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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (sol¢ zhen its¢ in) is an excellent reading choice for high school students. Not only does it fit thematically with other works typically studied in a literature curriculum, but it corresponds quite will with a world history curriculum, reinforcing a cross-curricular approach.
The novel concentrates on one man, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, as he attempts to survive another day in a Soviet concentration camp, or gulag, with dignity and humanity. The conditions of the camp are harsh, reflecting a world that has no tolerance for independence. Camp prisoners rely almost totally on each other's productivity and altruism, even for the most basic human need, food. The dehumanizing atmosphere of the gulag ironically forces prisoners to discover means to retain their individuality while conforming to the stringent rules, spoken and unspoken, of the camp.
Although the setting of the novel is foreign to most high school students, the themes of Ivan Denisovich provide a strong connection to what these students value. Americans tend to have a strong identification with their own regional heritage. This regional identification coupled with constant news reports o ethnic strife occurring all over the world should help students readily grasp the idea of regionalism and ethnic pride that surfaces throughout the novel. A theme that parallels their own lives is the idea of people being able to work together despite ethnic and cultural differences in an atmosphere of political turmoil in order to preserve some essence of individuality.
The characters in Ivan Denisovich bring a liveliness to the novel. The narrator Ivan Denisovich is both insightful and humorous, and students will appreciate the slight irreverence with which he view his situation. The clever way he manages to keep his humanity intact despite his imprisonment is kept in perspective through the other prisoners' attempts at survival. At a time in students' own lives when personal space is so important, they should be able to connect with the prisoner's fierce protection of their "prized possessions" as well.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich serves as a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. Solzhenitsyn provides his readers with a seemingly hopeless situation, and then gives them characters who struggle fiercely to maintain their individuality. Students will come away from this novel with a confidence in the possibility of success despite a cruel environment.
The organization of this teacher's guide is as follows: a brief overview of the novel, followed by teaching ideas to used before, during, and after reading it. The "Detailed Study Questions" that are to be answered after reading the novel are arranged by the sequence of Ivan's day: Early Morning, Before Breakfast; Breakfast; After Breakfast; Before Work; the March to Work; The Workday; Before Lunch; Lunch; Building the Wall; the March Back to Camp; and Back in Camp. These teaching ideas are meant to help students understand the novel, its characters and themes, as well as explore issues that are important in student's lives.
List of Characters (In order of appearance)
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (i von¢ den i so¢ vich shu¢ kof): Central character of novel; a Stakhanovite who has been in labor camps for the past eight years. Shukhov was imprisoned as a traitor during World War II; in reality, Shukhov had been a prisoner of war in a German camp and was able to return to his country where he was sentenced for high treason. Officials believed he had surrendered to the Germans and had returned to spy on his country. Neither Shukhov nor the investigator could say what Shukhov's "mission" was, but Shukhov was placed at the work camp at Ust-Izhma as punishment for his "crime."
Kuziomin (ku zyo¢ min): "Old timer" at Ust-Izhma. Shukhov's first squad leader who instills survivalist ideas in Shukhov's lifestyle. For instance, Kuziomin hates squealers, for they don't survive the camps.
"One and a half" Ivan: Guard at Shukhov's current camp. His outside appearance is seedy, but Shukhov considers him one of the "safer" guards.
Aloysha the Baptist (a loi¢ she): One of the most dependable members of Shukhov's squad, the 104th. Survives through his religious faith; he has a New Testament which he hides in the wall. Shukhov calls him "heavenly" and says that he "shed the hardships of camp life like water off a duck's back."
Buinovsky (bi nof¢ ski): Ex-naval captain who is a newcomer at the camp. Has great difficulty assimilating into camp existence, because he is used to having power and giving orders.
The Tartar: Guard at the camp who does everything by the book. Has a "choking" voice and is not bothered by the cold. Looks for people to pick on.
Pantleyev (pan tla¢ ev): The squealer, a creature truly despised by all prisoners.
The Estonians: Two men, as close as brothers, who rely extensively on each other for survival. They "hung on to each other so closely that you'd think one would suffocate unless he breathed the same air as the other."
Senka Klevshin (sen¢ ke klev¢ shin): A "quiet, luckless fellow," one of Shukhov's squad members who is deaf. The other members of the squad protect him somewhat by accommodating for his weaknesses.
Fetiukov (fe¢ tyu kof): Member of Shukhov's squad who survives with little pride. Shukhov calls him a "jackal" and "a pat master at cadging." Although generally despised by Shukhov, Fetiukov manages to find his own means of survival.
Vdovushkin (ve do vush¢ kin): Medical supervisor of the camp and a writer.
Volkovoi (vol ko¢ voi): Lieutenant of camp. A "wolf" who carries a whip and strip searches the prisoners.
Andrei Tiurin (an dre¢ e tyur¢ in): Well-respected leader of the 104th squad. Hand-picked Shukhov to be in his squad when he arrived at the work camp. Extremely fair.
Pavlo (pa¢ vlo): Unofficial second in command of the 104th. Cares about the survival of all members of the squad, and especially believes in helping the weaker members while they are learning the "rules" of surviving.
Gopchik (gop¢ chik): Fresh-faced Ukrainian boy in camp, as "pink as a suckling pig." Shukhov admires the speed with which he adapts to the work camp life and "adopts" the boy to fill the void left by his own son who died young.
