One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Chapter 5
Chapter 5 (pages 76-95 , Shukhov’s treason charge–delivery of Caesar’s bowl to the office)
In this section, it is imparted that Shukhov surrendered to the Germans and signed a document stating he intended to commit treason, which he figured saved his life. The story of the winter of 1942 is a horrifying one; the men in his army unit were reduced to eating the hoofs off dead horses, and were shortly thereafter captured by the Germans and put in a POW (prisoner-of-war) camp. Shukhov escaped with four other men, but two were fired upon and a third died of his wounds, making the truth suspect in the eyes of the Russians who distrusted the story that the survivors had escaped without rigging a deal.
Returning to the present, the deaf Senka Klevshin declares he escaped and was caught three times. Because he has trouble hearing he rarely speaks, but the little of his life the others know is gruesome. He’d been imprisoned at the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald were he’d smuggled in weapons and been hung up by the Germans for a beating. Kilgas taunts Shukhov for being in an ordinary camp with women, a charge he denies. But Shukhov does remember the seven years he spent in Ust-Izhma, an experience he compares unfavorably with the penal camp HQ. The main differences here, as he sees it, are that the prisoners wear numbers, but are given more bread and a regular work day, “quota or no quota, they march you back to the camp” (78). Fetyukov disagrees, saying here men’s throats are cut while they sleep, a charge Pavlo dismisses though two “stool pigeons” (informers) recently met their ends that way.
The steam whistle sounds time for lunch, and the men are late in making their way to the mess hall. Pavlo gives the orders since Tyurin has not yet returned, and the narrator details the meager rations of the kitchen on the work site. The cook and sanitary inspector are in cahoots, and the groats must be consumed inside the mess hall, for which the men must bring bowls from camp daily. Shukhov grabs bowls and chases away some “goners,” prisoners with little time left since they’ve been worked to the bone, and secures a spot for his gang to sit. Pavlo takes the full bowls from the cook and passes them to Shukhov, but they run out after counting only fourteen. Fortunately, a new pile of bowls arrives just in time, and Shukhov recommences the count such that the gang will receive two extra portions. The cook questions the count and Shukhov daringly offers that he count them himself, slipping the two extra bowls to the pair of Estonians entering just then. The rest of the gang arrives with Gopchik just as the cook is getting upset that they’re claiming food before all being present, and the twenty-three men sit down four to a bench. Figuring he is entitled to at least one of the two extra bowls, Shukhov removes his cap and takes out his spoon with gusto, relishing his first bowl with anticipation for more to come. Fetyukov saw the whole exchange, and keeps trying to catch Pavlo’s eye to convince him that he, too, merits an extra helping. Pavlo ignores him, and as soon as Shukhov has scraped his first bowl clean with his extra bread, gives him both the extras, telling him to take one to Caesar. The poor Captain hasn’t yet gotten used to the local conditions, and rests a moment enjoying the warmth before being startled by Pavlo’s generous gift of an extra half bowl, which he hadn’t even noticed existed. Shukhov polishes off his second bowl, slips by the sentry at the door with Caesar’s bowl, and enters the office, which after the cold feels like a steam bath. Caesar is deep in conversation about fine literature with an old man called K-123, who disagrees that Ivan the Terrible, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1944 film about Ivan IV of Russia, is a work of genius, alleging that “a genius doesn’t adapt his treatment to the taste of tyrants” (94) and calling the author a toady instead. Shukhov passes Caesar the mush and leaves without even being acknowledged by his peer.
The background given on Shukhov here is key to his character. It turns out that when charged with treason, he agreed to signing the document rather than fighting for the truth, that he and four men escaped from the Germans although three later died. He perceived the choice as between certain death or life in prison, and revealingly preferred his ten-year sentence to insisting on the truth only to be punished with a worse fate.
The anecdote concludes at lunchtime, a high point in the men’s workday, and a time that again permits Shukhov to shine. At Pavlo’s side, Shukhov enters the mess hall, and due to his quick wit is able to obtain two extra bowls when the cook’s count is interrupted. He is fast on his feet and persuasive as a personality, for although Pavlo himself wouldn’t have tried to pull such a trick, he goes along with Shukhov, his subordinate, without flinching.
The debate between the prisoners about works of genius reflects contemporary thoughts on the merits of avant-garde versus realist artistic expression. In contrast to Caesar’s comments in praise of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s assertion that art must be shocking and break from convention, the prisoner called K-123 prefers gritty realism that conveys real feeling. This is in effect an endorsement of Solzhenitsyn’s work, because he writes simply, using language easily understood by peasants rather than intellectuals. However, in another sense Solzhenitsyn’s work is innovative, breaking from convention in depicting the most base of subjects, a man’s survival of a day in prison.
This section also shows the selfish focus of each man on his own bodily needs; like Fetyukov, Shukhov is desperate for additional food, and although he prides himself on not stooping so low as to beg, he, too, works the system to derive personal benefit.