Summary and Analysis The GULAG Work Ethic


This short episode contains a discussion of the work ethic in the camps. Clearly, the system is designed to make the prisoners keep each other working hard in order for the whole group to survive. Tyurin has assigned the Captain and Fetyukov to work together carrying sand because that particular job does not need intelligence; here, we should realize that Solzhenitsyn is being satiric: the Captain has been a Navy officer and Fetyukov has been "a big shot" in a government office.

The work makes the men animated, and they even joke about what they will charge for doing such an excellent job. For awhile, Ivan works with Gopchik, a young Ukrainian whom he likes, and time passes very quickly as they prepare for the bricklaying ahead. After one of the very few, directly sarcastic comments about the Soviet government — which has decreed that when the sun is directly overhead, the time is 1 P.M. — Ivan has to undergo some good-natured ribbing about the fact that his ten-year sentence is almost up, which leads to his reflecting about the reason for his being in this "special" camp.

In this episode, Solzhenitsyn deals with the old question of why prisoners work so hard — rather than doing sloppy work or even sabotaging some of the work projects. In this particular scene, we see that the work quota system has been designed so that food rations are tied to the fulfillment of the assigned work. Thus, each prisoner is anxious for all of his gang members to work hard, because he is the beneficiary of the results and will suffer if, due to a lack of effort on the part of any single gang member, the work quota is not completed. The work quota, however, only encourages quantity, not quality of work.

Other, more sophisticated reasons, are given in the course of the story to explain Ivan's hard work. First of all, only meaningful work — that is, work which influences the food rations — is done well: the mopping of the guardhouse floor does not fall into this category, and Ivan does a sloppy job. In addition, it becomes clear that work, any work, is better than no work at all.

In this episode, we hear no more of Ivan's aches and pains after he is given a meaningful task; all thoughts of going on the sicklist are forgotten. Work, as we see later in the story, serves to bolster an individual's self-esteem, and work well done (Ivan's brick wall) gives an otherwise unimportant, faceless prisoner an individual identity. This is also the reason why Ivan actually does his job well, when it might be enough to make it look as if it had been done well. Fetyukov, not used to doing manual labor, has to be forced to work and, accordingly, he performs his tasks unwillingly. Small wonder that he is a scrounger and a bowl licker.

Also in this episode, we discover a special relationship between Ivan and Gopchik, a young Ukrainian. Gopchik, in many ways, serves as Ivan's surrogate son (Ivan's only son died young), and Ivan is trying to pass on some of his knowledge to the young man. He does not even mind that Gopchik does not share any of the packages he receives from home, but, instead, eats the contents secretly at night. just as Tyurin picked out Ivan upon his arrival at the other "special" camp, Ivan now adopts Gopchik in a fatherly way.

When Ivan looks up at the sky, he notes that it is almost noon, and this leads to a sarcastic criticism about the Soviet bureaucracy.

Prisoners are not allowed to carry watches; they have to judge the time of day by the position of the sun. But when Ivan deduces that it is noon because the sun is directly overhead, the Captain remarks that the observation is an outdated superstition: the Soviet Government has passed a law that decrees that when the sun is directly overhead, it is 1 P.M. Ivan wonders naively whether the sun now falls under Soviet law, too.

While most days seem to go by quickly with hard work, the end of Ivan's prison sentence does not seem to come any closer. Ivan, who has already served eight years of his term, is teased about having "one foot already out of the camp."

This teasing is done mostly by prisoners sentenced after 1949 (after the "good old days"), when the previous ten-year prison sentences were converted to automatic twenty-five-year terms. Ivan cannot understand how anybody could survive twenty-five years in a "special" camp, but he also does not really believe that he will be released in two years. He remembers many prisoners with original three-year sentences, who had five years added on at the end of their first term. He would not be surprised to have another ten years added to his term. The best he can do is not to think about the end of his sentence and to accept whatever is in store for him. During this good-natured joking about his impending release, Ivan begins to daydream again, this time about the reason for his being in the camp.

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