Gary Kern


Many articles have been written on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha). Most of them operate on the thematic level, with only passing reference to the structure of the work. Those that consider the structure concentrate only on certain aspects: the narration, the perspectives, the camp slang. The present paper attempts to combine the two approaches: to analyze the entire work on a structural level and at the same time to reveal how the structure imparts meaning. My interest is not only "how Ivan Denisovich was made," but also "what Ivan Denisovich says." Or better still: how does the work say what it says? Accordingly, after a glance at the overall structure of the work, I will begin with the smallest structural components and proceed to the broader philosophical consequences. [1]

1. The Shape of the Story

The structural framework of One Day is obvious: Ivan Denisovich, an inmate in a Soviet labor camp within the Gulag system, is described from the time of waking to the time of falling asleep. We follow him step by step through his daily routine, witnessing all of his tasks, experiences and thoughts. We see the sun rise and set, the sky change colors, the moon rise, the stars come out. We notice also that the day falls into three periods (before work, work, after work), and that this imparts a "natural" symmetry to the piece: Alyoshka says a prayer in the beginning and at the end, Ivan hides his bread in his mattress in the morning and recovers it at night, Buinovsky is sentenced in the morning and taken to the cooler at night, the men march to work and back from work. The list could be extended, because the parallels are not simply natural but composed. The author places them on each side of the work period, making that period the epicenter of the novella with parallels radiating out from it. Such is the overall scheme of the piece.

Within this scheme, the descriptions are scattered. With very few exceptions, no person or procedure is described to completion in any one passage. Of course, this may happen in any novel, but here the technique is extreme: essential features of a character's appearance, history and personality are cut up and strewn throughout the work in no easily comprehended manner. We have to keep a record of the characters, and even then we cannot visualize them well on a first reading. Such scattering produces an unusual esthetic effect: pleasure is postponed, and confusion and discomfort are provoked. The parcelling of information has another effect: the units of this prison society cannot be comprehended until they are totalled up. And only when they are totalled up can the moral argument become known. It seems likely, in the Soviet context, that this would serve the purpose of baffling censors, but it also corresponds to the impressions of an initiate (the reader) into the labor camp.

The devices of chronology, parallelism and scattering may be observed in the description of the prison camp's conditions. Again, the chronology is most prominent, since it is simply added to bit by bit. A schedule emerges: 5 a.m.--reveille, 6:30 a.m.--roll call, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.--work (shortened winter hours), 9 p.m.--roll call, 10 p.m.--lights out. Parallels fall into place: Ivan's personal tasks--before the morning and evening mess; mess--before the roll calls; friskings and countings---before and after work, etc. But the scattering of information, in this case, acquires something like a reverse movement, a subtraction. The units usually do not add up in a cumulative way, but rather negate what has been given.

2. The Mathematics of Deprivation

It works out something like this: the author first states a condition (e.g., the food ration) along with its rule (e.g., the time to eat) or its limitation (e.g., weight). The reader assumes that this is poor, but at least it's something. Then the author discloses a further limitation (e.g., a cut in the ration) and then still another limitation (e.g., a substitution), so that the reader is left with an impoverished poverty. It's like a bitter joke with not just one punchline but a whole series of "toppers."

For example, the condition of temperature is stated: the zeks (z/k or zaklyuchyonnye, i.e., convicts) have to work when the temperature is higher than 42° below zero (-41 C). However, the camp thermometer is kept in a sheltered spot so the readings will not be too low. A former Hero of the Soviet Union climbs the post to look at the thermometer, taking care not to breathe on it. It reads 17 1/2° below zero (-27 1/2 C)--but then another zek says that the thermometer is always wrong and probably doesn't work anyway.

A similar condition is sick leave: two men are permitted to enter the infirmary in the morning, but they must report for sick leave the previous evening. (p. 20) On this day, as the ailing Ivan Denisovich discovers, one of the two men is not sick, but a spy using this excuse to report to the authorities. (pp. 26, 101) The other, quite possibly, might have bribed his way into the infirmary for a rest. (p. 109) Then again, even if Ivan should manage to get into the infirmary, he would have no rest, since the new doctor believes in making the patients work around the grounds. (p. 22)

The zeks do not have to work in blizzards, but the days lost are made up on Sundays. Sundays are considered days off, but when there are five in one month the zeks must work on two of them. And on the Sundays off they are made to do odd jobs--clean-ups, inspections, check-ups. In short, there are no days off.

The most extended bitter jokes pertain to the food rations. The morning meal is bread, gruel and kasha. The bread ration is a bit more than one pound (550 grams), but is always cut short so the cutter will have some capital. The gruel depends on what vegetable was stored up for the winter, but it is not spooned up from the bottom for the zeks, as the richer portions are saved for others. The 10.5 ounces (300 grams) of kasha are not kasha, but magara, a grass substitute supposedly copied from the Chinese. The daily bread ration for each work gang is set for five days at a time; it depends on the work rates obtained by the gang boss, and these rates are influenced by bribes. Even so, the authorities cheat on one day out of five. Solzhenitsyn gives a precise accounting of the afternoon serving of groats: there are 2.2 pounds (l kilogram) for each gang, with the good fat removed and the bad fat left in. Each man's portion comes to 1.75 ounces (50 grams). Out of this amount, there are cuts for the zeks who carry the cauldron to the mess hall for the cook, cuts for those who carry the bowls, cuts for those who pick up the dirty bowls and carry them to the kitchen, cuts for the sanitary inspector who "tests" the food, cuts for the bowl washers, cuts for thieves and friends of the cook, and a double portion for the gang boss. And sometimes it's not groats, but magara. (pp. 53-55)

Similar jokes are told about the footwear for the zeks, the work rates, the packages from home. The effect of these ironic reductions, naturally, is to increase the feeling of deprivation. In a sense, the entire day of Ivan Denisovich is a bitter joke: it is an excellent day for him, with a number of little successes and unexpected rewards. But if this is an excellent day, the reader can surmise what is a terrible one. As the author jokes in conclusion, there are 3653 days in the 10-year term--the three extra days are for leap years.

Contrary to these reductive ironies, the data on punishment are presented in a straightforward, cumulative manner. The punishment ward is the only brick building in the compound, built by zeks for zeks, with a new wing recently added. (p. 30) A typical sentence for a minor infraction is three days with work as usual. (p. 12) This sentence is bearable: the zek has exercise and is given hot food--he can survive. (p. 12) If one is sentenced without work, he usually is made to work the day first and then thrown in the cooler. (p. 30) He will then be given 6 ounces of bread a day and hot gruel every third day; he will lie freezing at night. Ten days in the cooler will give him tuberculosis and break his health for life. Fifteen days will kill him. (p. 112)

In two instances Solzhenitsyn magnifies the severity of the camp regime by comparisons. The former naval captain Buinovsky converses with the former cameraman Caesar about the film "Potyomkin." Criticizing the director Sergei Eisenstein, he recalls the scene of the rotten meat, then adds that the zeks would be glad to eat it. The emphasis in the scene seems to be on Eisenstein's film techniques, as in a later reference, but actually quite a different point is made: the zeks are in worse condition than the sailors who refused to eat the meat, mutinied and heralded the 1905 Revolution; they are more debased than people under the tsars. [2] The second comparison is made through the character Senka Klevshin. When we first see him, he advises Buinovsky to lay low, stay quiet, play it safe. (p. 40) Later he mentions that he escaped from the Germans three times; he was a hero in Buchenwald and smuggled in arms for an uprising. (p. 52) Again a devastating message is implied: his spirit of resistance has been broken; this Soviet camp is worse for him than the Nazi.

