Summary and Analysis
A Discussion of Art
Ivan enters the office to bring Caesar Markovich his bowl of now-cold mush and finds Caesar engaged in a conversation with prisoner K-123, an old man who has already served twenty years. The two are hotly debating the artistic merits of Sergei Eisenstein's famous film Ivan the Terrible. Caesar defends the film as a work of genius while the other man condemns it for its vindication of a one-man tyranny, something that would have pleased Stalin very much. When Caesar objects that Eisenstein had to make compromises to get his work past the censors, K-123 violently objects to Caesar's calling Eisenstein a genius: "a genius does not adapt his treatment to the taste of tyrants."
In this very brief scene, Solzhenitsyn gives his critique of a masterpiece of Russian art, Eisenstein's film Ivan the Terrible. At the same time, he deals with all his fellow artists who have been willing to compromise with the Stalin regime. In this sense, the episode is a continuation and an intensification of the theme begun in the episode focusing on the young poet Nikolay Vdovushkin (Episode 4). Here, however, Caesar Markovich is an artist and an intellectual; he despises manual labor and has made art his quasi-religion in the camp. Accordingly, the discussion between him and K-123 takes on the sense of being a religious debate (remember, the two contestants are sitting in a comfortably warm office); the debate proves much too sophisticated for Ivan, the naive witness to the conversation. Caesar is not interested in any "political message" that might be in the film; instead, he admires the artistic concept and its masterful execution, and thereby, he insinuates that an artist has no political responsibility. This enrages K-123, who criticizes the film for its vile political praise of a one-man dictatorship. He denies the title of genius to any artist who "adapts his treatment to the taste of tyrants."
K-123 is clearly a mouthpiece for Solzhenitsyn, who, in many letters and speeches to the Soviet Writers' Union, insisted on the personal and political morality of the artist and expressed his open contempt for all of those Russian writers who compromised or collaborated with the Stalin regime in order to get their works past the censors. As will also happen in a later episode, Ivan Denisovich is an uncomprehending bystander here, one who simply waits around to see whether or not Caesar will give him a little tobacco or some of the mush; in many ways, Ivan's simple, traditional, naive values are far superior to those of Caesar, whom both Ivan and Solzhenitsyn view with distrust.