In this novel, Solzhenitsyn rarely gives us lengthy descriptions of a person's character or of his background. Instead, information about the protagonist and his fellow prisoners is given in small installments as the story progresses and as it becomes important for the reader's understanding of the protagonist. Thus, we have found out so far that Ivan has been away from home for ten years, that he has a wife, that he has spent some time in a camp near Ust-Izhma (where he was sick with scurvy), that he has a vitamin deficiency disease, and that he has lost some of his teeth. But we still do not know why he is a prisoner.
In this episode, we are told that Ivan is now in a "special" camp, a prison camp with particularly harsh conditions. This is Solzhenitsyn's phrase for camps which are designed mainly for opponents of the Soviet regime; these men were sentenced under Article 58 of the Soviet penal code (see "The GULAG System").
Ducking behind some barracks to avoid being caught unsupervised, Ivan makes his way to the prison hospital. On the way, he considers buying some tobacco from a Latvian prisoner who has received a package from home, but he decides to try the hospital first. The young medic, Nikolay Semyonovich Vdovushkin, has no medical background at all; he is a student of literature whom Stepan Grigoryevich, the new prison doctor, has taken under his wing.
As Ivan enters, Vdovushkin is copying out a long poem he had promised to show the doctor and from which he does not want to be distracted by Ivan. After explaining that the maximum daily number of prisoners (two) have already been put on the sicklist, he puts a thermometer into Ivan's mouth and continues to write.
Ivan dreams about the luxurious possibility of being 'Just sick enough," for three weeks, not to have to work. But then he remembers the new prison doctor, whose therapy for any illness is work; clearly, this doctor does not care about the health of the prisoners at all. By the time the young poet-turned-medic tells Ivan that he has a temperature of just under ninety-nine degrees, Ivan is resigned to go to work, commenting that a person who is cold cannot expect any sympathy from a person who is warm.
In this episode, then, we see Ivan on his way to the hospital, considering changing his plan for getting on the sicklist in favor of buying some tobacco from a fellow prisoner. The reader learns that some lucky camp inmates receive packages from home, a fact of prison life which is investigated throughout the novel.
The person from whom Ivan wants to buy the tobacco (and later on, he does) is a Latvian — that is, he comes from one of the small Baltic countries which the Soviet Union annexed after World War II. The camp population is a cross section of the oppressed peoples of contemporary Russia, and most of the ethnic minority groups are represented. In addition to the Latvians, there are also Ukrainians and Estonians, as well as a Moldavian.
The Vdovushkin episode is one of the most interesting episodes in this novel, since Ivan comes in contact here with a creative writer. Young Nikolay was arrested at the university, presumably for reading or writing seditious material. As an idealistic student-poet here in the camp, however, he has forsaken all of his political ideals. He has, to some degree, become a "tool" of the system, in exchange for an untroubled work time. He follows instructions, copies out a long, probably unimaginative poem ("he was writing in neat, straight lines, starting each line right under the one before with a capital letter and leaving a little room at the side") to please his loudmouthed, know-it-all benefactor. He shows no compassion at all, nor any initiative to ease the lot of the prisoners because he fears losing his privileges. He slavishly defends the inhumane rules of the doctor.
Ivan realizes that if one is cold, he should not expect sympathy from one who is warm — that is, from "an ordinary person" who is warm. But, from a poet, a creative humanist, seemingly, one should be able to expect some sympathy.
Vdovushkin is Solzhenitsyn's portrait of the contemporary Russian writer who has abdicated his ideals for small conveniences and who now writes long, unimaginative works in prison as a trustee. Solzhenitsyn is particularly harsh with the young poet because he himself has made it his dangerous task to demonstrate what path contemporary Soviet writers should take.