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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 | Section 10 (Debts Paid) | Summary



This section describes how Shukhov pays his debts and is repaid for favors he has done for others. It begins with "The moon was high."

Shukhov leaves the mess hall and heads for the Lett's barracks to buy tobacco. Shukhov uses his hidden needle and thread to earn a small amount of spending money by doing "private jobs" such as "making slippers out of ... rags ... or patching torn jackets" for other prisoners. He uses this money for the tobacco purchase.

Shukhov and the Lett exchange pleasantries before Shukhov asks for tobacco; the Lett fills two glasses—loosely—from his store of tobacco. Shukhov feels cheated. "Push it down," he demands, but the Lett answers sharply "I know how to do it." Shukhov maneuvers two rubles from the lining of his jacket to pay the Lett. While pouring the tobacco into his tobacco pouch, Shukhov hears other prisoners complaining about "Old Whiskers"—Stalin—who they say would never take pity on anyone, especially a prisoner.

Shukhov then heads for his barracks, hoping Tsezar has received a package. Because Shukhov has done favors for Tsezar, he hopes Tsezar will reward him with something from his package. When he reaches Tsezar's bunk, Shukhov sees him "gloating" over the bounties he has received. Shukhov is careful not to remind Tsezar of past favors because such behavior would make Shukhov look like a begging "jackal." So he waits. Shukhov can smell the savory food Tsezar has unpacked. Shukhov offers Tsezar the saved bread ration, and as Tsezar says, "Keep it, Ivan Denisovich." Shukhov puts "out of his mind any idea of getting something tasty" from the package. But he's content with the extra 12 ounces of bread. Shukhov decides to eat six ounces now and save six for later. He is "living high!"

Shukhov then reflects about why a package is not the windfall it might seem. The recipient must distribute a good deal of its contents as bribes to various people, such as guards, squad leaders, and even the man in charge of the parcels office. Some of the items must be used to repay debts to those who have done favors, even if they're low-status zeks like Shukhov. When all bribes and debts are paid, the recipient can only hope enough is left for him to enjoy.

Shukhov climbs into his bunk and looks for a place to hide the bit of hacksaw blade. He will whittle it into a fine, curved blade, but now he slips it into his mattress to keep it out of sight.

Fetiukov is crying because he has been beaten. Shukhov feels sorry for him but realizes Fetiukov's attitude toward imprisonment is so wrong it almost ensures he'll not survive his sentence. Then Buinovsky arrives with "special" tea from Tsezar, not the "sewage" they serve in the barracks. Tsezar asks Shukhov to lend him his small penknife, which he keeps hidden in a crack in a wall partition. Shukhov offers tobacco to the Estonians to repay them for what they gave him earlier. He will roll a cigarette for himself after the evening count. Now he nibbles bits of bread. Shukhov tries to ignore the expressions of delight as Tsezar and Buinovsky eat food from the package.

A guard comes in to have the men who were caught wearing extra personal clothing sign a form about their transgression. Playing for time—one more night in the barracks—Tiurin deflects the guard, who leaves the forms to be signed and submitted the next morning, along with the contraband clothing. Before he leaves, the guard calls out for Buinovsky, who naively responds while enjoying his sausage and oblivious to the interaction, "Here I am" as the narrator comments "the quickest louse is always the first to be caught in the comb." The guard marches him out to the guardhouse where he'll spend 10 days in a cell. The squad shouts encouraging words, but they know how deadly the freezing cold cells are. Even if the captain survives, his "health would be ruined for the rest of [his] life."

The barracks commander calls the prisoners outside for the evening count. As Shukhov leaves, he feels sorry for Tsezar who is so naïve he'll have to leave his package unattended where "someone would swipe it." Tsezar has no time to hide his goods, so Shukhov explains how he might save them by being the last out of the barracks. Shukhov will go out first and thus be the first one back—before other prisoners return and can steal anything.


While Shukhov waits to buy tobacco from the Lett, he uses dialect to ask for "t'bacca." This use of skaz makes the interaction between the two men more intimate and personal. Zeks use idioms and slang when discussing politics. One prisoner shouts "D'you mean to say you think Old Whiskers will take pity on you?" Old Whiskers is a less dangerous way of talking about Stalin than saying the dictator's name aloud. The narrator then states that in the "special" camps the prisoners are able to "let off steam" on political issues—something highly dangerous outside the camp. Perhaps such freedom indicates camp authorities pay no heed to what prisoners say or think.

This section deals largely with corruption and describes what might be called the zek economy. Parts of that economy do sometimes rely on actual currency, which enters the camp in prisoners' packages. Those with money can use it to buy goods or services from other prisoners. For example, Shukhov earns money by sewing slippers or using his sewing skills, and his secret needle and thread, to repair others' clothing. Some may pay him in rubles, which he can use to buy things from the camp store (mostly low-quality goods) or from other prisoners, such as the tobacco he buys from the Lett.

As readers might infer, in addition to monetary transactions, other types and degrees of low-level corruption underpin the camp economy, beginning with packages from the outside world. A significant portion of these goods must be used to bribe camp officials: to ensure the prisoner continues to get packages, he bribes the parcel office trustee; to get higher-quality food, he bribes the cook; to get easier work assignments, he bribes the squad leader; and to get fewer punishments, he bribes the guards. In fact there are few officials the package recipient does not have to bribe. Packages thus represent not only plenty from outside but rampant corruption at all levels in the hierarchy of the prison camp.

Shukhov plays an active part in the camp economy. Shukhov has skills, in addition to sewing, that he parlays to help himself survive in the camp. A skilled prisoner may craft handmade items, which form another part of the camp economy. Shukhov asserts his identity as an independent and clever man by shaping the objects he finds into useful items and finding safe places to hide them. This work is an expression of Shukhov's independent mind and creativity; it expresses Shukhov's knowledge of these items' value within the economy of favors and debts and function as currency. Lending his penknife to Tsezar may be a friendly gesture, but it means "Tsezar was again in his debt." He will make a curved blade from the bit of hacksaw he found and this too will be a commodity for trade.

It is also clear that comradeship and favors intersect with low-level camp corruption and trust. Tsezar offers goods from his packages only to those prisoners in his squad he likes, such as Buinovsky. He also accepts favors from prisoners he likes and trusts, such as Shukhov, who knows how to behave. Because favors generate a debt, Tsezar does not want to owe someone he deems untrustworthy. Although Shukhov is pleased with Tsezar's bread ration from supper, he had been thinking of something from the package. Yet he graciously and gratefully accepts whatever reward Tsezar gives him and does not waste energy on envy or the desire for richer rewards. These relationships between debt and reward are a vital part of survival.

Indeed much of what Shukhov does is for his own survival, calculated to benefit himself. Yet when Tsezar is faced with having his goods stolen, Shukhov feels genuinely sorry for him, his apprehension not entirely self-serving. Compassion is part of Shukhov's character, and he melds it with his ingenuity to save Tsezar's goods when the prisoners are out for the evening count. A genuine act of comradeship will likely earn Shukhov a fine reward from Tsezar, but in this case the reward is not what Shukhov is after. He is concerned about the "naive" Tsezar. His feeling of friendship impels him to help Tsezar, and his plan is another way Shukhov demonstrates he is a practical and clever man.

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