Thus the details of the prison camp's conditions are not thrust upon the reader in a way that will shock, but rather in a way that will cause one to calculate--to add up, subtract and compare. There is not much immediate esthetic pleasure in this process (there are other deterrents as well, such as the camp lingo), but if one goes on calulating, the impression will deepen. The effect of One Day is much greater after the first reading.

3. Motifs of Brutalization

Similar techniques may be found in Solzhenitsyn's treatment of the smallest motifs. While the data examined above relate mainly to physical deprivation, there are other data which concern psychological deprivation and punishment. Again, they are scattered in an inconspicuous way and must be pieced together to achieve the total effect.

The motif of numbers is so carefully composed that it forms a little system. The author introduces his hero by the name of Shukhov, but the first character to address Shukhov--the warder known as the Tatar--calls him by the letter and number on the back of his coat: Shch-854. (This combination was the original title of the novella.) Shukhov gets up from his bunk, and the author by means of parentheses and difficult syntax directs our attention to the numbers:

Shukhov, being in his wadded pants which were not taken off at night (above their left knee was sewn a tattered, dirtied patch and on it was traced in black, already faded paint the number Shch-854), put on his body-warmer (on it were two such numbers--on the chest one and one on the back), picked his felt boots out of the heap on the floor, put on his hat (with the same patch and number in front) and went out behind the Tatar. (pp.12-13)

Later, in the infirmary, Ivan sits across from Kolya Vdovushkin, a young medic (a privileged zek), and notices that he wears a white cap and white gown, and "no numbers are in sight." (p. 20) Ivan reflects that his own numbers need repainting (p. 21) and has them redone before work ( p. 26)--failure to do so might mean the cooler. The guards yell at the zeks on the march to work: "Yu-forty-eight! Hands behind you!" "B-five hundred and two! Draw up!" (p. 32) At work, at the height of his self-sufficiency and self-respect, Ivan is accosted by the foreman Der (also a zek with a number):

"Hey, Shch-eight-hundred and fifty-four," he growled. "Why are you putting on a thin layer of mortar?" (p. 72)

Der addresses the gang boss, it should be noted, by his last name--Tyurin. After work, Ivan and the men are held back by the terrifying mess-hall manager (also a zek): he wears his own white fur hat with no number and a lamb's wool jacket with one tiny number the size of a postage stamp. (p. 98) Finally, the warder Snubnose comes for Buinovsky and calls for him by number; Tyurin tries to stall, he pretends he can't remember the "damned numbers" (nomera sobach'i)--more literally, the "doggish numbers." (p. 111). But Snubnose calls Buinovsky by name, he responds--and is caught for the cooler. From all of this, it is obvious that the numbers dehumanize, and the more prominent the number--the less one's rank in the camp.

The camp officials also humiliate the zeks by their forms of address. Not only do they call them invariably by number, denying them the status of human beings with names, but they also use the familiar form of address (ty)--an intimacy most insulting in this context. The zeks must respond with the polite form (vy) plus the title "citizen commandant" (grazhdanin nachal'nik). (pp. 12, 14-16) By counting and recounting the zeks, the officials emphasize their existence as digits, and by maintaining a superior form of address they reduce the zeks to the level of children. The gang boss (brigadir) also enjoys an unequal form of address: he calls the men ty in the singular and rebyata ("boys, lads, fellows," ete.) in the plural--while they normally address him by vy, plus given name and patronymic. (pp. 10, 77-78) But here the difference in levels of address is based more on respect for the gang boss than on coercion. Within the gang, the zeks address each other ty--they are all in the same boat. In a friendly moment ty will be felt as a welcome familiarity, in an argument--as a denigration. So it does not by itself restore a sense of humanity, though both zeks in a conversation are free to use it.

The use of names is more revealing. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is called "Shukhov" by Buinovsky (who still talks like a captain and calls the men "Red sailors," pp. 80, 12); "Ivan Denisovich" by Pavlo, Gopchik and Alyoshka (a Ukrainian, Benderist and Baptist who respect him, pp. 23, 47, 117); "Denisych" by Caesar (in gratitude for saving his package, p. 110); and "Vanya" by Yan Kildigs (the Latvian named "Iogann Kilgas" in the Soviet text); Ivan reciprocates by calling him "Vanya" as well (p. 42). Thus from "Shch-854" to "Vanya," we see an ascending scale of respect and friendliness. And while one could argue that these forms of address are not invented but "copied from nature," Solzhenitsyn's treatment of them can only be called artistic.With them he designs a whole system of ranks and relationships.

The curse words are the novella's most shocking element, unprecedented in the history of Russian literature: "you fu-u-ck off! Stu-u-pid prick! Cheater! Dirty squealer! Filthy slime! Rotten hunk of meat! ... Bastard! Puke! Rotten turd!" These are the curses which the men hurl out at the Moldavian who kept them waiting in the cold. (p. 84) Such niceties can fill at least five different classes: 1) sex (khren, mat'), 2) excretions (der'mo, blevotina), 3) carrion (sterva, padlo), 4) repulsive people (fitii', pridurok), and 5) animals (gad, suka, svin'ya). The sheer abundance of these vulgarisms may blind us to the fact that everyone uses them and uses them against everyone else. However, if we follow the word gad (snake, vermin, pest, skunk, stinker, stoolie, disgusting person) through the novella, we shall see that such is the case: in the morning a gang boss complains about the gady in the supply room who have cut the rations (p. 11); later the gang boss Tyurin tells how he was arrested as a kulak's son--as a gad (p.63); at work Ivan calls the zek Fetyukov gadskaya krov' or snake's blood (p. 71); at the end of his work he calls the officials gadstvo or vermin (p. 78); at supper he thinks how the zeks--gady--will swipe food from other zeks (p. 103); and at night the first rows of zeks shout at the latecomers to line up quickly--gady! (p. 115). This example demonstrates that everyone curses and is cursed: the curses create an environment of brutalization.

This brutalization is underscored by the metaphorical scheme of the work, based almost entirely on animal images. The zeks in a convoy are driven like a flock (stado) of sheep (p. 30); they are "a black flock of zeks" (p. 86), a flock of calves (pp. 115-116). They are driven by guards with dogs (sobakovody s sobakami, p. 31) and are themselves often compared to dogs (sobaki): Der (a zek foreman) treats them "worse than dogs" (p. 37), the Captain "barks" (gavknul, p. 39), they freeze like dogs (p. 42), they act like dogs--"you need only show a beaten dog the whip" (p. 46), the Muscovites "smell each other out like dogs" (p. 96). The convoy guards are also considered dogs (p. 85) and are said to bark (88); even Sergei Eisenstein is said to have executed a command like a dog (zakaz sobach'i vypolnil). A tough man, however, may achieve the dignity of a wolf: the gang boss Kuzyomin (p. 10) and the gang boss Tyurin (after scaring Der, p. 74). The zeks, enraged by the absent Moldavian, want to tear him apart "like wolves tear apart a calf." (p. 83) But most wolfish of all is the disciplinary officer Volkovoi, whose name means "wolf howl." (p. 28) A weak zek or scavenger, however, is called a jackal (shakal), and the act of scavenging is called "jackling" (shakalit'). (p. 58). This term of abuse follows Fetyukov through the novella like a heroic epithet. (pp. 26, 55, 64,85) There are other derogatory animal images: the hateful Der is a bloodsucker and a pig's snout (pp. 72, 73), the rapacious storeroom guard is a rat (p. 108) and the frightened Moldavian is a little mouse (p. 84). In one case the animal images are endearing: Ivan, who has lost a son, is very fond of young Gopchik: the boy is playfully compared, in various passages, to a suckling pig, a calf, a squirrel and a baby goat. (pp. 42, 47,55) As for Ivan, he has a "snout" (p. 37) and his face-cover is a "muzzle" (p. 36), but he has never been a "jackal" (p. 107); he moves like a squirrel (p. 47), sees with the eyes of a falcon (p. 107) and runs to the extra portion he has earned for supper "like a free bird" (p. 97).

