Our overarching setting is the gulag system in the Stalin-run Soviet Union. It's important to make a distinction between the gulag system and the "outside world" of the Soviet Union. The gulag prison system is a whole world unto itself. It's like a hidden universe with its own rules and language and people and places.
Before we get into the gulag itself, it's worth noting the historical setting here: the Stalinist Soviet Union in 1951. We didn't say Russia here because the Soviet Union was composed of a lot of different countries, most of which Russia had invaded and taken over. You can see this sort of international smorgasbord in the camp – there are lots of Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, and even a Moldavian running around. Through backstories and flashbacks we hear about an outside world that is violent and dangerous. Stalin's oppressive government practically arrested people for sneezing, people were poor and struggling, and most of the prisoners had been involved in violent wars, either World War II or some sort of national resistance movement, like the Ukrainian one.
It's also worth noting the year here before we get to the camp itself. Stalin died in 1952, so by setting the book in 1951, Solzhenitsyn may be giving his readers a hint that times are changing and that many of the prisoners we read about may actually survive to get out of the gulag. (Want to read more about Soviet politics in this period? Check our "Intro" section).
And now for the camp itself. The camp here is unnamed and in an unspecified location, though it's likely somewhere out in a place like Siberia. The camp is a dirty, oppressive, and dangerous place. There's a ton of rules, mean guards, violence, and harsh living conditions. People here are exhausted, weak, starving, and freezing.
Life in the camp is almost claustrophobic. Shukhov often thinks about how their sentences are never-ending and how horribly long the days are. There's a sense that the camp is hopelessly inescapable. Shukhov is also always surrounded by people. There are hundreds of zeks and they are packed into huts and mess halls like sardines.
The mess was its usual self - frosty air steaming in from the door, men at the tables packed as tight as seeds in a sunflower, men wandering between tables, men trying to barge their way through with full trays. (990)
It's constant chaos, constant crowds, and constant confusion. The moments when Shukhov is alone are notable, and this is usually when he stops to consider his environment and to give us some detailed descriptions.
A dim red sun had risen over the deserted compound: over pre-fab panels half buried in snowdrifts [...] over the broken crank of an earthmoving machine, a jug, a heap of scrap iron. There were drains, trenches, holes everywhere. (250)
Winter plays an extremely important role in the setting. It adds to the harsh world of the camp and the ubiquitous (or present everywhere) snow and cold make the entire universe of the camp seem endless. The detail of all the broken equipment, and unfinished building projects also adds to this sense of endlessness. Whether he's surrounded by frozen, desolate space or is crowded in with hundreds of other prisoners, Shukhov experiences the sensation of being permanently trapped in the camp.