One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary and Analysis of Part Three

Work Assignments to Dinner pages 59-80:

The squad will be working that day on the power station, which has stood unfinished for two months. Tiurin sends different groups to get a box for mixing mortar, cements, and tools, and others to shovel snow and light the stove at the power station. Only Shukhov and Kilgas are left, and Tiurin sends them to find something to cover the three big windows in the machine room with. They'll use that room for mixing mortar and warming themselves. Kilgas, a Lett who speaks fluent Russian and is able to retain his sense of humor because of the two food packages he receives each month, tells Shukhov he knows where they can find some roofing felt. First, Shukhov runs off to retrieve a good, light-weight trowel he has swiped from the tool store and hides in a different place every night. Then, he and Kilgas go to get the felt, passing the 82nd, who are forced to chop holes in the frozen earth with pickaxes, without the aid of a fire. They carry the roll of felt on end between them, so that the superintendent or trusties don't see them taking it.

Back at the power station, the mechanical lift is broken and everything has to be carried by hand to the second story. Now, this unfinished building is filled with life by the 104th. Tiurin puts Shukhov to work fixing the stovepipe, Kilgas fixing the mixing trough, and Senka chopping laths from the railing along the ramp to the second story for tacking the felt for the windows to. The narrator explains the reason the men work so hard is because when one man slacks, the entire squad is penalized by having some rations taken away. Shukhov's every thought is consumed by the task of fixing the stove. He hears Tiurin leave to turn in the work report, and knows that a clever squad leader, who proves that work which hadn't been done is done, rates low jobs as high ones, and greases the palms of the inspectors, keeps his men alive. The camp benefits the most from these work reports because they get thousands of extra rubles which they use to give bonuses to guard-lieutenants like Volkovoi. The prisoners only get six extra ounces of bread for supper, but "a couple of ounces ruled your life."

As Shukhov fixes the stovepipe, Pavlo has the men melt snow in buckets on the stove rather than carry in water. Gopchik, a Ukrainian boy serving a man's sentence, of whom Shukhov thinks fondly because his own son died young, climbs onto the rafters, stringing wire to hold the stovepipe up. He asks Shukhov to teach him how to cast a spoon using the wire. Gopchik goes on to nail up the laths, and Shukhov shows the men how to cut the roofing felt. Even two thicknesses give little protection from the cold, and the men board up the upper half of the door to keep even more cold air from getting in. Now that they've taken the rails off the ramp to use as laths, it's very dangerous and icy. They decide to haul the blocks up by passing them from man to man, from the ground to a platform to the second story.

Shukhov suddenly notices the sun has already climbed to the middle of the sky. The men think that means it's noon, but Buinovsky informs them that Soviet power has passed a decree that it is one o'clock when the sun stands highest in the sky. Knowing that if they carry up the mortar before dinner, it will freeze, Senka allows the men to warm themselves by the fire. They warm only their hands because leather boots held near the fire will crack and valenki will steam, melt, and even burn. As Shukhov takes off his valenki and warms his foot rags, Kilgas jokes that Shukhov has one foot almost home. Like other most other men sentenced before '49, Shukhov was lucky to receive ten years. Since then, the standard sentence meted out to men including Kilgas is twenty-five years. Shukhov is not so optimistic. Many prisoners whose sentences ended during the war were kept for another five years. After serving his ten years, Shukhov knows he could be given another ten or exiled, but sometimes the excitement of his possible release excites him. Nonetheless, he tells Kilgas it's not a fact he'll serve twenty-five years, but it is a fact that he himself has served eight so far.

Shukhov had been sentenced for high treason after confessing to surrendering to the Germans with the intention of betraying his country and returning from captivity to carry out a mission for the Germans. In reality, in 1942, when the entire army was surrounded on the Western front, Shukhov was part of a group rounded up in the forest by the Germans. After a day or two in captivity, he and four other men escaped and made their way through the forest back to their own army. Two were shot on the spot by a machine gunner and a third died from his wounds. Though Shukhov and the other surviving escapee told the truth, that they were escaped POWs, they were accused of concocting a cover story. Senka chimes in that he escaped and was captured by the Germans three times. Though the men know little of him, they know that he was in Buchenwald, where he worked for the resistance and was beaten by the Germans.

