Tyurin is like the father of Gang 104. He's the authority figure who is often absent, off working and taking care of business for his "kids" essentially. But he's also one of the group. He works alongside his gang for a lot of the day, and he even takes the time to share some stories with them. Tyurin is like the go-between, the liaison between his gang and the ultimate camp authority figures, the wardens and the guards. We get a sense of his responsibilities, as well as his fairly mysterious nature, from Shukhov, who often observes him.
Hefty shoulders, the foreman had, and a beefy face to match. Always looked glum. Not one to share a joke with the men, but kept them pretty well fed, saw to it they got good rations. A true son of the Gulag. [....]
Shukhov wanted to ask the foreman whether they'd be working at the same place as yesterday [...] but didn't like to interrupt his lofty thoughts [...] he'd be thinking about the rate for the job. (239-41)
First off, we learn here that the foreman job is a very stressful one. He's basically responsible for the entire gang, and his actions determine whether or not they get fed, which does a lot to explain Tyurin's fairly serious and withdrawn nature.
We also get a hint of Shukhov's admiration for the foreman here. Tyurin is a "son of the Gulag" who has survived for years and has also maintained his principles. Tyurin, like Shukhov, removes his hat while eating (513), which symbolizes the type of person he is.
But, while Tyurin is fairly mysterious overall, we get a really long personal narrative from him during the gang's dinner break. It really stands out in the book for being one of the longest backstories in the whole book, and for being told entirely by Tyurin himself. It's the longest we go without hearing a lot from Shukhov himself. So what is this lengthy spiel doing in the book?
Well, the key may be not just in how Tyurin speaks but in what he is speaking about. Tyurin's saga of being thrown out of the army and separated from his family is a sort of universal story among the zeks; it's one of injustice, suffering, government oppression, and broken families. But if this story is probably fairly well known to the zeks, who have all been separated from their loved ones, then why is Tyurin telling it? Tyurin is described as being in a "good mood" (512) before he starts talking, and yet he picks a story that's a big downer.
The reason Tyurin tells this story may be because there's not much else to talk about in the camps. It's almost as if Tyurin's saga, from the moment things started going downhill to his incarceration in the gulag, is the definitive part of Tyurin's character. In the world of the camp, it's practically the only thing that matters about him. He's a bit like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (from the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"). The Ancient Mariner wanders around accosting, or waylaying, bystanders and tells them a single story about an epically disastrous sea voyage. Like the Ancient Mariner, Tyurin almost seems like he can just talk about one thing, or like he didn't have a choice in the story he told. It was almost a compulsion:
Firelight fell on Tyurin's pockmarked face. He told his story without self-pity. He could have been talking about somebody else. (519)
"Think we ought to make some mortar?" Pavlo asked in a whisper.
The foreman didn't hear him. (526-527)
These two samples show how Tyurin is almost telling his story on auto-pilot. In a way this narrative and the way Tyurin tells it almost mindlessly help to emphasize the ways in which the camp transforms people and makes their arrests practically the only stories that matter about them, and the only stories they can really tell anymore.