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The portrayal of people in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to criticize Soviet rule and society

Updated on July 9, 2014

The Author



The novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a devastating critique of the hopeless economic system, political despotism and moral degradation of the new socialist order established by Lenin in 1917 and furthered by the Stalinist regime between 1924 and 1953. It is set in a labour camp for long-term political prisoners somewhere in Siberia, and creates an artistic documentary of the horrors that its author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn experienced during his own imprisonment in such a camp. The main character is Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, an uneducated, ordinary peasant, who survives the gulag due to sacrifices, basic instinct and backbreaking work, yet preserves his dignity and integrity. Although Solzhenitsyn only sketches the characters of other prisoners, guards and the labour camp itself, he successfully creates a portrait of a microcosm of Soviet rule and society at the time. His characters represent all major social groups – the authorities, farmers, intellectuals, various ethnic groups, religious groups, returned prisoners of war and military heroes. Furthermore, the author also creates an impression of the excruciating length of the total time that Shukhov must endure in the camp through the temporal framework of only one “endless” day of suffering, which Denisovich paradoxically considers a happy day.

The Development of Characters

Despite this day of suffering, most of Solzhenitsyn’s characters, developed in somewhat more detail, are positive. Solzhenitsyn chooses to focus on the more optimistic characters in more detail to offer the reader the insight that despite the harsh conditions, the positive inmates manage to stay hopeful. They have their internal moral code, which is summarized in the words of Shukhov's first ever squad leader "Here, men, we live by the law of the taiga. But even here people manage to live. The ones that don't make it are those who lick other men's leftovers, those who count on the doctors to pull them through, and those who squeal on their buddies." Tyurin, the 104th’s team leader and a hardened 19 year-long prisoner, reminds his workers that keeping one’s integrity, is the key to staying alive. Those who act immorally and grovel will die. Andrey Prokofyevich Tyurin’s character depicts the camps overwhelming and omnipresent injustice. Tyurin, as a team leader, does not belong to any social group within the camp and is seen my most inmates as a terrifying figure of Soviet authority and rule, even though in reality he is a sympathetic normal inmate and just a puppet of the authoritarian rule. This reflects also upon the common practice of the secret police among soviet society at the time, people would be forced to spy on their loved ones by the government. Again the author succeeds in depicting an element of the corrupt and disgusting soviet rule.

The Cover


About the Author

Born: Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn 11 December 1918

Died: 3 August 2008 (aged 89)

  • Novelist
  • Soldier
  • Teacher

Famous Works: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, August 1914

The Main Conflict

The main conflict in the novel is presented between two of the members of Tyurin’s 104th: Shukhov and Fetiukov are shown as exact opposite archetypes of the prisoners, the first as a survivalist with his dignity intact, while the second represents all “squealers” and those who have been degraded by the unforgiving conditions leading to their demise. Shukhov’s persona is concentrated on as a person who has been able to hold onto his spiritual and moral values, despite the gruesome life he has been forced to lead due to his incarceration. He would never beg or “lower himself like Fetiukov, he would never look at a man’s mouth.” Ivan Denisovich, an ordinary peasant of Russia at the time, is able to defy the authorities’ endeavours to degrade him and grasps hold of those aspects of his life, which let him maintain his humanity and survive. Solzhenitsyn portrays Ivan Denisovich as a person of the lower classes, but with inner nobility.

In contrast, Fetiukov, who is frequently characterized as “low” , is an inmate who has been reduced to his most basic desires. He demands a puff of a cigarette and doesn’t take heed of Buinovsky’s warning when collecting cigarette butts. He has not only lost his integrity and dignity, he lacks appreciation of them, when answering Buinovsky, “When you’ve been in for eight years you’ll be picking them up yourself.” He has not only been totally degraded but has lost all respect for the values of others. Fetiukov is set apart from most other characters in the novel, due to his persona of a beggar and degraded human.

In addition to Fetuikov’s corrupted personality, the author criticizes materialism and the corruptness of Soviet rule through the character of Tsezar Markovich, an inmate who has earned a certain amount of privileges in the camp. Tsezar was “well off. Two parcels a month. He greased every palm that had to be greased, and worked in the office in a cushy job, as assistant to the rate inspector.” Solzhenitsyn portrays the predestined unfairness of the camp. Tsezar as an aristocrat receives food parcels and is able to survive and earn privileges by bribing the Soviet officials. The corruptness of the system is ubiquitous. Furthermore Tsezar’s name, the Russian form for “Caesar”, depicts him as a boundary toward spiritual well-being for Shukhov, as Caesar, the emperor, was a hindrance for the spread of the Christian religion, which seeks spiritual peace.

A View of the Original Camp


Groups of People

he guards are a group, which is given more attention by the author, although still only briefly sketched in comparison with individual prisoners. Thus losing their individuality. The characters of the guards are revealed in scant detail, but enough to be divided in antipodes – “Ivan, a thin, weedy, dark-eyed sergeant” )who at first sight “looked like a real bastard, but when you got to know him he turned out to be the most good-natured of the guards on duty: he didn't put you in the guardhouse, he didn't haul you off before the authorities” and the Tartar with a “crumpled, hairless imperturbable face”, looking around for another victim. This group had no mercy on the inmates and forced them to strip naked in minus forty degrees to be searched. The ferocity of the cold reflects the actions of the guards themselves. The guards were not so much interested in observing the rules but in saving their own lives and avoiding being ‘labelled’ as political enemies and themselves becoming inmates. That is why everything at the camp is random, despite the official presence of rules and regulations – Denisovich was lucky not to be searched when hiding a piece of metal in his clothes, “he wasn't being sent to the guardhouse at all. It was simply that the guardroom floor needed scrubbing. The Tartar told him he was going to let him off, and ordered him to scrub the floor. The corruption among the guards mirrors the corruption in society - “Of course with empty hands you got nowhere. He'd have to take a pound of salt pork to the senior official there, if not a couple of pounds.” Bribery and cheating are the major societal ethics not only within the camp, but in Soviet society at the time in general.

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The novel, although fictional, effectively presents itself partly as a documentary of Solzhenitsyn’s life. The author powerfully criticizes the corruption in the Soviet government during the reign of terror; by presenting the gulag as in fact a microcosm of Soviet society and government. Within this intensified image, the author presents the exceptions and revolutionists, which follow Tolstoy’s idea of resisting evil without violence. The inmates, who have accepted their sentence and do not aggressively revolt, but simply do not allow the government to crush them morally and mentally, follow this spiritual idea of Tolstoy. These images are collected within Shukhov – hardworking, honest and dignified – an archetype of all prisoners that survive. Although presented with harsh living conditions and freedom, the main character is able to find his liberty and means of survival through little actions, which is in fact his being in defiance of the authorities, which try to purge him of his humanity. Due to these small acts of defiance, Shukhov is able to survive and still withhold his spiritual and moral values – contrary to what the state desired.

The Book


Solzhenitsyn, A. (1963), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, London: Penguin Books, Translated by Ralph Parker

New American Oxford Dictionary (2010), 3rd Edition, USA

Tolstoy L., (17.03.13), HYPERLINK "", www page

The Full Movie


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