Kilgas argues that though Shukhov has been in camps for eight years, they weren't "special" camps, out of which no one's ever come out alive. Shukhov remembers his seven years in the North, where any squad that failed to fill its timber-cutting quota was forced to stay in the forest after dark. Shukhov says that they have a quieter life in this "special" camp, where they go back to camp when their work shift is done and where they get three ounces more of bread than in the North. The numbers they're forced to wear don't weigh anything. Fetiukov complains that here, men have their throats cut, but Pavlo corrects, saying that squealers do. Indeed, two squealers and one man mistaken for a squealer have had their throats cut at night in their bunks. Just then, the midday whistle blows. Pavlo takes Shukhov and Gopchik to save the squad's place at the canteen. It's just a board shanty that fits only two squads at a time that is run by a cook and a sanitation worker. The cook has a helper who carries the grits from camp, zeks who carry water and firewood, one man to make sure no prisoners swipe bowls from the canteen, and another man to collect bowls that are swiped. All of these men and the sanitation worker are paid in extra helpings of grits, which come out of the prisoners' rations.

Pavlo, Shukhov, and Gopchik enter the crowded canteen, where the 82nd, who've been digging on the cold steppe, still huddle after finishing eating to keep warm. Pavlo sends Gopchik back to get the squad, and he and Shukhov collect the bowls - real oatmeal, for which Shukhov is grateful, even though he used to feed oats to his horses - from the cook. The cook, then Pavlo, who passes them to Shukhov, then Shukhov, who sets the bowls on the table, must repeat the number of bowls given out. But the cook is momentarily distracted by the return of many empty bowls, and Shukhov is able to swipe two extra bowls, which he passes to the two Estonians. Therefore, when the cook looks at the table, Shukhov is able to show him the twelve bowls they're should have been given so far. Just then, the squad arrrives, and Shukhov collects the last eleven of twenty-three bowls from the cook.

The squad crowds around the tables, and Pavlo hadns out bowls. Having swiped two bowls, Shukhov claims one extra bowl for himself. He retrieves his spoon, removes his hat, and begins to eat. It's a moment that demands complete concentration, but he must eat fast, in order to get the second bowl from Pavlo. Pavlo, as the squad leader's deputy, already gets a double helping from the cook and doesn't seem to notice. Shukhov uses the bread crust he saved to wipe the remnants of the oatmeal from his first bowl, but he doesn't feel full, having expected two bowls. He returns his first bowl and waits with his hat off. Finally, Pavlo finishes his bowl and gives one extra bowl to Shukhov and tells him to give another of the four extra bowls to Tsezar. One bowl always goes back to Tsezar in the office, so as he eats his second helping, Shukhov worries if Fetiukov will perhaps also get a second bowl.


Earlier in the novel, Shukhov referred to work as a stick with two ends. In this section, as the prisoners go about their work assignments, we begin to see Shukhov's ambivalent attitude towards work in the camp. On one hand, this work is forced upon him by the camp authorities. If he and the members of his squad do not work their hardest, they will be deprived of their food. Thus, work is necessary to Shukhov's survival. On the other hand, Shukhov takes pride in his work. When fixing the stovepipe, he becomes completely absorbed in his work and loses all sense of time. In that sense, work is also an escape for Shukhov - an escape from thinking and worrying about his lengthy prison sentence. Because he is able to take pride in his work, Shukhov in effect subverts the intent of the camp authorities, who use work as a punishment. From his thoughts about the prospect of working as a carpet painter, it is clear that Shukhov does not shy away from hard work. His punishment is the time he is kept away from his family and freedom, not the work imposed upon him during that time. Therefore, while work is a necessity for Shukhov, it also provides him with a means of mental escape from camp life.

The trowel that Shukhov has swiped is an object that symbolizes the pride and ownership that Shukhov takes in his work. Throughout the book, we have seen the anguish that the collective ownership of all possessions - boots, clothing, tools - takes on Shukhov. Shukhov has so little to call his own that the few objects he does own, including the spoon and the trowel, are endowed with special significance. While the authorities inflict work upon him as a punishment, Shukhov is a craftsmen who wants to take pride in his work. The system of collective ownership of tools - in effect, a microcosm of the communist system - prevents him from doing that. In swiping and secreting the good, light-weight trowel, with which he can do excellent mason work, Shukhov reclaims his work as his own. Because the trowel allows him to good work, it also instills him with a sense of pride and self-worth that the prison system otherwise seeks to destroy. Though this communist system seeks to destroy all private ownership, human nature, as demonstrated through men like Shukhov, find a way to call possessions and work their own even under the harshest conditions.

