Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Shukhov was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor because he was captured by the Germans while a soldier during World War II; Stalinist logic labeled captured Russians as spies—or guilty of collusion with the enemy. He resents his imprisonment and all injustice. Honest and loyal to what he believes are communist ideals, he nevertheless must take part in the petty corruption that gets prisoners the few extras, such as food, that help them survive. He knows how to behave to garner favor—which favors will earn him something and which will not. He also knows not to ask for rewards or create the perception of a fawner or "jackal." He is clever at making things and trading them for items he needs. By using his hidden needle and thread, he earns a few rubles doing sewing and can purchase items like tobacco. He also finds a way to do favors for Tsezar that earn him small rewards from Tsezar's packages. Shukhov does the best he can both to survive in the miserable conditions of a Siberian labor camp and to maintain his dignity and identity.
A broad, strong man and veteran of many years in labor camps, Tiurin is a master at using bribes and lies to benefit himself and his squad, to whom he feels strong loyalty and responsibility and who see him as something of a father figure. He is an effective and respected leader who shows courage when others might not. He will not allow himself to be bullied or threatened.
Formerly an office worker, Fetiukov is often referred to as a "jackal" because he connives to get food, tobacco, and other goods for himself—often at the expense of fellow prisoners. As a scrounger who even licks out the serving bowls of other prisoners, he is treated with contempt and ends up being bullied. He is weak and does not know, nor does he observe and learn, how to play the game of corruption in the camp. As a result, he probably will not survive for long.
A young intellectual of indeterminate origins—Greek, Jewish, Gypsy?—the seemingly wealthy and sophisticated Tsezar uses the coveted goods in his packages to bribe officials and get perks and special consideration for himself, such as indoor jobs and permission to avoid the mess hall. The package contents also furnish the squad leader with goods for bribing those who hand out squad assignments and rewards. Although he doesn't mix much with the other prisoners, Tsezar uses the goods in his packages to reward those who do him favors and whom he likes. Fawners and beggars are among those he treats with contempt.
Innocent, gentle, and deeply religious, Alyosha was arrested and sentenced by the atheistic Soviet regime for practicing his beliefs. He is happy in the labor camp because he prays all the time. He insists his freedom is his ability to pray even while he works or goes hungry, and sees the camp as an opportunity to free his soul even if his body is imprisoned. Alyosha tries unsuccessfully to get Shukhov to pray and embrace the spiritual side of his life.
Only three months into his 25-year sentence for collaboration with the enemy, Buinovsky has not yet learned the ways of the camp and is used to being in charge. Although lucky to have formed a friendship with Tsezar, who shares food with him, Buinovsky talks too much and gets into trouble for revealing too much or for challenging regulations. When he complains about the guards taking away a strip of extra clothing he's wearing—against regulations—Buinovsky is punished with 10 grueling days in the guardhouse, a sentence that may kill him.