Chapter 3 (pages 44-62, 1951–bricklaying assignment)
Despite his hunger and the cold, Shukhov marches in a column with the others past the former projects built by prisoners, thinking of a letter he’ll soon send home. Shukhov is allowed to send two letters per year, and as it is a new year, January 1951, and his last one was sent in July, it is time for another. He is discouraged, however, to think of how pointless an effort it is to write since the prisoners are not really allowed to say anything in their letters. Since he left home on June 23, 1941, his village has changed substantially, as conveyed by the omnipresent radios piping in news from the war. In a previous letter, his wife had suggested that instead of the traditional carpentry for which his village, Temgenyovo, became well known, he begin to paint carpets upon his return. Although this is presented as a potentially lucrative option, Shukhov doesn’t want to have anything to do with these carpets, and despite his training to not think about the future, he is upset by the prospect of this means of easy money replacing the hard work of his hands of which he has become proud.
Once the group of men arrives at the guardroom in front of the building site, they stop to be let in by the watchmen, and Alyoshka rejoices at the sight of the sun. By contrast, Shukhov thinks of the cold and his pain, and of whether or not to ask Tyurin where they are working. By 8:00 a.m., when Tyurin, Pavlo and Caesar head back to the jobs awaiting them in the warm office, the rest of the men are collecting scraps of wood to bring back to camp as they prepare for a long day’s work. Shukhov busies himself with his 6 ounces of bread, reminiscing about hot food back home, and observes the inseparable Estonian brothers. Fetyukov has collected cigarette butts and is piecing together bits of unburned tobacco when the Captain yells at him to stop, but Fetyukov knows that in eight years the Captain, too, will be so reduced. The quiet Senka Klevshin tells the Captain he shouldn’t have yelled at roll call, and Alyoshka prays. Despite their differences, all the men are subjected to the same snowstorms, the same rules, the same life as prisoners. Tyurin returns and it’s clear the men will be working on the unfinished power plant they’d been working on last autumn. Shukhov and Kilgas, the best workers in the gang, will be laying bricks on the second story, their lives dependent on being kept warm enough to work by covering the windows with roofing-felt. Other gang members will mix mortar in the generator room, and the men are kept in good spirits by Kilgas’ humor.
The contrast between Shukhov’s pre-war existence and the current circumstances in which he and his fellow prisoners find themselves is drastic indeed, but although each man is a unique individual, they have learned to function as a group. The emphasis on their different characters illustrates how the camp has changed them from men to indistinguishable prisoners in the eyes of camp officials, but among themselves they continue to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Shukhov admires the bricklayer Kilgas, for example. Kilgas’ regretful comment that there hasn’t been a snowstorm all winter reminds the men of the hope they have, for during a snowstorm no one is expected to go outside to work, although this is not much of a benefit since any lost working days are counted as holidays and have to be made up on Sundays. Nevertheless, the men have this same hope in common, and despite their differences all are at risk of freezing to death in the cold.