One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Plot Summary
At five o'clock in the morning, the reveille sounds and prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukov is in bed wondering if he should get up. He is not one to oversleep, but this morning he is feeling ill. He remembers that his squad, 104th, might be reassigned to a different work location, one that does not offer any protection from the cold. Thinking that a lenient guard is on duty, he stays in bed. Another guard, however--the Tartar--makes him get up. But instead of taking him to the guardhouse, the Tartar makes Ivan Denisovich scrub the floors of an office. When he's done, he thanks the Tartar for not taking him to the cells and runs to the mess hall for breakfast. He then makes a visit to the dispensary but he is denied permission to take the day off. Back in the barracks, Ivan Denisovich hides a portion of his bread ration inside his mattress.
Tiurin, the squad leader of the 104th division, calls them out for roll call. It seems Tiurin has been able to bribe the authorities out of reassignment. In the cold, Tsezar, a young Muscovite filmmaker, smokes a cigarette. He gives the butt of his cigarette to Ivan Denisovich. As the prisoners go through the morning search, Lieutenant Volkvoi, who is feared by everyone in the camp, tells the guards to search for those wearing extra undershirts. During the search, Buinovsky, a former naval captain and a newcomer to the camp, protests against the search and offends Lieutenant Volkvoi. He gets ten days in the guardhouse. The prisoners are counted and led out to their respective workplaces. On the march, Ivan Denisovich's thoughts wander and he thinks about home. The prisoners reach the building site where they wait for the squad leaders to give them the day's work assignment. While he waits, Ivan Denisovich eats some bread he has brought with him.
The members of the 104th are sent to work on an unfinished building near the power station. Ivan Denisovich and his working partner, Kilgas, are assigned to build walls. Tiurin asks them to first insulate the machine room to make it warmer. They come up with a plan to "steal" the prefabs (prefabricated panels) from a construction site. After putting up the prefabs, the squad members talk around the stove. Ivan Denisovich's story is further revealed. Officially imprisoned for high treason, the real story is that he was captured by the Germans and somehow escaped. Upon finding his way back, he was accused of being and a spy and given a ten-year sentence. If he had confessed, he would have gone to prison, if he didn't confess, he'd die. Ivan Denisovich chose to live.
For dinner, the prisoners get the good oatmeal. Ivan Denisovich, due to a cook's miscount, manages to swipe two extra bowls. At the table, Ivan Denisovich goes through the ritual of taking out his spoon, uncovering his head, and carefully concentrating on every bite. Pavlo, the deputy squad leader under Tiurin, gives one of the extra bowls to Ivan Denisovich and the other to Captain Buinovsky. After finishing his helpings, Ivan Denisovich takes a bowl to Tsezar. At the office, Tsezar and another prisoner are discussing the art of film. Ivan Denisovich finds the conversation impractical. On his way back, he finds a piece of hacksaw blade. At the building site, the rest of the squad warm themselves around the stove while Tiurin tells them the story of his early years before the camp. Then they start work again.
The members of the 104th work hard on building the walls. Der, the hated building foreman, comes and warns Tiurin that he will be punished for the stolen prefabs. Tiurin and the others threaten Der with his life. To save face, Der criticizes Ivan Denisovich's bricklaying. The end of the workday is near but Ivan Denisovich does not want to leave the wall unfinished. He and Senka, who is deaf, stay behind to work a bit longer. Before they leave, Ivan Denisovich looks over the wall and admires a job well done. When they get back, the assembled prisoners curse them for holding up the count. The count comes up one short because a prisoner had fallen asleep at the repair shops.
Upon entering the gates, the prisoners are searched again. Ivan Denisovich offers to save a place in line at the parcel's office for Tsezar. Just then, he remembers that he has a hidden piece of hacksaw blade. He manages to get by the search without getting caught.
Ivan Denisovich runs to the parcel's office to stand in line for Tsezar. Ivan Denisovich remembers how he used to receive parcels but then told his wife not to send them anymore. He has learned to do without them. Tsezar takes his place in line and tells Ivan Denisovich to have his portion of the supper. Ivan Denisovich fights himself into the mess hall. Supper is thin cabbage stew (as usual). As he eats his double portion, Ivan Denisovich observes prisoner U 81, an old man who has been in the camps for many consecutive terms. For Ivan Denisovich, this old man is the model prisoner--camp life has not robbed him of his dignity.
After supper, Ivan Denisovich buys two glassfuls of tobacco from a prisoner in another barrack. Back in his own barrack, Tsezar has the contents of his package laid out on his bunk. One quick glance and Ivan Denisovich knows it's a great package. But he does not envy Tsezar too much because a package goes quickly--everyone has to be given a bribe, or cut. While Tsezar and Captain Buinovsky are eating, a guard comes to take the Captain to the guardhouse--Lieutenant Volkvoi has not forgotten. Then, the prisoners are called outside for the evening count. Ivan Denisovich, feeling sorry for the hapless Tsezar, helps him hide his package. Before he turns in for the night, Ivan Denisovich talks with Alyosha the Baptist, a deeply religious prisoner who seems genuinely content with prison life. Alyosha tells Ivan Denisovich that he should pray for his soul. The conversation is disrupted by a recount. Before going to bed, Ivan Denisovich goes over the events of the day. He remembers that many good things happened and it's been almost a happy day--one out of 3,653 days.