In a 1950s gulag labor camp, there can be dysfunctionality or functionality. Dysfunctionality tends to occur when members are separated from each other; vice versa occurs when they are unified. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, there are both forces which push the men together and have the ability to pull the men apart. Both hunger and faith give rise to a sense of solidarity while the authoritarian Soviet government remains oppressive and inciteful to situations where an inmate’s instinct for survival causes estrangement among different social groups.
Solzhenitsyn uses the driving force of starvation to illustrate the conditions of the gulag camps that he himself endured; how a few grams of bread could mean the end or the beginning.
“Now he’d got Sotsgorodok off their backs, he’d be thinking about the rate for the job. The next five days’ration depended on it.” In this passage Sotsgorodok is a different work site which had much tougher conditions than Gang 104’s current ones.
Shukhov tells the reader how the foreman decides the rate of the job and therefore the gang’s rations. “He” is Tyurin, the Gang’s foreman. The gang must work together to achieve a good rate (Solzhenitsyn 46). If a member refuses to pull their own weight, like when Fetyukov deliberately holds back the gang, then the member is threatened (Solzhenitsyn 101). The author also emphasizes hunger’s effect on the camp’s harmony. Together, they all must work to achieve the best rate for the job and therefore the best ration for their meals.
Together, they will all survive (Solzhenitsyn 46). Tyurin is a born leader and described by Shukhov as having “the bark of an oak” and “a chest of steel.” With these attributes in mind, we can understand that Tyurin is a strong character both mentally and physically. He uses his strengths, being his leadership, to bring the men of his Gang together. He also maintains an upper-hand among the gulag system of authority and he uses that upper-hand to benefit the members of his Gang. When Tyurin defends his gang from Snub Nose, a warder, when he comes demanding for “explanatory notes,” he ends up succeeding and getting Snub Nose to go away. However, even though Tyurin tries to get Buynovsky out of an “icy cell block” for the night, the captain is taken away. Even though he does not succeed, it’s the thought that counts. By accomplishing acts like these, Tyurin gains the trust of his Gang and brings them into a consolidation (Solzhenitsyn 166). Solzhenitsyn describes a gulag where the prisoners become united against their own personal will. To survive in these harsh conditions, a zek must get with the program, so-to-speak.
The authority, being the Soviet Government, aims to achieve the collective society in which every man, woman and child works together for the greater benefit of the state. These corrective colonies, or gulags, are no exception. “In the camps things are arranged so that the zek is kept up to the mark not by his bosses but by the others in his gang. Either everybody gets a bonus or else they all die together.” Even with these aims for greater benefit, competition for basic needs prevails. Food, warmth and supplies such as tobacco are of the utmost priority in the zek’s daily life. Under the soviet’s system of collectivization, these needs are not met. In this sense, the inmates are being pushed apart as their own survival is put above others. You also see this same idea of “every man for himself” when an inmate pays off a guard to receive a parcel or when different work gangs compete for tools in the workplace so that they might receive the better rate. This environment of competition for basic needs goes against communist ideals and adjusts to a more capitalist system.
Even without government influence, there is always the possibility for a clash between inmates. Shukhov mentions this when all of the convicts are returning from their jobs and they are providing their offering of wood to the guards. When someone tries to hide their wood, they stand the possibility of being threatened by the others. “Who is the convict’s worst enemy? Another convict. If zeks didn’t squabble among themselves, the bosses would have no power over them.” This passage is a perfect example of the rift between inmates. Shukhov clearly states that the conflict is between convicts. Solzhenitsyn uses this passage to explain why the prisoners don’t unite against the Soviet authority in place.
If they weren’t as focused on each other, they would then be able to view the injustice taking place and work together to battle it (Solzhenitsyn 131). At the end of the work day, when the gang is waiting in between roll calls, Alyoshka and Shukhov strike up a conversation about faith. They then debate about the legitimacy of praying for daily bread (Solzhenitsyn 176). Soon after the second roll call, Shukhov offers the Baptist a biscuit (Solzhenitsyn 181). It is in these moments that we see true comradeship amongst the gang. In a setting where basic necessities are more or less illusive, Shukhov may struggle to give necessities away. Yet Shukhov returns Alyoshka’s many favors and expresses thanks by giving him something so simple; a biscuit.
Even though they just got into a heated discussion about each other’s faith, ironically enough, Alyoshka is in the labor camp for being persecuted about his faith. The Soviet style of government persecutes all religion and yet Alyoshka and Shukhov’s bond is heavily influenced by religion. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, readers view a setting which establishes camaraderie and competition. Convicts can either work together for the benefit of all or spar with each other to achieve the most resources for themselves. We see examples of this throughout the novel; when a foreman determines the rate of a job or when two inmates share a moment of brotherhood ODIL Prompt.
What forces push the men together in the novel and pull them apart? Identify examples of this in the novel and how they illustrate Solzhenitsyn’s purpose.