Summary and Analysis
An Unexpected Race Homeward
Now that the men know that they will be the last ones back in camp and the last ones to eat the evening meal, their march homeward is slow and melancholy. Ivan remembers that he had been trying to get on the sicklist that very morning; he decides that it is a waste of time to try again.
Suddenly, another column of prisoners comes into view, and the remainder of the trip home turns into a race, trying to beat the other prisoners back to camp, since they know that the other gang comes from the tool works and are given an especially thorough frisking. They manage to win the race, and Ivan offers to go to the package room to look for a parcel that might have come for Caesar Markovich. Of course, he hopes to be rewarded for his troubles.
In this episode, note that, the prisoners march slowly in order to get even with the guards for keeping them waiting for so long; they are exercising this tiny bit of power by "getting even." When they sight the other column of prisoners, however, their competitive spirit is aroused, and their once-slow march turns into a race, a change of mind which no official command could have achieved.
During this episode, we find out why the Captain is in the "special" camp. He had been detached, at one time, as a liaison officer to the allied British navy during World War II, and the British admiral to whom he had been assigned sent him a little gift after the war, with the inscription "In gratitude." The result of this innocent little gift was a twenty-five-year sentence for "rendering assistance to the enemy" — in spite of the fact that Great Britain was Russia's ally during the war.
Toward the end of the march, Ivan deplores the lack of solidarity among the prisoners; he states that the worst enemy of a prisoner is "the guy next to him. If they did not fight each other, it'd be another story." It seems that Solzhenitsyn's statement here is meant to apply not only to Ivan's prison camp, but to Russia as a whole. In his opinion, the Stalinist regime can stay in power only because the Russian population is divided against one another. If this were not so, the author indicates, Russia's fate might be vastly different.