One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Chapter 4
Chapter 4 (pages 62-72, building site–sentence)
As Gang 104 crosses the enormous building site, they cross paths with Gang 82. Shukhov suggests they build a fire to thaw the ground they’ll be working on, but the other man replies they’re not allowed the wood. Kilgas utters Shukhov’s sentiments exactly in his expression of outrage at this lack of sense, but as it’s too cold to speak, the men continue on their way, carrying boards upright to conceal the roofing felt and to prevent the illicit material being seen by the watchmen. When they get back to the work site, the cement mixer is in pieces, but the boss’s frustration is relieved when he sees the roofing felt, and he assigns Shukhov to fix the stove and Kilgas and the Estonians to fix the mixer. The narrator explains the philosophy of work in gangs, where prisoners are so dependent on each other for their lives they keep each other in check.
Pavlo arrives with the tools and Shukhov remembers a trowel he’d hidden previously which will now come in handy. Tyurin leaves to fix the work rates, an all-important role for a gang boss, and the men get down to work. Since the water freezes in the buckets, they decide to melt snow. Gopchick finds some wire and asks Shukhov to teach him to make a spoon. Kilgas jokes that he’ll charge a hundred rubles for the job, and Pavlo laughs. Alyoshka arrives with some coal, but is confused when another man shouts to use wood instead. Fetyukov puts his felt boots up against the stove and is punished by being sent to carry sand. Soon the windows are covered, the bricks have arrived by truck, and the challenge is to get them up to the second story without a hoist. They arrange men above and below to move bricks assembly-line fashion, and by noon they are working away. The Captain declares that it is 1:00 p.m. when the sun is directly overhead as it is now, because the Soviet Government passed a law saying so. The communists have gotten harsher recently, and since 1949 have been sentencing men to twenty-five years rather than ten, as is the case with Kilgas. Shukhov is considered lucky by the others as his sentence is nearly up, but he knows better than to believe he’ll really be let out rather than given another sentence when his number’s up.
The unfairness of the Soviet prison system is the main point of this section. From the cruel forcing of the prisoners to work outside without fire to the fact they are unpaid for their hard work, the system is against the men’s welfare. Each has his own way of dealing with this injustice, and Kilgas’ humor seems a good approach. He is able to maintain his humanity by making jokes, and sharing a laugh together brings the men closer. This scene shows Shukhov is in his element: he is a talented carpenter and enjoys working with his hands, whether carpentry or crafting utensils. The teenage Gopchik brings out a paternal sentiment in him, and he promises to teach him to make a spoon out of raw material, further showcasing his ability to thrive on minimal inputs. His high spirits at noontime, or, as the Captain only half-jokingly suggests, at one o’clock according to Soviet mandate (preposterously dictating such unchangeable facts of nature as the hour the sun reaches its height in the sky), suggest the day will go by fast as the work is fulfilling and feels good despite the chill. Shukhov’s good fortune in having been sentenced to only ten years in prison while the men who arrived later received twenty-five seems arbitrary indeed, as the lengths bear no resemblance to the offences committed or alleged, but rather reflect the whim of the Soviet regime, which may as easily add years to a sentence as it purports to re-assign time.