The zeks at work are compared to horses (p. 75) or to mules (p. 74), and afterwards they are lined up like horses (p. 92). At supper they swoop down on any unfinished bowl like a bunch of vultures. (p. 102) On the way out of the barracks to the night count they move like bears. (p. 113) All of these examples emphasize their subhuman condition. The author's treatment of the motif, as well as that of cursing, is illustrated by the following passage:

Heh, now they were streaming down! The zeks were streaming down from the porch!

That's the barracks senior and the supervisor kicking them in the backsides! Give it to 'em, the beasts!

"Wel1?" the first lines shout at them. "Are you going to line up, you snakes? What are you doing, trying to whip cream out of shit? You should have come out a long time ago--we would have been counted a long time ago." (p. 115)

The last motif we will consider is that of the law (zakon). The zeks, almost to a man imprisoned on false charges, must master new concepts of the law. Ivan recalls the words of an old camp wolf:

"The law here, boys, is the taiga. But people can still live here. In a camp the guy who croaks is the guy who licks bowls, the guy who depends on the infirmary and the guy who raps at the door of the godfather." (p. 10) [The last phrase refers to a squealer--GK.]

This law serves Ivan well; he knows what to avoid. And so long as he follows the rules of the camp, he will earn his rightful (zakonnaya) gruel. (pp. 100, 103) He knows the rule (zakon) for disciplinary work: do it and leave. (p. 14) He knows also how to earn a rest legitimately (zakonno) by bending the rules. (p. 50) While resting, he recalls the law of this camp (a "special" camp) and the law of his previous camp (a regular camp): here the work day ends with the signal, there the commandant had his own law--work into the night until the job was finished. Here you wear numbers; there you didn't--but "the numbers don't weigh anything." (p. 50) However, the law of this camp is not always the same as the Soviet law, as the Captain discovers when he complains of his treatment and refers to the Criminal Code. (p. 29) And neither law is reliable: when your sentence is up, you may get another. "The law can be twisted any way you like," thinks Ivan. (p. 50) But the Soviet law is omnipotent. By a directive, as the Captain explains, it has established that the sun is highest at one o'clock, not noon. (p. 50) This offends Ivan, a peasant accustomed to telling the time by the sky. But he has no recourse: the camp sets the schedule and prohibits clocks and watches. (p. 114) And the camp searchlights blot out the early morning and late night heavens. (pp. 13, 114) Thus the Soviet and prison camp laws conspire to control the miserable zek.

4. The Moral Scale of Gulag

The motifs examined here, by their consistency and their wealth of detail, establish the social and economic conditions of the camp. Within these conditions, the zeks must struggle for physical and spiritual survival. They must satisfy the laws of the camp to survive; they have a degree of choice in their method of survival. The more they oppress or deprive others to survive, the more they degrade themselves. The more they achieve self-sufficiency and even helpfulness to others, the more they gain dignity and self-respect. Solzhenitsyn alerts the reader to this moral scale early in the novella:

On the outside the work gang was all the same, in identical black jackets with the same numbers, but on the inside there was quite a difference--different levels, like steps. You wouldn't put Buinovsky to sit down with your bowl, and even Shukhov wouldn't take any work, some was beneath him. (p. 17)

By adding up the data supplied on each man, we can construct the moral scale for work gang 104. The gang boss Tyurin, a nineteen-year "son of Gulag," big and tough, with a weather-beaten, pock-marked face, knows the camp through and through and manages to get the best work sites and quotas for his men. "In a camp the gang boss is everything," thinks Ivan: "a good boss will give you a new lease on life, a bad boss will send you out in a wooden jacket" (camp expression for a coffin). (p. 36). On this day, Tyurin has obtained a good site--an unfinished heat and electric power plant (TETS), which has not been worked for two months. The gang will work here for the next five days, where the first floor, already finished, will provide protection from the cold. The less fortunate gang 64 will be sent to dig the foundations for a Socialist Community (Sotsgorodok) on open, frozen ground. Tyurin's usefulness to his men is thus demonstrated, and he deserves respect. He also works well, giving proper commands and laying the bricks expertly. Yet his method of survival brings certain privileges. He obtains sites and quotas by means of bribes--fatback from the men's packages. With such "gifts" from the men (of which he receives a portion), he can afford to give his extra portion of mush to Pavlo and to avoid the overcrowded mess hall (it can contain two gangs, but must serve eleven). His meals are carried to him, which is against the rules and a risk to the carrier. Tyurin is a worthy man, but he holds onto rank and privilege. Pavlo, the assistant gang boss, is a diminutive Tyurin: he directs things and gets the boss's extra portion. [3]

Caesar (Tsesar) Markovich, a recipient of two packages a month, is a rich man: he can avoid the harsh realities. He bribes his way into an office job (assistant to the work allocator) and so escapes the cold. With his bribes, he can sport a furry cap and a bushy moustache (to match his civilian photo); he can smoke "to awaken powerful thought in himself and to let it find some outlet" (p.27); he can discourse on Eisenstein's films while other zeks wait for his cigarette butts. Like Tyurin, he eschews the mess hall--his food is brought to him. He is, in fact, oblivious to the life about him and very nearly loses his own source of privilege: his package. At the night check Ivan saves it from robbery not once, but twice--the first time for a reward, the second time out of pity. Caesar does perform a vital function for the gang--he supplies fatback and juggles the work sheets (p. 62)--but his inner worth is minimal. His brilliant thoughts are mere escapism, founded entirely on gifts from home. And we do not know the expense of these gifts to Caesar's family on the outside.

Even further divorced from camp reality is Caesar's favorite interlocutor, Captain Buinovsky (Shch-311). The Captain's failing is his belief in Soviet legality, as opposed to the laws of the camp; he blames the English admiral who sent him a gift, not Soviet law, for his arrest. (p. 86). Buinovsky not only cites the criminal code to the friskers, as we have seen, earning himself ten days in the cooler (i.e., TB and broken health for life), but he follows the Soviet clock, concerns himself with physical explanations of the temperature and the moon, and continues to talk to the men as to sailors. Even without the cooler, he appears doomed. As a forty-year old "greenhorn," three months in the camp, with no packages and a twenty-five-year term, he has nothing to squander and too much to learn. At the construction site, he doesn't know how to pace himself; he works himself into a sweat and to exhaustion. He reminds Ivan of a cart-horse which was taken by the collective farm, worked to death and skinned. (p. 76) When, at the end of the day, Buinovsky pipes up in answer to his name, stupidly turning himself in for the cooler, the author comments: "the quick louse is always the first to get caught in the comb." (p. 112) Solzhenitsyn originally intended this portrait to be comical, before he "lightened" the work for publication. [4] As the work stands, Buinovsky is a picture of utter hopelessness: he survives neither physically nor spiritually; he is useless to himself and very nearly to others.

It may be noted that Caesar (an ironic name) and Buinovsky (the name in Russian suggests impetuosity) have their bunks across from each other, beneath Alyoshka and Ivan respectively. These four bunks are attached together in a unit, called a vagonka ("little coach" or "little sleeper"). The lower level of this sleeper is characterized by intellectual conversation, dilettantism, escapism. The upper level is characterized by blunt need, self-respect (Ivan) and religious faith (Alyoshka). Thus the spiritual scale would seem to apply to the bunks. [5] At any rate, an anti-intellectual tendency proceeds straight through the novella. Ivan regards the Moscow intellectuals who discuss theatrical events in the capital with his own brand of condescension: they "sniff each other out like dogs" and babble with words that seem to him more "like Latvian or Roumanian" than Russian. (p. 96) Actually, they speak standard literary Russian. Ivan's down-to-earth perspective is sharply contrasted to the intellectuals in the brief scene of his visit to barracks 7:

Shukhov waited until everyone began talking his own thoughts again (they were arguing about the war in Korea: since the Chinese had supposedly entered, would there be a world war or not), leaned toward the Latvian:

"Any home-grown?"


