Summary and Analysis
Some Thoughts on Comrades and Bread
Ivan's gang arrives at the worksite and begins to settle into the daily routine. Meanwhile, Ivan ponders about Alyosha's faith, which allows him to survive without extra food rations. He also thinks about the importance of a good gang boss for the survival of the gang members. Tyurin, his assistant Pavlo, and Caesar Markovich, who has a privileged position in the gang because his two packages per month furnish material for bribing the camp officials, go to the office to get the work assignments for the day, while the rest of the gang seeks shelter around a stove in a repair shop. Ivan, still feeling a little ill, begins to nibble the bread ration which he saved from breakfast, thinking about his wasteful eating habits before he was sent to the camp.
While he eats, Ivan observes some of his fellow gang members: the two Estonians who are inseparable and whom he likes, and Senka Klevshin, a deaf prisoner who was sentenced to jail after having survived the concentration camp at Buchenwald.
When Tyurin returns, he hurriedly hands out work orders to the gang members; they will finish a power plant which they worked on in the fall. Ivan and Kilgas, a Latvian, will lay bricks in the afternoon, but they are first ordered to find some material to cover the three big windows in the generator room, where the gang will mix the mortar. Ivan enjoys the prospect of working with Kilgas; they respect each other as skilled workers.
Soon, they manage to retrieve some roofing-felt which Kilgas had hidden illegally, and they plan to use it now to cover the windows. This pleases the gang boss, and so he assigns them the important tasks of fixing the stove and the cement mixer.
Of significant note in this episode is Ivan's decision: whether or not he should eat his half bread ration. He remembers how thoughtlessly he once filled his stomach with food back in his village, and how wrong he was to do so. Prison life has taught him that food is to be treated thoughtfully and with respect; he is proud of how much work he has done in the last eight years on so little food.
While Ivan eats, he thinks about some of his fellow prisoners. He likes the two Estonians for their camaraderie and for their support of each other; he thinks that he has never met a bad Estonian. Ivan appreciates most of the minority groups whom he meets in the camp, and he makes negative comments only about Russians, referring presumably to the population in the European part of the Soviet Union.
He accuses these people of having abandoned traditional Russian values and having become corrupted by the system. He praises the minority groups for their unwavering support of each other, for their preservation of their folk traditions, and for their good manners, as well as for having retained their religious beliefs. Later in the novel, Ivan will comment on the fact that the two Estonians see where he hides his food, but he feels sure that they will neither steal from him nor reveal his secret hiding place.
Deaf Senka Klevshin illustrates the absurdity of Article 58 of the penal code; he was taken prisoner by the Germans and was thrown in the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where he led a resistance movement. After the war, however, he was sentenced to ten years' hard work for "allowing himself to be taken prisoner" and for "collaborating with the enemy."
After reflecting on Alyosha's religious faith, Ivan thinks about the god-like power of the gang boss. This thought association is not accidental: in Ivan's world, the gang boss replaces Alyosha's God as the omnipotent authority. As Ivan will state in a later conversation with Alyosha, his (Ivan's) world is based on existential principles, in which metaphysical authorities do not operate. In Ivan's world, the gang boss makes all decisions, and these decisions directly affect the all-important food rations. In comparison to this situation, even the Camp Commandant is unimportant, and, significantly, we never even see this supposedly powerful figure. We see only his lackeys.
While the men wait for the work assignments, they discuss the fact that there has not yet been a blizzard this winter which would prevent them from marching to work. It should be noted, though, that a blizzard could hardly be much worse than the sub-zero temperatures and the winds which they have to endure on this particular day; in addition, they have to make up all lost working days by working on Sundays. Significantly, however, any break in the boring routine is welcome.
After another brief look at the unadaptable Buynovsky and at the disgusting Fetyukov, we observe the gang receiving their work orders. Ivan Kilgas (the Latvian) and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, both named Ivan, are teamed up. Their identical first names are an indication of their parallel backgrounds as skilled, conscientious workers. While neither one of them is important in terms of the bureaucratic hierarchy of the gang — Caesar Markovich's packages carry more weight there — they are respected for their skill and for their practical problem-solving ability. They may not be fortunate enough to be able to provide food to bribe officials, but they assure the well-being of the gang by appropriating material to keep the bitter cold out of the workroom and by assuring the fulfillment of the work quotas by fixing the stove and the cement mixer. In this sense, they are of equal, or greater, worth than Caesar, the rich intellectual, who has been able to bribe himself out of doing hard work altogether.