Kilgas (kil¢ gas): Works in the 104th with Shukhov as a mason. Although he has only been in the camp two years, he is considered an "old timer" by Shukhov because he has learned the rules of survival quickly. Cheerful because he received two parcels per month.
Tsezar (sa¢ zar): Rich prisoner who is treated as a guest. he is the only prisoner who lives in warmth and can survive on the parcels he receives in the mail. He is not required to work, and spends his days conversing about the luxuries of the outside world, such as the artistic merit of Sergei Eisentein's Ivan the Terrible.
Der (der): Building foreman who looks for ways to punish the squads.
The Moldavian: A prisoner who is rumored to be a spy, missing from the lineup because he had gotten in a crawl space to do some plastering, had gotten warm, and had fallen asleep.
"The Limper": Mess orderly who is disabled, but a "hefty S.O.B." who is armed with a birch club with which he hits anyone who comes up the steps without his permission. Shukhov says, "he hit the down-and-outs."
Mess Chief: One of the few prisoners who wears no numbers.
The Lett: a prisoner who sells tobacco, one of the few pleasures a prisoner still has.
Despite the horrible conditions in the gulag, Shukhov makes the most of every day through hard work and ingenuity. His day begins with reveille, which he never oversleeps. Shukhov spends the ninety minutes of the day which are totally his doing services for others, such as laying out other prisoner's shoes for them. He is often rewarded with extra food for these services.
At breakfast Shukhov is glad there are no liens at the mess hall, and that Fetiukov, the prisoner with the lowest position in the squad, had kept his breakfast for him. A day of work without breakfast would have been almost too hard to endure.
The squad leader, Tiurin, returns, announcing that they were able to bribe the camp leaders with a pound of salt port from a mail parcel to prevent the 104th squad from going to the "Socialist Way of Life" settlement where they would have worked outside in the brutal cold.
At the work site the squad is assigned the job of setting cement blocks on the second-story walls of a building. Shukhov is a mason, so while the others get their tools from the camp's collection, Shukhov retrieves "his"-the best one which he has stolen from the collection-from a hiding place inside a brick.
To help warm the work site, Shukhov and Kilgas retrieve a bolt of stolen roofing felt from under some flooring planks to cover the windows for insulation. At the worksite, the squad falls into the routine of spirit and enthusiasm, for the better their work is, the better their food rations will be.
At lunch, Shukhov aides his squad by recounting the number of bowls the squad has received and informing the cook of his "mistake." The cook gives Shukhov some extra portions.
Shukhov brings Tsezar his bowl of food and his portion of bread. He is amazed by the warmth in Tsezar's office. Outside Tsezar's office, Shukhov finds a bit of a hacksaw in the snow and pockets it as a tool for later.
The squad's mood is bright when Shukhov returns; Tiurin was able to write the work report for the previous day even though no work was actually done. This means the squad will get extra rations for the next four days. The squad begins to work on the wall, and as they get into a rhythm of work, they begin to get warmer.
At the end of the day, the 104th is the first squad to make it to the checking lines, which means they will be the first to eat at dinner. Shukhov waits in line to be searched, offering to stand in the parcel line for Tsezar after supper. Shukhov hopes that Tsezar will reward him for doing this by giving him some of the parcel. After the recounts, Shukhov heads to the parcels office for Tsezar. Shukhov asks if he can bring Tsezar his dinner. Tsezar refuses, telling Shukhov that he may have it.
Shukhov checks his bunk to reassure himself that the guards did not find his cache of bread, then goes to the mess hall. Shukhov can be the one to serve his squad. Shukhov watches the cook carefully as he serves the bowls, looking for the bowls of soup that are the least watery. Shukhov keeps the bowls with the thickest stew nearest to him. They are given bread according to the amount of work they have done, and Shukhov selects a crusty piece.
Shukhov leaves the mess hall to buy tobacco form the Lett with money he receives from doing private jobs, then visits Tsezar to view his parcel and to deliver his bread. Tsezar gives his bread to Shukhov, but offers none of his parcel to him. Shukhov returns to his bunk, plans to make a cobbler's knife from the hacksaw blade, and hides it. Buinovsky and Tsezar ask to borrow Shukhov's "ten days" (knife) to cut some sausage. They pay him by sharing some of the sausage.
The squad is called out of the bunk for another count, and Shukhov is amazed at Tsezar for eating his parcel out in the open, when someone is likely to steal it while they are gone. Shukhov offers to guard the parcel for him by being one of the first to return to the barracks. When they return, Shukhov places his boots near the stove and guards both the parcel and his boots.
Tsezar thanks Shukhov, who returns to his bunk to prepare his bed for sleep. Just as most men have gotten warm, the squad is called out for a second count. Tsezar hands him some food as they move out, and Shukhov offers to hide his parcel for him, since everyone knows Shukhov never receives one.
Back in his bunk, Shukhov considers that Aloysha never does favors that get paid back, and hands him a biscuit. Aloysha tanks Shukhov, believing that Shukhov has nothing. Shukhov eats a bit of the sausage left from Tsezar's parcel and saves the rest for before roll call the next day. He sleeps, fully content.