Summary and Analysis Buying Tobacco


Ivan goes to Barracks 7 to buy some tobacco, thinking about the differences between the "special" camp and the previous camps he has known. In the "special" camp, prisoners do not get paid, while in Ust-Izhma, he was given at least thirty rubles a month. Here, Ivan makes extra money by doing odd jobs, such as making slippers for two rubles, or patching up jackets. He uses the money to buy tobacco at inflated prices from prisoners who get packages from home.

In the barracks of the Latvian from whom he buys his tobacco, Ivan listens to a conversation about the Korean War before he approaches his supplier. Then, he craftily haggles for as much tobacco as he can get into his shaving mug, the standard measure for such transactions. In between, he overhears other prisoners making derogatory comments about Stalin, and he contemplates the fact that the inmates of "special" camps are allowed much more freedom of expression than those in a "regular" camp, where such a remark would have been severely punished. There is, however, not much spare time to use this "freedom."

When Ivan gets back to his own barracks, he sees Caesar Markovich spread out the contents of his package on his bunk. Caesar has received some sausage, canned milk, a large smoked fish, sugar, butter, cigarettes, and some pipe tobacco — an unimaginable treasure for Ivan. Caesar generously lets Ivan keep his (Caesar's) supper bread ration, and Ivan is happy with this gift. He rationalizes to himself that packages create quite a bit of trouble for the people who receive them. They have to share their good fortune with many others — the guards, the gang boss, the barber, and the doctor. Ivan considers all this a mixed blessing. He is happy that he does not rely on other people. He does not envy Caesar, as many of the other prisoners do.

Here, the tobacco episode shows Ivan, once again, to be a crafty, practical man; he is clever enough to avoid being taken advantage of in any transaction. While he was paid rubles in the other camps, he was not able to use the money the way he would have liked to. Here, he has to do extra work to make a few rubles, but he can buy much better tobacco on the camp's "black market." As usual, Ivan is able to see the positive side of his situation and does not dwell on the disadvantages, another strong weapon in his survival arsenal.

Without comment, Solzhenitsyn introduces another conversation into this episode, this time about the Korean War and the possibility of its widening into a worldwide war after the Chinese intervention. Ivan, who has come for a practical purpose — to buy tobacco — is not at all interested in this topic. It is as irrelevant to his personal struggle for survival as a debate about Eisenstein films or the latest Moscow theatrical productions. The Korean War or, for that matter, a world war, will not change Ivan's situation substantially. Talking about it is a waste of precious spare time.

The comment by a prisoner about "that old bastard in Moscow with the mustache [who] wouldn't give a damn about his own brother" is the author's only direct reference to Stalin in the whole work. It is claimed that Khrushchev, through the editor of the first edition of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wanted at least one direct, negative comment made about Stalin, whose policies he was trying to undo. This passage was Solzhenitsyn's way of complying with this request. Significantly, he chooses to refer to Stalin as "that old bastard in Moscow with the mustache," almost literally the same expression which he himself used in his correspondence with a friend; earlier, his correspondence and this reference were the reasons for Solzhenitsyn's imprisonment. Here in camp, however, the authorities don't even bother to punish such irreverence — a meaningless leniency which Ivan naively interprets as "freedom of speech." We must remember, however, that the Captain will spend ten hard days in solitary confinement for a more innocent and a more justified remark. In addition, there is not much time in this "special" camp to engage in "free speech," and Ivan considers any abstract discussion a waste of time.

Back in his barracks again, Ivan demonstrates that he is a reasonable, practical man. He looks at the assortment of Caesar's riches without envy and even realizes that such packages are a mixed blessing. He himself is able to provide the small luxuries he needs for himself by craftiness and hard work, and thus, he does not have to bribe anybody or defend and share his "wealth." In addition, he has seen ample evidence that packages do not come regularly enough to be relied on. He has observed many of these privileged people scrounging when their parcels did not show up. Ivan is content with Caesar's extra bread ration, and the extra food he has been able to get on this day, as well as some tobacco. His self-reliance will guarantee his chance for survival. But what will Caesar and the others do if their packages from home do not arrive?

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