"Let's see." (pp. 105-106)

Ivan interests himself in the immediate possibility of tobacco rather than in the distant possibility of war.

Other members of gang 104 find their own methods of survival. Van Kildigs, a Latvian who has served only two of his twenty-five years, is the high-spirited friend of Ivan: he receives two packages a month, which keep him rosy-faced and merry. But unlike Caesar, he does not avoid work. Gopchik, the endearing Bendera partisan, gobbles up his packages in secret, but also works. The two Estonians share everything equally, stay together, constantly speak in low voices to each other. Alyoshka the Baptist, serving twenty-five years for his religious beliefs, survives on faith alone: he receives no packages, finagles no extra portions, works hard, prays in the morning and at night.

The moral scale touches rock bottom in the detailed portrait of Fetyukov the scavenger (shakal). [6] This man was once a supervisor in an office, but when arrested he was disowned by his three children and abandoned by his wife, who remarried. (p. 39) He had to face camp without work experience and without outside help. The method he chose (or developed) is the most debasing: begging for cigarette butts, picking old butts from the spittoon, trying to swipe other men's bowls, malingering at work, perhaps even informing on the men. For his efforts, he is detested, denied extra portions, reviled, pushed in the back, punched in the mouth. As a suspected squealer, he risks having his throat slit while he sleeps. (p. 52). Ivan believes he won't live out his term--"he doesn't know how to hold himself" (p. 109); yet he has served the same time as Ivan--eight years. On the same low level as Fetyukov is Panteleev the squealer (suka), who deprived Ivan of admission into the infirmary. (pp. 26, 101)

Having accounted for his work mates, Ivan's survival method may now be evaluated. Solzhenitsyn describes this method on the first page of the novella:

Shukhov never slept through reveille, he always got up with it--there was about an hour and a half of his own time, not state time, before the march to work, and the man who knew camp life could always work for something (podrabotat'): sew someone a cover for his mittens out of old lining; deliver a rich gang boss's dry felt boots right to his bunk, so he wouldn't have to hobble in his bare feet around the pile and pick them out; or run over to the supply rooms and serve someone or other, sweep or carry something; or go to the dining room to collect the bowls from the tables and carry them in heaps to the dishwasher... (p. 9)

And toward the end of the book:

Money came Shukhov's way only from his private work (chastnaya rabota): you sew up slippers from the scraps given to you--two rubles, you patch up a jacket--that's done by contract. (p. 105)

Ivan's method, then, is working for others, performing services. On this day, we see him serve Caesar: he stands in line for him, brings him his bread, lends him a knife and saves his package. Completing his task, he never asks for recompense, but knows that he deserves it. (p. 107) And, it should be noted, he does not always want payment--he saves Caesar's package the second time out of pity, and he gives Alyoshka a cookie for nothing. This method is dignified, for Ivan has voluntarily renounced packages, not wishing to take food from his wife and children. (p. 94) He confronts the hardship of the camp with only his wits and by his private work makes a fair exchange to satisfy his material needs. By his work for the gang, as we shall see, he gives more than he receives and satisfies his spiritual need.

The moral scale for work gang 104 might be arranged as follows: Ivan and Alyoshka stand at the top, Fetyukov and Panteleev dwell at the bottom. Of those in between, Buinovsky and Caesar fall near the bottom, Tyurin and Kildigs come near the top. Of course, these categories are not absolute: Buinovsky is a good man and Caesar has his usefulness. But the different levels under the black jackets are carefully drawn as human choices within brutal conditions.

The struggle for physical and spiritual survival does not stop with gang 104. The gang functions as a unit; the quotas it receives determine the amount of food each member will get (which makes Fetyukov's sloppy work so damnable), while the sites it obtains may displace another gang. On the level of the gangs, another standard is in effect. One gang cannot help another; it can only compete. Ivan cannot alter this and can only feel sorry for gang 64. Therefore, he looks with compassion and respect at Yu-81, an old member of that gang, who sits erect and dignified at supper--unbroken, unhurried, wise. Yu-81 retains the final human freedom--to choose the attitude toward his own suffering. [7] By his manners and wooden spoon, it is clear that Yu-81 is Ivan's future, should Ivan be given another term (p. 104)--and no one has yet been freed from this camp (p. 29). But such reflections are brief. When one gang competes against another, it is dog-eat-dog, as the race back to the camp after the work clearly illustrates. (pp. 87-88) [8]

The work gangs themselves are managed by another type of zek: the collaborator. We have already seen the milder type--the painter, the medic; and the crueler type--Stepan Grigorevich (the new doctor who believes in "work" for the patients), Der (B-731) and the mess-hall manager. There are other representatives: Shkurapatenko (B-219)--a watchman, Clubfoot--a mess hall orderly, the "invalid" criminal (he has one finger missing)--a barracks trusty, Pryakha--Volkovoi's deputy. These men stand higher in rank, lower in moral worth. They oppress fellow zeks in return for privileges.

In between the collaborators and the highest echelons we find the camp guards--officials, but sharing some of the cold and deprivation of the zeks. To be sure, they terrorize the zeks with their dogs and machine guns, and they torment the zeks with their extra counts, but they too run certain risks. If a zek is reported missing and not recovered, the guard must take his place. If the guard counts one too many, he may have to become the additional man. There is a degree of symbiosis between guards and zeks. The guards permit the zeks to pick up pieces of wood at the construction sites and carry them back to camp, because they take a percentage of the wood for themselves. The warders also take a percentage during the frisking. If the percentage rises too high, the zeks will stop picking up the wood. If the percentage stays low, all three get extra fuel for the stoves. The zeks can also punish the guards for taking too long with the count: they can march slowly and keep the guards longer in the cold.

This brings us to the top officials, who have the highest rank and the concomitant lowest worth. It is they who get the extra portions, the bribes, the benefits from the quotas:

But figure it out--who were all these quotas for? For the camp. The camp raked in extra thousands from the construction, and it wrote out bonuses for its lieutenants. Like Volkovoi, for his whip. But you get your extra 7 ounces (200 grams) of bread in the evening. Seven ounces (200 grams) controls your life. On seven ounces (200 grams) the White Sea Canal was built." (pp. 46-47) [9]

The lowest human being--the commandant of the camp--remains a shadowy figure: he does not appear in person. And the subhuman monster, the head of the entire system, Stalin, is not mentioned by name. Solzhenitsyn intentionally did not refer to him in the first version but, giving in to a suggestion, allowed a zek to say: "So the old man with the moustache will have mercy on you! He wouldn't believe his own brother, let alone slobs like you!" (p. 106) [10]

5. The Value of Work

Ivan's work on the wall is the high point of the novella. It is the moment of his greatest necessity--the moment in which all the conditions of the camp are expressed in compulsory labor. And it is the moment of his greatest freedom--the moment in which he can exercise his ability and take joy in his accomplishment. This scene, appearing in the third quarter of the novella, brings the theme of work to a climax, after which there is a return to familiar material--a mirror-image of the first part (return to camp, barracks, roll call). Consequently, the bricklaying scene, unlike the others we have examined, is not merely one in a line to be calculated for its cumulative or subtractive effect, but rather the culmination and justification of the series, prepared for by the scattered references to work.

