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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Study Guide

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Quotes


Squealers ... got ... through ... [by] saving their own skin at the expense of other people's blood.

Narrator, Section 1 (Wake Up)

Shukhov recalls his first squad leader's words about survival in the camp and disagrees about squealers, who do indeed survive—although shamefully. Most everyone in the prison camp looks for ways to improve their lot. Camp officials reward informers with extra food or light work, but these benefits are "earned" by causing trouble for fellow prisoners who may be punished severely.


How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?

Narrator, Section 2 (Waiting)

After being offered "sick leave" at his own risk, Shukhov thinks the authorities who make the often nonsensical rules in the camp are well housed, well dressed, and well fed. They cannot comprehend—and certainly don't care—how their rules torment freezing prisoners who suffer the cold continually and are housed in freezing barracks, dressed in thin rags, and given starvation rations.


He ... discovered long ago that honest weight was never to be found in the bread-cutting.

Narrator, Section 2 (Waiting)

Shukhov, like the other prisoners, receives little nourishment and must survive on thin gruel and small chunks of bread. This quotation reveals corruption and dishonesty at the most basic level; prisoners are shortchanged even on the regulation amount of bread, the weight of the bread always a bit less than their due. Such behavior perpetuates corruption throughout the camp, as everyone tries to skim off a little here and there to line his own pockets.


He'd lost the habit of planning ... The authorities did his thinking for him.

Narrator, Section 3 (Shukhov and the Work Site)

Camp officials control every aspect of a prisoner's life to the point that prisoners feel they have lost the ability to think for themselves. Certainly planning for the future is something most prisoners no longer do, accepting that their future is the same as the present—more time in the camp. However, short-term planning, such as how to survive a single day, is very much remembered and practiced.


Writing now was like dropping stones in some deep, bottomless pool ... there is no answer.

Narrator, Section 3 (Shukhov and the Work Site)

Shukhov has been in prison for so long he has lost contact with his family. He realizes there is no point in trying to write to them because the camp censors will delete most of what he writes about his life in the camp. And he has been apart from his wife for so many years it is unlikely she will respond even if she gets his letter. Furthermore, the authorities may not forward her letter. So Shukhov is living in total isolation from his family and the rest of the world. Attempting contact seems absurd and futile to him, but perhaps his thoughts are rationalizations for his sense of emptiness, as the image suggests.


A good [squad leader] will give you a second life; a bad one will put you in your coffin.

Narrator, Section 3 (Shukhov and the Work Site)

Like any good team leader, a squad leader takes care of his squad and looks out for their interests. Loyalty and respect from squad members reflect well on the leader and benefit all, including him. In the camp the squad leader must know how to behave, must observe who is important, and must use his status, powers of persuasion, and—most important—his ability to bribe the right officials to get the best food and most favorable work details. A squad leader without the skill or cunning to get these things for his men may earn their disrespect, making his position more difficult; he also may leave the squad vulnerable, even to the point of death with similar repercussions for the leader.


If you show your pride too much ... you're lost.

Senka Klevshin, Section 3 (Shukhov and the Work Site)

Many camp rules are absurd, and almost all are intended to torment prisoners, often in petty ways. A prisoner who has the temerity to openly object to a rule or situation by arguing with a guard is certain to be severely punished. The pride displayed by speaking one's mind will lead to punishment and possibly even death. One of the goals of the camp is to crush prisoners' sense of self; pride is a sign of individuality and must not be permitted.


Prisoners egged one another on ... either you all got a bit extra or you all croaked.

Narrator, Section 4 (Work Begins)

Camp rules state that the laziness, incompetence, misdeed, or mistake of one prisoner in a squad will cause the entire squad to be punished. Such rules pit prisoners against one another and annul compassion because prisoners force others in their squad to toe the line just to save their own skin. These rules also work against individuality, for if one prisoner wishes to do something deemed unacceptable, he will be stopped by the group, looking out for its own benefit.


The days rolled by ... But the years ... never moved by a second.

Narrator, Section 4 (Work Begins)

The routine and monotony of prison life warps prisoners' experience of time. The sameness of the days, and the concentration on work, may make them seem to pass quickly. Yet the accumulation of the days when drawn out of decades of imprisonment never seems to end. Because every day is the same, future time seems inconceivable and never seems to arrive or be experienced.


To the squad Tiurin was a father, for them he was a pawn.

Narrator, Section 6 (Pride in Work)

Shukhov understands that Tiurin's cunning and clout with officials make him, as squad leader, the "father" of the squad, trying to do his best for them, holding life and death in his hands. Shukhov worries that camp officials, on the other hand, view Tiurin as someone from whom they can demand endless and perhaps unreasonable bribes. Tiurin is therefore a pawn to them because they use him to get what they want through the bribes he pays. If Tiurin cannot pay the bribe demanded, he can be sacrificed easily, and he and his squad, including Shukhov, will surely suffer.


After the recount a prisoner became a free man again—for the first time ... since ... morning.

Narrator, Section 8 (Back to Camp)

After the last recount of the evening, when prisoners have returned from work and are back in their barracks, they are in some ways no longer under the direct control of the authorities. They have some free time to spend thinking, conversing, smoking, and generally acting somewhat as free people might.


Thin cabbage soup, half burned, was as welcome to them as rain to parched earth.

Narrator, Section 8 (Back to Camp)

This quotation underscores the importance of the meager rations each prisoner gets. Their starvation diet leaves the prisoners so hungry even the worst kind of food—thin, burned cabbage soup—is welcomed. Just as a brief rain sustains what life exists in a desert, so the unpalatable food is welcomed by prisoners as a key to their survival.


Shukhov ... never opens his belly to what doesn't belong to him.

Narrator, Section 10 (Debts Paid)

Knowing life in the camps and the grief envy brings, Shukhov is determined not to let his hunger get the better of him and cause him to envy the extra food and other goods Tsezar gets in his packages. Although he does favors for Tsezar with the hope of being rewarded with food from the package, Shukhov has trained himself not to expect such bounty and consequently become bitter if he is not rewarded or is not rewarded as richly as he thinks he deserves. Furthermore, such envy weakens the individual.


Rejoice that you're in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul.

Alyosha, Section 11 (Night)

Shukhov and Alyosha discuss the role of faith and religion in terms of their fate—their long imprisonment in the labor camp. Alyosha's faith endures as he prays much of the time. He tells Shukhov being in prison is a type of spiritual gift because it removes worldly, material distractions from his life. With these distractions absent, the camp gives Alyosha the time to pray and feed his soul, to come closer to God.


We've nothing but we always find a way to make something extra.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, Section 11 (Night)

Corruption, bribery, and ingenuity allow some prisoners to get more of the things they need to survive in the camp. Packages of food or tobacco from home are a type of currency that facilitates trade in the camp. Doing favors for those who get packages will likely earn a prisoner a bit extra from the packages. Making use of things prisoners find and use for barter or for making money, such as Shukhov's needle and thread, also aid survival. Although prisoners ostensibly have nothing, they find ways to use what they can to get anything extra, which may mean the difference between life and death.

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