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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 | Themes


Injustice and Irrational Rules

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner sentenced to 10 years' hard labor for being captured by the enemy during World War II. He is irrationally assumed, therefore, to have been a spy. His conviction—like those of most political prisoners condemned to a "special" labor camp—is wholly unjust. The virulent anti-Western attitude in the USSR at the time, fueled by the paranoia of Stalin and the state over which he ruled, meant benign or meaningless words or actions might lead to a person's conviction as an "enemy of the state." The capricious and arbitrary nature of indictments, convictions, and multi-decade sentences made the Soviet judicial system rife with injustice. Even the most innocent action or word was construed, often without evidence, as treason. The accused, stripped of any defense, was then condemned. Many lives were ruined, or terminated, by the injustice of this irrational system.

The system was grounded in fear. Charges brought against innocent people often were as unreasonable as the length of their incarceration, and methods used in the labor camps as irrational and absurd as the justice system that fed them. Arbitrary rules with no apparent effect on improving the camp's functioning or keeping order were strictly enforced. However, some ended up unenforceable, such as the rule that a prisoner could not walk by himself, even though it was often necessary or even dictated by a camp officer. Other rules, such as forbidding prisoners to wear their own extra clothing, were likely imposed simply to add to the prisoners' torment.


The labor camp functions on corruption, particularly bribes. Everyone is "on the take" in one way or another. Squad leaders bribe camp leaders, prisoners bribe squad leaders, prisoners bribe each other. The bribe is usually not monetary, for money has limited use. Among prisoners bribes are made with items that help prisoners survive, such as food or warm clothing. Often a favor is a bribe because it's a debt of gratitude to be repaid with food or other useful items. Squad leaders use similar "currencies" to bribe superiors to allow their squads easier or more favorable work assignments or keep squad members out of trouble with camp authorities.

Corruption is rampant because even guards and some higher officials are eager to get more food or other perks. Prisoners unaware of how the system works are more likely to die of the cold or starvation than prisoners who work within the system. Intent on surviving, Shukhov engages in the camp's usual corruption. Unlike some others, though, his favors and bribes generally do not hurt others. They just help him live another day.

Corruption in the labor camp mirrors, to a certain extent, corruption of Soviet society of the era. Functionaries and bureaucrats were often rewarded—if only with keeping their jobs or being allowed to stay alive—for unjustly convicting innocent people. Neighbors and family members informed on each other to curry favor with the state or to save themselves. Such corruption may not have earned the informer more food or warm clothing but might have saved the informer from being arrested. The operative idea was "inform on the other person before he informs on you." Fear, desperation, and the yearning for security may have driven informers to turn in their neighbors or family, but informing was no guarantee that the informers themselves wouldn't be next in line to be accused and convicted.

Dignity and Trust

The underlying purpose of camp rules, procedures, and conditions is to dehumanize, or crush the individuality and the spirit, of each inmate. Yet prisoners find ways to maintain their individuality and dignity despite the difficulty in doing so. Shukhov takes pride in building an excellent wall even though it is not required of him and is for the very state that has unjustly punished him. However, his dignity surpasses the indignities inflicted on him. Alyosha maintains his dignity by submitting, without protest, to the will of God. Other prisoners—although not all—find ways to assert themselves as individuals, with inherent worth and value as human beings, preserving their human dignity in the face of grotesque and sadistic inhumanity.

The concept of trust is complex in the labor camp setting where each prisoner must struggle to survive. Given the limited—even lethally few—provisions prisoners receive, they must somehow find a way to stay alive. As Shukhov recognizes, knowing which prisoners to trust and which to distrust can make the difference between survival and death in an "every man for himself" environment.

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