Ivan's attitude toward work is shown in the opening scenes. Having been caught lying in his bunk after reveille (he is feeling sick), Ivan is threatened by the Tatar with the cooler, but is ordered instead to scrub the floor for the warders. Thanking the Tatar for this lenient punishment (the real purpose of the arrest), Ivan sets to work with alacrity: "Now that Shukhov had been given some work, it was as if he had stopped aching." (p. 14) His scrubbing, however, disturbs the conversation of the warders, who revile him with derogatory remarks about his wife and zeks in general: "We ought to feed them shit." (p.16) Here Ivan reflects: "Work is like a stick, it has two ends: if you're doing it for the people--make it good, if you're doing it for an official--make it a show." [11] This decided, Ivan hastily slops the water around on the floor and clears out. But not before he takes revenge on the warders by throwing the leftover water on the walkway for the officials, where it will freeze into an ice slick.

The theme of work continues with the scene in the infirmary, where Ivan hopes to get sick leave. Here he encounters the young assistant Vdovushkin, since the doctors, being privileged, are still asleep. Vdovushkin is busy writing, but Ivan realizes from the even lines, each beginning with a capital letter, that this is not "work" (rabota), but "something on the side" (a po levoi)--it's a poem. (p. 20) Ivan is given a thermometer (probably under his arm) and sits down on a bench, feeling out of place in the clean, white, quiet infirmary. He has five whole minutes with nothing to do. He muses that the new doctor Stepan Grigorevich does not let the patients rest; he gives them groundwork as therapy, not remembering that "work has killed many a horse." (p. 22) Yet this same doctor encourages Vdovushkin to write poetry which could not be written outside the camp--this is the "work" he encourages. The distinction between free creative work and enforced labor is clearly made in the scene, as well as the duplicity of the doctor, the unequal privilege of his orderly and the disadvantage of Ivan who must leave the warmth of the infirmary.

In a later scene Ivan's attitude toward work is elaborated into a philosophy. As the column of men march to the work site, the author inserts Ivan's recollections of home, suggesting but not stating that these are his thoughts as he marches. Ivan is disturbed by his wife's letters informing him of the ruin of the collective farm. The young people flee the village, the war veterans find other work and the oldtimers do the hard labor, especially the old women. The villagers have given up the carpentry for which they were once famed (Ivan is a carpenter) and have taken up a bogus type of work--painting cheap carpets from stencils acquired during the war (perhaps from Germany). The "work" is minimal, the product flashy, the price exorbitant. Bribes have to be paid to the police, underhanded arrangements made with the collective farm. This illegal and phony work upsets Ivan. Be wants to find "true work" (vernaya rabota) when he finishes his term, yet fears that he will not be permitted to return to his village and may have to take up such shady dealings after all. His point of view is spelled out: "Easy money doesn't weigh anything, and you don't have that feeling that you have actually earned it. The oldtimers put it right: what you don't pay for, you don't get good use from." (p. 35) From the entire passage we learn two things: the collective farm is disintegrating (Ivan recalls the bountiful food before the system was enforced), and Ivan holds values not shared by his society--values of an older time.

These values obviously are not shared by the camp officials, whose indifferent attitude to the conditions of work actually constitutes an obstacle to its proper performance. On this particular day the work site for gang 104 is a power plant for a future city; the plant has not been worked on for two months and so stands covered with ice. The beginning of the work day, therefore, must be taken up with preparation for the work itself. Tyurin orders various members of the gang to clear away the snow and ice and start a stove going inside the completed first floor (the generator room). He sends Ivan and Kildigs to find something to cover up the windows. Taking a risk, the two must "steal" some roofing felt from another site and carry it between themselves so as not to be seen by the distant zek watchman Shkurapatenko. Once they bring the felt to the plant, Ivan--demonstrating his worth in all phases of work--directs the cutting of the felt, fixes the flues of the stove and supervises the attaching of the flue to the hole in the felt. This preparation is necessary not only to provide warmth for the men, but also to melt snow for mixing with the dry cement and to keep the resulting mortar from freezing. The cement mixer, as might be expected, is defective, and the hoist to the second floor, where Ivan, Klevshin, Tyurin and Kildigs will lay bricks, is broken. Ivan therefore constructs a stepladder and helps in the making of hods for the mortar.

But still not all the obstacles are overcome. In the camp a worker cannot depend on good or proper tools, since the tools are collected each night and distributed at random in the morning. Ivan defeats this practice by fetching his own good trowel, which he has previously "stolen" and hidden near the work site. Next he must hack the ice off of the wall where he will lay bricks and put up a levelling string in the freezing wind. He also must instruct Klevshin in these matters, a difficult enterprise since Klevshin is half-deaf. Third, Ivan notices that the previous bricklayer has done a faulty job, and so he must re-lay three rows of bricks and correct various weak spots. Now, finally, he is prepared to work, but there will be two additional obstacles. The first is the foreman Der, who will threaten the gang because of the stolen felt. He will also advise Ivan to lay on the mortar more thickly: Ivan must explain that the extra mortar would freeze and the building would crumble with the spring thaw. And the final obstacle, ironically, is the abrupt end of the work period, which does not coincide with the usage of the mortar and forces the choice: either to ditch the mortar or risk being late for the count.

With these details the author has drawn a heroic situation. The task set before the hero is a piece of mundane work: bricklaying. But to perform this work, he must oppose not only the dehumanizing conditions of the camp, undernourishment, exhaustion and freezing weather, but also a series of specific obstacles no less momentous than the dragons on the path of a knight errant. It should be noted that three of these obstacles--the roofing felt, the trowel and the delayed return to the count--risk punishment by the cooler, weakened health and possibly death. Moreover, these obstacles are part of a fairly typical day (actually a good day), and the hero must overcome such obstacles for ten years. By detailing so many obstacles within the span of a short narrative, Solzhenitsyn gives the effect of constant difficulty, constant strain.

Another point should be noted: Ivan opposes the natural incentives of his environment. The work rates insist on quantity, but not quality: it would be easier for Ivan to perform like the previous bricklayer. He could use any old tool and he could dump the extra mortar at the end of the day, as indeed Tyurin advises him to do. But he risks his life to do good work, to preserve his own source of dignity. The argument here is not so explicitly stated, but it is the same as the theme of faithfulness in The First Circle: Marxism claims that "being determines consciousness," but Nerzhin's faithfulness to Nadya, counter to all the incentives and inducements of the prison, disproves this contention. [12] Likewise, Ivan's self-conscious work is not determined by the camp conditions, but runs counter to them.

The work on the wall, once begun, proceeds at a furious pace. Ivan must lay the bricks with unerring accuracy, as they immediately freeze in place, and he must use precisely the right amount of mortar for the same reason. Simultaneously, he must keep an eye on Klevshin, who is working the other end of the wall, so that their work will join. The hod carriers must run to the wall, and the bricklayers (Tyurin and Kildigs work the other wall) must use up the mortar as fast as possible, as it quickly freezes. A truckload of new bricks arrives and must be furnished to the bricklayers. Der shows up and complains. An electrician comes to fix the hoist while the foreman stands and watches. This frenetic activity contrasts sharply with the prolonged march to the site, the preparations for work and the break for lunch: the reader cannot help but read faster and be thrilled by the acceleration.

Within this work narrative, the author develops the moral scale of his characters. We see Fetyukov, the former factory manager, sloughing off at the expense of the gang: he is assigned to toss bricks up to the second floor so that his work can be measured. The intellectual Captain exhausts himself. The believer Alyoshka cheerfully takes over Fetyukov's work of carrying hods without any ill effects: for the Baptists the camp is "like water off a duck's back." (p. 35) And Ivan, who works himself into a sweat, ceases to feel his sickness or the cold. (pp. 70,87,121) While working, he rises in importance to the level of a gang boss: "A man who works hard becomes something like a gang boss over his mates." (pp. 70-71) Ivan even addresses Tyurin by the familiar "ty" form--he has become his equal. (p. 78) The heroic task of honest work (in a dishonest world) has its immediate rewards.

