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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 2 (Waiting) | Summary



This section describes prisoners in the barracks and then lining up to be counted. It begins with "Shukhov said nothing."

Shukhov leaves the dispensary and heads for his barracks where prisoners are savoring their last few minutes of free time as they wait for roll call, the count, and frisking. The prisoners lie on their bunks wrapped in all the layers of ragged clothing they have. Alyosha the Baptist is reading the Bible. He tells the prisoners near him they must accept their suffering for God. Alyosha keeps his handwritten Bible in a concealed chink in the barracks wall.

Shukhov rushes to see the squad deputy, Pavlo, who has saved Shukhov's bread ration. Holding it in his hand, Shukhov determines the ration is half an ounce short of the regulation 16 ounces due him. Not too bad. Shukhov knows not to eat it all at once. Breaking the bread in half, he puts one piece in a pocket he's sewn into his jacket and the other in a secret hole he has made in his mattress; he then sews the hole closed with the needle and thread he keeps hidden in his hat.

The prisoners file out into the cold, still-dark morning for roll call. Shukhov is relieved to see squad 104 is to line up in its regular place—meaning they're not going to the new exposed building site where they would have no shelter from the cold. Tiurin must have bribed the camp officials well with "a lot of salt pork."

Squad 104 is one prisoner short, a known "squealer" whom the guards let skip work in exchange for information about other prisoners. Shukhov reminds himself to have his prisoner number repainted by the camp "artists" whose job is to repaint numbers on prisoners' clothing. He could get into trouble if the guards think the number is too faint.

Tsezar, who gets packages, is smoking a cigarette, and Shukhov longs for a smoke. He sees Fetiukov, "that jackal," sidling up to Tsezar to cadge a cigarette butt. When Fetiukov begs for "a puff," Tsezar ignores him and offers the butt to Shukhov because he doesn't plead and beg.

Just then someone calls out, "They're stripping our undershirts off us" as part of roll call frisking. Thinking of the bitter cold, Shukhov wonders about the reason for such a search. Then he sees Lieutenant Volkovoi, the camp security chief, walk toward the prisoners and deduces that Volkovoi must have ordered the search. Even the guards don't like the harsh Volkovoi. As Volkovoi watches, the five guards frisk the five bare-chested men who approach them. Volkovoi will take away any personal garments (or rags) a prisoner might be wearing, for extra garments are not allowed. The guards find Tsezar's flannel vest and Buinovsky's "cummerbund" and take the bits of cloth away. Buinovsky vehemently objects, but his protests only earn him 10 days in the guardhouse.

After the frisking, the men must pass through several gates. At each they are stopped and counted, and then recounted "like sheep." It's beginning to get light. They're counted yet again at the wire fence surrounding the camp. Warmly dressed escorts armed with automatic rifles accompany the prisoners as they march past the fence. It is intensely cold, with a fierce wind, as the prisoners pass outside the camp and head for the power station where squad 104 will be working. Hunching against the cold as he marches, Shukhov thinks of bread and wonders if his hidden chunk will still be in his mattress later. The prisoners move out into the frigid, wind-battered steppe (vast open grassland now frozen over) to begin their workday.


This section provides more insight into some of the characters in squad 104. Its leader, Tiurin, is introduced as the person who must have the goods to bribe officials to get his squad a good work detail. Tsezar, the receiver of packages, is shown, typically, smoking a cigarette in a holder. Shukhov hopes he can "cadge a smoke" but is smart enough to know not to ask for it directly, for no one appreciates those who grovel and beg. This is an unspoken matter of etiquette among the prisoners. Shukhov knows how to keep his dignity and will not stoop to groveling. On the other hand, the despised Fetiukov, weak, underhanded, and oblivious to the ways of the camp, is called a "jackal" because he tries to finagle tobacco and other items from Tsezar, who treats him with contempt. Buinovsky, the naval captain, is still new to the camp and doesn't realize yet that common sense and purposeful rules count for little.

The narrator underscores the tedium of the camp by intoning the number of gates the prisoners must pass through: "the first gate," "the second gate," and so on, just as the inmates must do. Finally a guard intones what the prisoners refer to as "the Morning Prayer," the same litany of rules they hear every morning. Describing the ritual this way reinforces the repetitious tedium of camp security rituals.

