Summary and Analysis
Daydreams of Home and of the Kolkhoz
Hungry and still feeling ill, Ivan daydreams about a letter that he considers writing to his wife — while all the time marching along, automatically, toward the power plant, his gang's worksite. He is allowed to write two letters yearly, but there is not much he can write about that might interest his wife. The letters that he has received from her have left him puzzled.
According to her letters, his former kolkhoz, the collective work farm of the Soviet agricultural system, is in total disarray. Many of the men did not return to the kolkhoz after the war, and those who did return only "live" there; they earn their money somewhere else. Most of the young people have left the kolkhoz to work in the towns and in the factories. The agricultural work is done almost entirely by women. Carpentry and basket weaving, once the specialities of his village, have been abandoned in favor of painting cheap commercial carpets from stencils. The collective farm is suffering because everybody is earning easier and better money with these carpets. There is a great demand for them, since most Russians cannot afford real carpets. Ivan's wife hopes that he'll return and become a carpet painter.
Ivan does not like these new developments, and he resents his wife's urging him to take up carpet painting after his release from prison. He wants to work with his hands, either making stoves or doing carpentry. But then he remembers, just as his column arrives at the gates of the worksite, that he cannot go home — even after his release from camp. Nobody will hire a man "convicted with loss of civil rights."
At this point, it is obvious that almost all of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich will be concerned with life in a prison labor camp. Very little is mentioned about life in Soviet Russia outside of the camps. This particular episode, therefore, is important because, in it, Solzhenitsyn gives detailed attention to one of the prized institutions of the Soviet system — the collective farm, or kolkhoz. Here, the author uses Ivan's daydreams during the march to the worksite as a device to show the depressing facts of an institution which has been deserted by the people charged with making it the mainstay of Soviet agricultural production. Most of the older men have not returned to the kolkhoz after the war, and the younger men prefer to work in the towns or in factories, and so the collective farm, administered by corrupt and incompetent officials, is left to women and old men.
The pride which the Russian rural population once had in quality craftsmanship has given way to the desire to make easy money with cheap commercial products — in this case, the three kinds of stenciled carpets, for which there is such a heavy demand because the general population cannot afford quality craftsmanship any longer.
Ivan, like Solzhenitsyn, deplores this disappearance of traditional Russian pride in honest quality work and is determined not to follow the modern trend after his release. But then he remembers that he will be, at best, a "free worker" — that is, a former prisoner who, after serving his sentence, is not allowed to return to his former place of residence.
He will have a hard time finding work, due to the "loss of civil rights" which is included in his sentence. Solzhenitsyn mentions "free workers" several times in the story; there are settlements of such workers close to the camp, with only minimally greater comforts than those available to the camp inmates.
This brief episode is the author's only comment on the deteriorating collective farm system. The subject, however, was of deep concern to Solzhenitsyn, who considered the traditions of the rural Russian population vital to any change in the political system. His story "Matryona's Home" (1963) is devoted solely to the topic of rural life and the innate goodness of the Russian people, a goodness which is slowly but surely being undermined by the corrupt Soviet system.