The Identity of Shukhov: Persistence and Dignity in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”
A sense of identity is what defines the human being, what sets each person apart from the next, is the constitution of an individual. In the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the author uses information from personal experiences in Soviet prison camps, or gulags, to create a story explaining the identity of a fictional character named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. As the reader imbibes passages delineating the life of this character, one can see how his environment strips him of his identity, how he preserves his individuality with dignity and etiquette, and how he has established bonds with those around him. The novel portrays one day in Shukhov’s life, but it also describes exactly what and how his identity has become.
The environment of the gulag is harsh to the highest degree. Filled with political prisoners who had in some way opposed Stalin’s regime, the prisoners feared not so much each other as the harsh guards, the fearsomely cold weather, and starvation. The gulag seems to try to strip Shukhov’s identity from him, replacing his name with a sound and a number. “Shcha-854, the Tartar read out from the white patch on the the back of the black jacket” (Solzhenitsyn 7). As well as the functionalism of not having to know each prisoner’s name, it allows the guards to tear away at the prisoner’s identity, telling him that he is no more than a number, a part of their scheme, not a person anymore. The gulag’s prescripts also remove a person’s individuality by removing their privacy. “…Ivan Denisovich heard a rumble of protest: They’re taking our undershirts off us” (Solzhenitsyn 32). The prisoners were searched each day on entry and exit of the camp, and the more clothing they had to remove, the more a zek felt they were being exposed, the more of a zek belonged to the camp rather than to themselves.
Through this unjust divestment of identity Shukhov passes stolidly, holding tightly only to his dignity. He takes a passive rebellion against the regime, unlike Buynovski, who often shouts complaints to the guards and is punished for doing so. Shukhov stays strong by following personal routines, like his etiquette for eating. “Next, he removed his cap from his shaven head – however cold it was, he wouldn’t let himself eat with his cap on….if the roof burst into flames he still wouldn’t hurry” (Solzhenitsyn 17). Shukhov always follows a routine, removing his hat, checking the contents of his bowl, and eating slowly. By performing his personal set of motions, he reminds himself that he is an individual who can still do things his own way in these few moments of his own time. The routine also helps him ensure that nothing harmful is in his food, and that the meal is more filling than if he just swallowed it down quickly. Shukhov also distinguishes himself with his personal spoon. “Shukhov withdrew his spoon from his boot. That spoon was precious, it had traveled all over the north with him. He’d cast it himself from aluminum wire in a sand mold and scratched on it: Ust-Izhma, 1944” (Solzhenitsyn 16). One of the few zeks to own his own spoon, Shukhov attaches more meaning to his spoon than to his secret handmade knife. Although the knife has more uses and is more of a prized tool by the average inmate, Shukhov prefers a tool that nurtures him than a tool that destroys.
The final way in which Ivan Denisovich conserves his identity is by bonding with his fellow zeks. For each person who knows him and understands his identity, it is that much stronger. He forms bonds with those around him, an internally conflicted group who join in a combined effort against the guards. “…hid his half-ration amid the sawdust. Then he tugged off his cap and unsheathed a threaded needle – also well hidden” (Solzhenitsyn 26). Although his bunk-mate Alyoshka the Baptist sees him hiding something in his bed and using a needle, both things forbidden by the camp rules, Shukhov has no concern of being ratted on because he can trust Alyoshka. Shukhov is also willing to do favors for people around him because it puts them in debt to him and allows him to call on them for favors in the future. “Denisovich! Lend us your ten-day gadget” (Denisovich 163). This “ten-day gadget” was a knife that Shukhov kept hidden in his mattress. It is in his personality to lend favors in exchange for other favors. Some people know him as the zek who has the knife, or the zek who always repays debts. That is part of Shukhov’s identity, part of how he is perceived by the group. By making himself known to other zeks in a particular manner, Shukhov can keep that identity and not become a nobody.
Unjustly imprisoned for a political crime he did not commit, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov became opposed to the Stalinist movements of incarcerating anybody whose beliefs or actions were in contrast with communism. His silent rebellion against communism is enacted through his maintenance of an individual identity. Shukhov prevents himself from being owned by the Communist state, keeps his identity; even as the gulag tries to tear his being apart, he preserves his dignity and becomes known to others as something other than a number. What Solzhenitsyn shows in this 180-page day is that the human being, the human soul, is held together by an identity, and that keeping one’s identity is the most important thing one can do.
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