This section emphasizes the concepts of identity and freedom. Free time in the barracks allows prisoners to exercise their mental freedom, as Alyosha does by praying and reading the Bible. In their "brief moment of relaxation" prisoners can imagine they are still free men with private thoughts not controlled by the state. Yet a prisoner has to keep his individual sense of identity to himself outside of his free time. When Buinovsky protests to the guards about having his "cummerbund" taken away, he's punished with 10 days in a freezing guardhouse cell, a punishment likely to kill him in his already weakened state. Because of his military background and demeanor, he still thinks military rules and regulations have the same meaning in the camp as they do on ship.

Outwitting camp authorities is another way prisoners exercise their freedom and affirm their identity. Although Shukhov is described as "being a man of timid nature," he is clever enough to have hidden a needle and thread in his hat. He has used them to make a secret bread pocket in his jacket and to conceal a hiding place in his mattress. The need for bread is so great that these hiding places help ensure Shukhov has enough bread to survive. His hiding places also make Shukhov feel clever and independent. Even Alyosha, usually submissive and accepting, uses his wits and subterfuge to support his faith, akin to his identity. Alyosha has created a chink in the barracks wall to hide his hand-written Bible, which represents his sense of identity and independence.

The camp's pervasive system of corruption once again has saved the prisoners of squad 104. Shukhov notes Tiurin must have bribed the right camp officer with "a lot of salt pork" to make sure his squad was not sent to the exposed work site. Shukhov, accustomed to the ways of camp survival, shows no concern about this bribe, although a "poorer and stupider squad was being sent [there]." If not for bribery and corruption, "you'd never survive."

Corruption intersects with trust in the case of the "squealer," who has the day off from work. Because he is an informer—and thus curries favor with the guards—the "squealer" is given unwarranted medical leave, and the guards "fix it all up with the medical authorities." This presence of a rat compromises feelings of trust, such as they are, among inmates, who must always consider the possibility that someone in their squad will inform on them to gain favor or food from the guards. Knowing whom to trust is crucial for a prisoner's survival.

The symbol of packages as a source of plenty and a means of survival becomes more significant. Tsezar's packages, filled with valuable items such as tobacco and food, give him status. Being in Tsezar's good graces is thus important to prisoners who want Tsezar to share some of his goods with them. A prisoner's character is revealed to be important in his relationship with others. Fetiukov demeans himself by begging for a cigarette whereas Shukhov is desperate for a smoke but knows enough not to beg; his self-respect and restraint get him the cigarette butt. Competition among prisoners is also evident. Shukhov is glad to get the smoke because "he had cut out that jackal Fetiukov," indicating Shukhov's higher status.

The prisoners are stripped of their dignity as they are forced to strip off their undershirts while being frisked. Although the reason for the frisking is to enforce the rule against wearing "extra clothing" of one's own, the procedure leaves the men freezing and vulnerable. The rule itself makes no sense; it is simply another arbitrary and humiliating torment: "What was there to look for on a prisoner at the morning roll call?" The repeated head counts as the prisoners leave the camp are another example of unnecessary rules. If the count at gate one is in order, it is highly unlikely a prisoner will escape before reaching gate two or gate three; guards watch them, and armed escorts accompany them. Yet at each gate the prisoners must stand freezing in the cold and snow to be counted again. The narrator describes the paranoia of camp officials as "stupidity" and the rules as "another way of tormenting people, giving them something extra to worry about"; they function as a means of breaking prisoners' spirits, as well as health.

Three motifs appear in this section. Cold is personified in the person of Volkovoi (the Wolf), who seems to view his job as inventing new ways to torment prisoners. In this section, the suffering produced by cold temperatures is compounded by the coldness of Volkovoi's directives and his lack of concern for the men. The motif of faith appears as Alyosha tells squad members to offer up their suffering to God. Later the author describes an old artist who paints their ID numbers on prisoners' clothing like "a priest anointing your brow." Even in prison each act can be an act of faith offered to God, if seen that way.

The motif of identity appears in the ID numbers that Shukhov needs to have repainted. They are his official identity in the camp, and imprisoned artists are reduced to painting numbers for their jailers. The situational irony is clear: the artists' identity as artists has been stripped, and now they must create official identities for others stripped of their personal identities.

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