezar receives regular food parcels that make him the envy of the gang. He is worldly, a man of cultivated artistic interests and luxurious tastes. He represents cultural attainments, abundance, and privilege, values that Shukhov begins to question at the novel’s end.
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A fellow prisoner, and the scrounger and wheedler of Gang 104, always nagging for a cigarette or an extra bit of bread from the other inmates. Shukhov scorns Fetyukov, but in the end pities him when the guards beat up Fetyukov as punishment for licking bowls in the mess hall. Fetyukov represents the degradation to which prisoners in the labor camp are capable of slipping if they let go of their human dignity.
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A prisoner with a bunk that neighbors Shukhov’s. Alyoshka is a devout Baptist who reads late at night in the notebook into which he has copied half of the New Testament. Alyoshka is known for doing favors for other inmates but never expecting or receiving rewards for these favors. By the end of the novel, Shukhov begins to respect Alyoshka’s naïve goodwill, faith, and disdain of worldly goods.
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The deputy foreman of Gang 104. The Ukrainian Pavlo is strict but kind. His patience and mercy toward the inmates earn him the devotion of many members of the gang, including Shukhov, who notes that a prisoner will not work hard for a distant boss but will break his back for a foreman he admires.
A medical orderly and novice poet. Kolya is vaguely sympathetic toward the sick Shukhov, but has little understanding of Shukhov’s situation. Solzhenitsyn’s description of Kolya as an insensitive poet suggests his disdain for old-fashioned literary types who fail to appreciate real-world problems.
A prisoner known familiarly throughout the novel as “the captain” for his former military rank. In the prison camp, Buynovsky is no more privileged than Shukhov. He is well-educated, as demonstrated by his theoretical discussions with Tsezar about Russian films. But his culture is of little service to him in the camp, as the only thing that truly matters is survival.
A sixteen-year-old boy in prison for providing milk to nationalist rebels hiding in the forest. Gopchik is fresh and innocent, and has not yet been hardened by camp life. That the Soviet government has imprisoned one so young and well intentioned illustrates the regime’s utter lack of human compassion.
One of the two Estonians who share a bunk in Shukhov’s hut. Eino and the other Estonian chat in their own language constantly, interacting with each other much more than with anyone else. The Estonians represent the necessity of maintaining a private world set apart from the horrors of camp existence.
Another foreigner among the camp inmates. Kildigs is a Latvian bricklayer and Shukhov’s colleague at the Power Station, and is famed for his sense of humor. Shukhov’s comment that Kildigs’s sense of humor stems from his regular receiving of food parcels demonstrates the relationship between the basic necessities of life (such as food) and happiness.
A prison warden who warns Tyurin that some of his men still have not completed their written explanations of why they possessed forbidden goods.