The prison camp is designed to strip the Zeks of their individual identities and dignity, reflecting the larger goal of the Stalinist regime—to create a collective society where the individual identity and desires are replaced by a national identity and dedication to the collective good. The prisoners’ names are taken from them and replaced by numbers, their boots are tossed into a common heap, their social standing outside of the camp is rendered useless, and prisoners are strip searched for personal possessions several times each day. The stripping of identity and dignity destroys many prisoners, such as Fetyukov. Shukhov does not respect Fetyukov because he is always nagging and begging for food and cigarettes. At the end of the novel, the guards beat Fetyukov for licking bowls, showing how losing one’s dignity has a destructive effect on the Zeks.
Many of the Zeks, however, do retain individual identities. Shukhov tells that, “from the outside, everyone in the squad looked the same—their numbered black coats were identical—but within the squad there were great distinctions.” Because the Zeks are stripped of all material possessions and markers of external identity, maintaining strong principals and one’s dignity becomes a means by which some characters survive in the camp and maintain their identity. Shukhov, the novel’s protagonist, is the primary example of how prisoners maintain identity and dignity. He is a rigorously principled man, refusing to stoop to the degradation of the other characters. Despite the cold, he takes his hat off before he eats. Despite his hunger, he does not eat the eyes of the fish in his soup. Despite his needs, he certainly does not beg for anything.
Work provides an opportunity for Shukhov to gain a true sense of identity and dignity. Even though he does not receive a wage for his work and will not benefit from the labor he puts in, his work ethic and skills allow him to feel some ownership over it, which is immensely important for a man who owns nothing else. Although it appears that Shukhov is acting out the Soviet ideal—giving of oneself for the state—the pride he takes in his work is not rooted his service to the Soviet state, but in the fact that it allows him to feel useful as an individual. Interestingly, the very activities in which the Soviet ideal seems most present are the activities in which Shukhov finds the dignity to resist the stripping of his identity. In the end, his work on the wall and the satisfaction he gained from putting his skill to use stand as a major factor in what made his day “an almost happy one”. This final moment shows that maintaining one’s dignity through a principled life makes living in the camp slightly more bearable.
Identity, Principles, and Dignity ThemeTracker
Identity, Principles, and Dignity Quotes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Shukhov never overslept reveille. He always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not the authorities, and any old-timer could earn a bit.
The thoughts of a prisoner—they’re not free either. They kept returning to the same things. A single idea keeps stirring. Would they feel that piece of bread in the mattress? Would he have any luck at the sick bay that evening? Would they put Buynovsky in the cells? And how did Tsezar get his hands on that warm vest. He’d probably greased a palm or two in the warehouse for people’s private belongings? How else?
And then every thought was swept out of his head. All his memories and worries faded. He had only one idea—to try to fix the vent in the stovepipe and hang it up to prevent it smoking.
[Buynovsky] was a newcomer. He was unused to the hard life of the Zeks. Though he didn't know it, moments like this were particularly important to him, for they were transforming him from an eager, confident naval officer with a ringing voice into an inert, though wary, Zek.
And now Shukhov was no longer seeing that distant view where the sun gleamed on snow…Shukhov was only seeing his wall…he worked with drive, but his thoughts were elsewhere.
And now Shukhov complained about nothing: neither about the length of his stretch, nor about the length of the day, nor about their swiping another Sunday. This was all he thought about now: "We’ll survive. We’ll stick it out, God willing until it’s over.”
Even eight years as a convict hadn’t turned him into a jackal—and the longer he spent at the camp the stronger he made himself.
“Well,” [Shukhov] said conclusively, “however much you pray it doesn't shorten your stretch. You’ll sit it out from beginning to end anyhow.”
“Oh, you mustn’t pray for that either,” said Alyoshka, horrified. “Why do you want freedom? In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds. You should rejoice that you’re in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul.”
Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: They hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn't sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner…He’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it…
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy one.
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like this in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.
Three extra days were for leap years.