From the character of Gopchik, we see that this desire for ownership is not limited to Shukhov. Gopchik, a boy serving time in a prison camp with adult men, becomes a surrogate son figure to Shukhov, whose own son is dead. Gopchik sees to emulate Shukhov, asking him to teach him to cast a spoon out of wire, just as he learned to cast his own spoon at the Ust-Izhma camp. Shukhov's role as mentor and role model to Gopchik parallels his own relationship with Kuziomin. In these men, Solzhenitsyn depicts three generations crushed by the Soviet prison camp system. Though Gopchik is optimistic, energetic, and hard-working, Shukhov's other reflections on the prison camp system offer little hope for him. If like Kilgas, Gopchik is serving a sentence of twenty-five years, there is little hope that he can endure until his release. Even if he does, he will have little memory of society beyond the prison camp. Gopchik's plight parallels that of an entire generation of Soviet children growing up when Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - a generation who, unlike him and his protagonist, have never experienced freedom and no nothing of life outside the controlling communist system.

Hopelessness is a recurring theme in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Inwardly, Shukhov cannot imagine how a man, like Kilgas, could possibly survive a twenty-five year sentence, although outwardly he offers his friend encouragement. Though Kilgas and the other men joke about the short amount of time left in Shukhov's sentence, he knows better than to hope for it to end. From the experiences of many other men before him, he realizes that release into society and return to his family is far from definite. The Soviet powers may arbitrarily extend his prison sentence or may exile him. Nonetheless, Shukhov cannot always escape the feelings of happiness and excitement that thoughts of the end of his sentence brings. For the most part, these feelings are dangerous to Shukhov and he tries to ignore them, for to expect and envision his release is to court disappointment.

The primary reason for this hopelessness endured by the prisoners is the corruption of the system. Shukhov is not serving a sentence for a crime he committed. In reality, he is a prisoner of war who should have been regarded as a war hero upon his return. But the extreme suspicion and corruption of the Soviet system under Stalin punishes rather than rewards anyone who might possibly be a threat. Thus, some of the other escaped prisoners of war who returned with Shukhov were shot on sight. Others who escaped form the Germans and survived, like Shukhov and like Senka, who worked for the resistance at Buchenwald, were forced to confess on pain of death and punished for their suffering and bravery in the hands of the enemy. In controlling the very words of the prisoners through these forced confessions, the Soviet powers destroy any conception of truth. The lies and bribes which result within the camps - as with work reports, for example - are the result of a corrupt system.

Even on a more mundane level, the Soviet prison system is corrupt. A system of bribes infiltrates every degree of prison life, from the distribution of oatmeal at mealtimes to the receipt of packages to the transmission of work reports and assignments. Far from creating a system of complete equality under the communist government, this system engenders a complex hierarchy within all levels of the camp. The camp is the lowest rung of Soviet society, and the lowest rung of the camp is corrupt. Through this microcosm of the Soviet system that the camp provides, Solzhenitsyn thus condemns the entire Soviet system, from bottom to top, as corrupt.

Within the camp, ownership does not extend simply to possessions but to time as well. As we have seen from Shukhov's complete concentration over his meals - here, his attempts to concentrate and enjoy his bowl of oatmeal at dinner time - and from the prisoners' enjoyment of the minutes before roll call or work assignments, time is a possession to be hoarded. Time, whether ten years or twenty-five, is what the Soviet government has stolen from these prisoners, and therefore, they seek, through a multitude of small acts, to steal back time for themselves. One way is by claiming, through concentration and pride, their work as their own. Because he prizes time so highly, Shukhov is certain that life in this "special" camp is better than in regular camps. Here, the prisoners are assured that they will only be forced to work for a certain number of hours during the day and that the night will be their own. Nonetheless, despite all this resistance, the all-controlling hand of the Soviet government is felt, when Buinovsky announces the recent decree that the sun now stands the highest at one o'clock. Shukhov's disbelief that the government now seeks to control even the sun demonstrates just how much the government has stolen from the prisoners - time, possessions, even a true understanding of the natural world.