But Solzhenitsyn's argument is mainly a spiritual one: Ivan does not work for immediate rewards. To demonstrate this point, Solzhenitsyn constructs a situation free from any utilitarian benefit, one which epitomizes Ivan's spiritual contradiction to the pressures of his environment. This occurs at the end of the work period. Ivan is finishing his fifth row of bricks, the activity of the entire gang has converged on this work, but they must immediately run back for the counting. Tyurin tells them to dump the remaining mortar ("Ekh, who cares about that shit!" p. 76), but Ivan does not want to waste it. He tells the others to turn in their tools and leave him to finish the row with his extra trowel--Klevshin can hand him the bricks. Everyone leaves but the two. Ivan finishes up, and Klevshin runs down the ladder with the hod. Ivan is alone. There is not a moment to spare, no work to be done, and yet he remains:

But Shukhov, even if the convoy guards should set the dogs after him now, ran back over the floor, took a look. Not bad. Now he ran right up--and along the wall, from the left, from the right. Heh, an eye like a water-level! Even! The hand hasn't gotten too old. (p. 78)

This scene may be called an epiphany--the moment in which Ivan's nature and the argument of the book are most fully revealed. For this single, dangerous moment of self-congratulation, Ivan has had to oppose all obstacles, work superbly and again endanger his life. No one gives him this moment; no one would even permit him to take it. He must seize it for himself as the most precious moment of his day--the moment which preserves his spirit and consequently his self. [13]

6. Work and Alienation

Ivan's honest work and his last look at the wall have relevance to one of the crucial concepts of Marxism: the theory of the alienation of labor. The young Marx wrote:

The worker puts his life into the object, and his life then belongs no longer to himself but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the less he possesses. What is embodied in the product of his labor is no longer his own. The greater this product is, therefore, the more he is diminished. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, assumes an external existence, but that it appears independently, outside himself and alien to him, and that it stands opposed to him as an autonomous power. The life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force. [14]

Marx was speaking, of course, of contemporary capitalist society in which a worker must sell his labor for wages and be deprived of its surplus value, yet these words should apply with even more force to labor-camp conditions. Here a worker must labor for subsistence or below-subsistence returns, and failure to labor brings swift punishment from the exploiters (the camp officials) or one's fellow workers (the gang). These are conditions of slave labor experienced by men who once worked in the outer society: Ivan worked in the village before and after the revolution. Certainly these men should be alienated from their labor. They can understand that the more they put into it the more they take out of themselves, the more they may be expected to do and the more the officials will profit.

Accordingly, we can draw a scale of alienation, just as we drew a scale of morality. Clearly Fetyukov is the most alienated. He cares neither about his work nor his mates. Caesar is alienated from the regular work to the point of escaping it, but seems happy in his niche and performs a useful function for his mates. The Captain is as unskilled as Fetyukov or Caesar, but he neither malingers nor escapes the work gang. He puts more effort into his work and draws more dignity out of it. Tyurin is a hard and valuable worker, but his attitude contains a large measure of calculation as shown by his readiness to dump the mortar and bury it when the work period ends. Most of the the men under him work for the boss and the gang. The two Vanyas--Kildigs and Shukhov--take pride in their bricklaying skill and are the closest of all to their labor. As we have seen, Ivan Denisovich makes a vital distinction: if the work is for the officials (the exploiters)--make it a show; if it is for the people (the exploited--other zeks or citizens) give quality. (16) So although the wall is a product forcibly wrenched out of him, since he would not willingly lay bricks in these conditions, he regards his work as useful to the future residents of the future town, useful to his mates who will get their rations and useful to himself for his health and his own rations. This aspect of his work might be called utilitarian, inasmuch as it involves a calculation of material or physical benefit. But also, as we have seen, Ivan identifies with his work: he works on the wall "as if it were his own." (68) He delights in his skill and rejoices in the beauty of the product. With his last look at the wall, Ivan confirms himself as a good worker and derives dignity and spiritual strength therefrom. This aspect of his work can only be called spiritual in that it is quality freely given, without calculation or coercion, and apparently without alienation. Obviously this contradicts the theory of Marx, which assumes that one can realize himself in his labor--that one is not alienated--only when he can use his product or exchange it at a fair rate--in other words, when the worker himself has control over his product of labor. [15]

How can we reconcile this difference? Are these merely two opposite assertions--Marx's and Solzhenitsyn's--or are there possibilities for further analysis? Let us attempt to define more precisely the nature of alienation. On the one hand, there is objective or sociological alienation; on the other, subjective or psychological alienation. Objective alienation is determined by an analysis of the relations between men in their labor. If a worker is exploited in economic terms, we should say that he is alienated from his labor, whether or not he is conscious of it. He may even be happy with his job and agree that the situation is proper, in which case we may say, following Marxist thinking, that he experiences "false consciousness." The person who determines objective alienation is the social analyst. Subjective alienation is felt by the worker: he feels foreign to his work, unfulfilled, coerced. He puts more interest in his hobbies, entertainments and things away from work, and he feels more like a man when off the job. The judge of subjective alienation is the worker himself, though he may feel out of sorts without knowing why, in which case the social analyst again determines.

From what exactly is the worker alienated? Marx makes three distinctions: The worker is alienated from 1) his own activity, which is not perceived as an internal need, but rather as a means to satisfying other needs; 2) the product of his labor, which is expropriated from him and stands opposed to him as an alien thing with an independent power; 3) other men engaged in this alienating activity and therefore from real human life. Ultimately, the worker is alienated from himself, since he cannot realize himself in his labor and in loving social relations. [16]

Applying these distinctions, we can readily see that Ivan satisfies the criteria of objective alienation. He is thoroughly exploited--it is ridiculous in his case even to speak of labor relations. The conditions are brutal. The regulations are cruel. The interests of the worker do not exist. His needs as a human being are ignored. He is treated as a caged animal and forced to produce. A greater degree of objective alienation is barely imaginable.

And yet, when we look carefully at the relations which Solzhenitsyn has described, we see a more subtle form of alienation. Ivan is not alienated from his activity, nor from his product, but only from the other men. And he is alienated from them not simply because they steal from him or compete against him or treat him as a brute, but rather the reverse: they are the brutes and he is the human. They are the participants in shoddy work; they are determined by their circumstance. But Ivan overcomes his circumstance and works as a craftsman, and this alienates him objectively from the others. Ivan, in fact, is alien to the entire society, both in the camp and without. He is alien to a so--called socialist state which has abolished internally motivated labor and set up obstacles against it. In this state, alienation of labor occurs not only through expropriation of labor but also through the enforcement of an external plan, whether it be in the labor camp or in the collective farm. Ivan stands opposed to this system and all who live by it--from Fetyukov to the carpet painters to the old man with the moustache in Moscow. [17]

This does not make Ivan a so-called "individualist," an alienated being with a hateful and superior attitude toward others. Although he has a singular role in the novella, the features of his portrayal mark him as an "ordinary" man, a simple honest worker. Among the responses which Solzhenitsyn received from prisoners who read the novella, one commented on the factual accuracy of the author and added: "I also knew Shukhov under another name. There was one like him in every work gang!" [18] In effect, by this portrayal of an ordinary man, Solzhenitsyn has turned the Marxist formula upside-down: it is not Ivan or anyone like him who is alienated from this society, but the society which is alienated from him. His is the positive force, enacted regardless of circumstances. It is the society, not Ivan, which has failed its human potential. It is this society which experiences "false consciousness."

