Quote 5

His mind and his eyes were studying the wall, the façade of the Power Station, two cinder blocks thick, as it showed from under the ice. 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.

The narrator describes Shukhov’s approach to the wall of the Power Station that he is about to construct as the gang’s labor begins in Section 7. This quotation reveals Shukhov’s passion and intensity. Stereotypes of communism usually focus on workers being lazy and slacking off, but Shukhov is a hard worker. His motivation comes from a deep reserve of energy and concentration within him, not from external goads or threats. He cares genuinely about doing an excellent job on this wall, and has scorn rather than admiration for the previous worker, who no doubt had an easier time with his work. This positive portrayal of a Soviet worker was surely one of the reasons that then Soviet prime minster Nikita Khrushchev approved of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962.

The phrase “as if he owned it,” describing Shukhov’s intense relationship with the task at hand, refers to the concept of ownership that is central to both capitalism and communism. While ownership in capitalism refers to the actual possessing of items, in communism it refers to something less materialistic. A communist would point to Shukhov’s pride in his craftsmanship as evidence that he feels full ownership over the labor he is carrying out and over his existence in general. On one level, Shukhov is a Soviet slave who owns nothing. But on another level, Shukhov’s odd flashes of contentment in the camp and his apparent spiritual contentment at the end of the novel suggest that people who live in a communal society may own their lives as fully as or more than people who live in a capitalist society.