Therefore it is quite natural that Ivan escapes subjective alienation entirely. One writer has listed five states of subjective, or psychological alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation and self-estrangement. [19] Ivan does not experience any one of these states. He feels powerful when working on the wall; he finds meaning in a good job; he makes his own norms despite chaotic conditions; he overcomes isolation by directing the gang, and he realizes himself in his self-congratulation. And yet, let us remember, he is in a concentration camp, working under extreme duress. How does he achieve this miracle of non-alienation? Is this only a fictional dream?

I think the answer lies in the insufficiency of Marx's theory--which, after all, is no less a fictional construct than Solzhenitsyn's novella. Marx assumes that man makes himself in his work and that this work is essentially practical, utilitarian. In this view of man's "praxis," Marx eliminated man's spiritual needs: he did not conceive of artful performance as a human need apart from any material benefit; he neglected the realm of man's thought and activity which requires no utilitarian motive; he forgot about the sense of wonder and joy which comes from no calculation. Surely man is alienated by systems of exploitation, but he alienates himself when he accedes to pure practicality. A man makes himself by the totality of his physical and spiritual life, and anything that prevents its expression may alienate him. Complete alienation would be total external control. Solzhenitsyn, in his portrait of Ivan Denisovich, and especially in his description of Ivan's celebration of labor, reminds us of man's power to realize himself, whatever his circumstance. [20]

Let us consider another aspect of alienation--religious alienation. From a Marxist viewpoint, it would be natural for Ivan to seek escape from his oppressive circumstance by the projection of his own thwarted potential onto an imaginary onmipotent being and the expectation of a reward in a fictional afterlife. But Ivan refuses this escape: he cannot believe in heaven and hell--no doubt, because the prison camp is hell enough. He rejects the church because of the dissolute behavior of his village priest. And he regards prayers, with some irony, as no different from the notes put in the barracks complaint box: either they don't get there or they come back marked "rejected." (117) Yet he does believe in God: in facetious conversations with the Captain, he claims that God thunders in the sky and breaks the moon up into stars. And more seriously, when he hopes to get past the final frisking with a piece of steel in his mitten, he prays to himself: "Lord! Save me! Don't give me the cooler!" (91) He doesn't thank God after the frisk, but he does at the end of the day: Glory to God, another day has passed, and he has escaped the cooler. (117) From these episodes we may conclude that Ivan has a basic faith in God and calls on him when in danger, but does not rely on religion to help him through the normal course of the day. It is his work and his services which perform this function, as well as his camp cunning. In this sense, Ivan is not alienated--estranged from his environment or himself--by his belief in God. For him, God helps those who help themselves.

We must remember, however, that One Day was originally a Soviet text. It would have been impossible to draw a hero as a Christian believer and expect to publish the work. Ivan's superstitions, criticisms of the priest and irony about prayers fall well within acceptable Soviet practice and serve to undercut his religious beliefs. They also seem to refute the utterances of his bunk-mate, Alyoshka. It is only from other works of Solzhenitsyn that we can understand that Alyoshka's message is very close to the heart of the author: "If you will keep your faith and say to the mountain-move!--it will move." (117) And again: "Rejoice that you are in prison! Here you have time to think of your soul! Paul the Apostle said: 'What mean you to weep and to break my heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.'" (119) [21] Needless to say, the author rejects outright the whole notion of religious alienation. He is closer to the traditional, pre-Marxist understanding of alienation as a separation from God. [22]

7. Work and Oppression

But a problem still remains. Even if we accept the argument that Ivan does not alienate himself in his labor and does not seek escape in religion, can we overlook the fact that he benefits the system? He is treated as a slave and yet returns quality work. Whatever the value to his self-esteem as a skilled worker, he produces for a state which robs and degrades him. In a sense, he perpetuates the system by overcoming its injustices. This would seem to be self-alienating, in the sense that it helps those who mean to crush him. On the other hand, a renunciation of his work-ethic would diminish his own self-esteem and alienate him from his labor. Ivan appears to be caught in a paradoxical situation, where the only choice is self-alienation.

This is by no means a semantic problem, but a real and vital issue to anyone attempting to survive in conditions of coercive labor. Bruno Bettelheim, in his account of experiences in Nazi concentration camps, relates the following story about forty Jewish workers in Buchenwald:

The group, made up of Jewish political prisoners, decided at the beginning of the war that with the shortage of steel, concrete, etc., the camp command would soon return to using bricks for its buildings. They managed to be assigned to the bricklayers' command, and since skilled bricklayers were scarce they were considered unexpendable throughout the war. While nearly all other Jews were destroyed, most of this command was alive on the day of liberation. Had they served the SS poorly, they would have served themselves not at all. But had they taken professional pride in their bricklaying skill, without continuing to hate having to work for the SS, their inner resistance might have died, and they with it. [23]

Here we may note a difference and a similarity. The difference between Buchenwald and Ivan's camp is that in the latter good workmen are not valued by the officials: they assign anyone of any qualification to do any work at any time. The similarity is that Ivan has the same attitude as the Jews because he takes pride in his skill and hates the officials who make him work. He is "a slave on the outside and on the inside, a warrior." [24] But the question of the benefit to the system remains, and we return to Bettelheim:

In order to gain self-respect, some prisoners tried to work well. They did not usually admit it but would rationalize their behavior somehow, as by saying that what prisoners produced served all German citizens and not just the SS...

When erecting buildings for the Gestapo, controversies would begin over whether one should build well. New prisoners were for sabotaging, a majority of the old prisoners for building well. Again it was rationalized that the new Germany would have use for the buildings. They also rationalized that regardless of who might finally enjoy the product of their labor, it was important to work well "in order to feel like a man"; or else they retired to the general statement that one ought to do well any job one had to do. (202)

The question of sabotage is not raised in One Day. Ivan, in fact, saves the building by laying a thin line of mortar instead of a thick, as Der instructed. By following those instructions, he could have sabotaged the building from the second floor up and not have been personally responsible. But this building--as the author has designed it--is to be part of a power plant for a new city that will be occupied by future Russians ("people," not "officials"). The act of sabotage would endanger other zeks, deprive future people and damage Ivan's self-esteem. Thus he cannot opt for the alienation of sloppy work or sabotage, and his benefit to the present system is absolved by his benefit to future generations. As a result, Ivan does not entirely alienate himself by benefiting the system. When good work is stolen from you, in some instances you can regard it as a gift. On his return to the camp, Ivan is frisked in the future public square, where someday, as he imagines, there will be parades.

Therefore Ivan benefits the system and in this sense alienates himself, but he also benefits future generations and so absolves himself. Does his tactic not help to undermine the system and turn it from bad to good? Does he not subvert the system by refusing to crack, by proving himself each day? These are questions which admit no final answers. We know only that Ivan does the best he can do; he creates the most freedom he can within a coercive system. As Bettelheim writes:

Within so tight a system as the concentration camp any defense that stayed within the frame of reference of the system promoted the goals of the system, not those of the defense. It seems that an institution like the concentration camp permits of no really successful defense--the only way not to submit to it in some measure would have been to destroy it. (p.231)

The discussion of alienation in One Day could be extended by reference to other relevant works, from Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up From Slavery (1901) to the film based on Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). But such an extension would carry us far beyond the boundaries of an article. We can conclude by assuming that Solzhenitsyn did not plan his novel as an antithesis to the young Marx's theory of alienation, but he naturally posed such an antithesis with his minutely detailed, exquisitely sculptured, anti-materialistic argument. Later, answering objections to One Day, Solzhenitsyn was more direct. He acknowledged that Ivan may have helped the system of oppression, but not nearly so much as those who avoided work and became trusties and collaborators. And once Ivan had opted for work, he had no choice, for the sake of his spirit, but to work well:

And that is how it turns out: such is man's nature that even bitter, dested work is sometimes performed with an incomprehensible wild excitement. Having worked for two years with my hands, I encountered this strange phenomenon myself: suddenly you become absorbed in the work itself, irrespective of whether it is slave labor and offers you nothing. I experienced those strange moments at bricklaying (otherwise I wouldn't have written about it), at foundry work, carpentry, even in the fervor of breaking up old pig iron with a sledge. And so surely we can allow Ivan Denisovich not to feel his inescapable labor as a terrible burden forever, not to hate it perpetually? [25]

Originally published in Modern Fiction Studies vol. 23, No. 1, 1977.
Slightly edited June 2008.



[1] This study uses the author's final text, Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha (Paris: YMCA-Press, 1973). Page numbers (given in parentheses in the article) refer to this edition. Significant divergences from the first Soviet edition in Novyi mir No. 11, November 1962 (Moscow) will be noted.

[2] The assistant editor of Novyi mir, Aleksandr Dementev, found the conversation to be demeaning to the battleship Potyomkin, "the symbol of Soviet art." He asked Solzhenitsyn to delete the scene, but received a very negative reply. A. Solzhenitsyn, Bodalsya telyonok s dubom: Ocherki literaturnoi zhizni [Banging Your Head Against the Wall: Sketches of a Literary Life], (Paris: YMCA-Press, 1975), 45.

[3] Note the different treatment of gang bosses in the play The Love Girl and the Innocent (Olen' i shalashovka, better translated as "The Greenhorn and the Shackup"). Here they look out for themselves, drive the workers hard and raise only a half-hearted, ineffectual protest against murderous work quotas. (Act I, scenes 1, 3 and Act II, scene 2) However, the most positive character in the play, Gai, is an honest gang boss.

[4] Bodalsya, pp. 19, 47-48.1 A comparison of the several Soviet texts and the final Paris text is made in my article, "Solzhenltsyn's Self-Censorship," Slavic and East European Journal, No.4, 1976, 421-436.

[5] This observation was made in a paper for my undergraduate course in Solzhenitsyn at the University of Rochester: "What Bunk" by Robert Bouchal.

[6] The name Fetyukov is based on the obsolete provincial word fetyuk which means "a sluggish, lazy, awkward, stupid person." The word is related to another word, fert--"a dandy." The expression stoyat' fertkom means "to stand with arms akimbo"--that is, to look like the Cyrillic letter for F (which the wretched program of Dreamweaver does not permit me to show). Both fert and fetyuk derive from fita, the Russian name of the letter, which is itself derived from the Greek theta. Fetyukov is a knucklehead who stands with his arms akimbo--i.e., doesn't work.

[7] The formulation belongs to Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1973), 124, 132, 179. The first half of this book, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp," about Auschwitz, corresponds to One Day on almost every page.

[8] The "every man for himself" attitude finds expression in the camp saying: "You die today, and I'll die tomorrow." In Solzhenitsyn, the Russian reads: Podokhni ty segodnya, a ya zavtra! (114) Dostoevsky employs an earlier version from the tsarist camps: net, ty sperva pomri, a ya posle... F. Dostoevsky, Zapiski iz myortvogo doma [Notes from the House of the Dead], Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Leningrad: "Nauka," 1972), vol. 4, 24. Bruno Bettelheim reports that in the Nazi camps it was frequently remarked that not the SS, but the prisoner was the prisoner's worst enemy. B. Bettelheim, The Informed Heart (New York: Avon, 1973), 184.

[9] The last sentence was deleted from the Novyi mir version of One Day. Solzhenitsyn made the same statement in the play Olen' i shalashovka, which was not published in Russia at the time. A. Solzhenitsyn, Sobranie sochinenii (Frankfurt am Main: Posev, 1969), vol. 5, 67.

[10] Solzhenitsyn's account of the genesis of One Day is found in Bodalsya telyonok s dubom. About the Stalin passage, see page 48.

[11] The word "official" (nachal'nik) was changed to "fool" (durak) in the Novyi mir edition.

[12] Because they love each other, Nadya and Gleb exchange notes freeing each other of their vows after Gleb's arrest. (Chaps. 34, 35) Before her meeting with Gleb in prison, Nadya is advised by two other wives to be unfaithful. (Chap. 36) In prison, Gleb is offered a special position in cryptography and a possible wife in Simochka. (Chaps. 9, 12) After the meeting, Nadya intends to be faithful, but her spirit is broken--she may be seduced by Shchagov. (Chap. 47) Gleb, however, has refused the cryptography and proceeds to refuse Simochka. (Chap. 81) Gleb's faithfulness is linked directly to the Marxist argument that "being determines consciousness" in Gleb's conversation with Kondrashev-Ivanov. (Chap. 42) After Gleb's meeting, Gleb and Kondrashev-Ivanov drink a toast to faithful wives. (Chap. 53) My chapter references apply to the published version of the novel with 87 chapters ("Circle 87") and not to the author's complete text ("Circle 96").

[13] Ivan's final look corresponds to the "rule of the final inch" (pravilo poslednikh vershkov) expounded by Sologdin in The First Circle (chap. 24).

[14] From the first of the "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts" (1844). Karl Marx. Early Writings, trans. and ed. by T. B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 122-23.

[15] Joachim Israel, Alienation: From Marx to Modern Sociology (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1971), 37-39, 76.

[16] Israel, 53.

[17] The YMCA text, more sharply than the Novyi mir text, indicates that the system killed personal initiative; the carpet trade was clearly a means of escape from the oppressive and unproductive collective farm.

[18] Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record, ed. by Leopold Labedz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 45.

[19] Israel, citing M. Seeman, 6.

[20] My discussion of alienation has been strongly influenced by Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (New York: Mentor, 1963), especially chapter 3. Mihajlo Mihajlov discusses the problem of creative activity, enforced labor and alienation in Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, but fails to notice that Ivan's creative activity takes place precisely within the enforced labor. Rather, he tends to locate it in his sewing and personal work: M. Mihajlov, "Dostoevsky's and Solzhenitsyn's House of the Dead," Russian Themes (New York: Noonday, 1968), 104-118. Georg Lukacs, the Marxist critic, fails to discuss work or alienation in Solzhenitsyn. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[21] The passage is from Acts 21:13. The Russian text would have a more immediate impact on a convict than the English: "Ya ne tol'ko khochu byt' uznihom, no gotov umeret' za imya Gospoda Iisusa." Literally: "I not only want to be a prisoner, but am ready to die for the name of the Lord Jesus." (The Russian synodal version is farther from the Greek in this instance than the King James version.)

[22] See Trent Schroyer, "The Paradox of Alienation in the Western Image of Man: A Hegelian Perspective," Abraxas (1971), 147-162.

[23] B. Bettelheim, The Informed Heart, 173. The following two quotations cite the page number.

[24] Rule number 9 from the "Ten Commandments of the Zek," written up and circulated in the camps by Dmitry Panin, the prototype of the character Sologdin. Rule 10 is "save your soul and you preserve your body." (240) Panin's memoirs illuminate Solzhenitsyn's writings in many instances: he and fellow zeks agreed not to overwork, because "work has killed many a horse" (50); they agreed that "you can put off your death till tomorrow by killing your enemies today" (86); he renounced packages in order to escape blackmail from the authorities (190); and he understood that Soviet laws were only "guides to action" (243). Panin writes that the character Klevshin was based on a man named Klekshin, who was half-deaf and had been in Buchenwald, and he identifies the camp of One Day as Ekibastuz, where Klekshin, Solzhenitsyn and himself toiled together. (310) D. Panin, The Notebooks of Sologdin (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976). The Russian text is D. Panin, Zapiski Sologdina (Frankfurt am Main: Posev, 1973).

[25] A. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), III-IV, 259.