One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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Themes and Colors
Power and Authority Theme Icon
Identity, Principles, and Dignity Theme Icon
Competition vs. Camaraderie Theme Icon
Belief and Faith Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Power and Authority Theme Icon

The theme of power and authority exists on several levels in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In the most visible sense, power and authority rest in the hierarchical structure existing among the camp’s inhabitants—the Zeks (prisoners) existing at the bottom, with the guards, wardens, officials, and commandants above them. On another level, however, the camp can be viewed as a microcosm of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, which is the force that creates the conditions for such a camp to exist in the first place. In this larger picture, the Soviet state stands as the ultimate power and authority over both the officials and prisoners of the camp.

The fact that the camp is a “special camp”, designed to punish political prisoners, suggests that the purpose of the camp is to align rebellious individuals with the Soviet Government’s ideologies—the ideal being a non-hierarchical collective society where each man works for the good of the state. This ideal, however, is foiled by the conditions of the camp. The Zeks are unjustly incarcerated for crimes that one might consider ridiculous. Gopchik is imprisoned for taking milk to freedom fighters hiding in the woods, Shukhov was falsely accused of being a spy, and Tyurin is punished simply for being the son of a rich peasant father—a social class that Stalin vowed to eliminate. The very fact of their awful existence in the camp is rooted in the abuse of power and authority. The guards, wardens, officials, and commandants act as an oppressive power over the Zeks, but they too are oppressed by the power of the Soviet state, which dictates their lives. As is common with instances of oppression, the guards, who are oppressed by the state, become brutal oppressors over the prisoners, clinging to what power they do possess.

Driven by their sense of power and authority, the camp officials create a laundry list of absurd rules that actually impede the prisoners’ ability to survive and function within the Soviet ideal. These rules, which threaten the prisoners’ survival, act to pit the prisoners against one another as they attempt meet their basic needs, including access to food, warmth, and clothing, limiting any hope of a collective society within the camp. In other words, a camp meant to forcibly train political prisoners to become good Soviets in fact is governed by rules that promote the opposite. The failure of the Soviet ideal within the camp can be viewed as a critique of the larger Soviet project, showing that abuse is inherent in the possession power and authority, and that as long as this power exists the goal of collectivization—of each man giving freely of himself to help the state and other men—will be futile.

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Power and Authority ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Power and Authority appears in each section of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Power and Authority Quotes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Below you will find the important quotes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich related to the theme of Power and Authority.
Section 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Page Number: 3-4
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage appears at the beginning of the novel, after the reveille--the prison camp's morning alarm--has sounded.

Here, we see one way in which the prison camp has affected Shukhov's thinking about time. He conceives of time in terms of ownership, his days being divided into periods that either do or do not "belong" to him. The ninety minutes that follow the sound of the reveille belong to him: he is able to exercise some control over what he will do during that time--but this brief bit of independence by no means entails leisure for Shukhov, who takes advantage of this sliver of freedom by performing chores to earn extra money. 

This quote gives us a first glimpse into the radical lack of control Shukhov has over planning his life, and how he views that life as being fundamentally divided into parts which he does and does not own. 


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From the outside, everyone looked the same—their numbered black coats were identical—but within the squad there were great distinctions. Everyone had his grade.

Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs when Shukhov and his squad eat breakfast in the mess hall.

The bleak homogeneity and repetitiveness characteristic of life as a zek appear here. The prison represses individual identity by branding every zek with a number used in place of their name, and by forcing every prisoner to wear the same uniform, which makes everyone look the same. The prison also radically diminishes spontaneity and possibility from the zeks' lives by turning each day into a repetition of the same, scripted schedule. By strictly regulating the zeks' sleeping, eating, and free-time with mandated inspections, a strictly enforced curfew and wake-up time, and a rationed diet of the same gruel and soup every day, the prison turns its inhabitants' days into one omnipresent routine.

Shukhov notes that all these regulations--the uniform in particular, here--tend to make every zek have the same outward appearance. The prisoners' external appearances, and the external actions which make up their lives (apart from their inner, mental lives), are regulated to the extent that outward differences between individual prisoners become blurred, if not erased. Yet despite this, Shukhov asserts that internally, there are great differences between all the men. In a situation that is as harsh and monotonous as the camp, one's interior experience, beliefs, and identity become the whole of one's dignity and sense of self.

Apart from sleep, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner, and five at supper.

Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the previous one, when Shukhov and his squad are eating breakfast in the mess hall.

The division which Shukhov perceives at the core of his life as a prisoner--the division between the periods of time which he owns and those which he gives up to carry out his orders--resurfaces in this passage. Here, the narrator considers sleep to be one of those few periods in daily life when a prisoner "lives for himself." That the narrator regards sleep as one of the few activities which a prisoner performs voluntarily and for his own health--that the unconscious state of being asleep counts as an example of active living--amplifies the senses of fatigue and lost vivacity which permeate everyday existence in the book. 

The narrator paints the activities which zeks perform in their conscious, everyday lives as lifeless in comparison to the time they spend sleeping. The real world of waking consciousness, for the zeks, is a death-sentence to their freedom, and the energy and enjoyment of life has become relegated to the realm of sleep (apart from twenty total minutes of waking life per day), which functions as a reliable, day-to-day form of escape. It's as if the zeks go to sleep feeling they're about to reclaim their lives, yet feel their life wane when they awake--a total inversion of how people ordinarily view the relationship between sleep and life. The zeks awake to death and fall asleep into life.

Section 2 Quotes

No clocks or watches ticked there—prisoners were not allowed to carry watches; the authorities knew the time for them.

Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs when Shukhov is in the sickbay.

The lack of power that prisoners possess in planning how they spend their time is further exposed here. In previous quotes, we've seen how, in the camp, a zek's relationship to the passing of time is rigidly divided. A zek has very few moments where he can willfully or voluntarily choose how to pass his time, and endures a comparatively overwhelming number of moments when he must follow orders dictating how he must spend his time.

This passage depicts that inhumane and oppressive division at the heart of the prisoners' lives in yet another way. The prisoners, without access to any clocks or watches, are kept in the dark about time. They lead a life not molded and shaped by the unfolding or ticking of numerical time, but rather a life shaped and organized by orders and commands. The authorities arrange, organize, and plan the temporal structure or schedule of the zeks' daily lives. In this way, the authorities come to take over the role of the clock. The passing of time is no longer simply an impersonal, neutral procession measured by an abstract system of numbers, for the authorities have hijacked time from the zeks; consequently, obeying the authorities and trying to avoid punishment are the sole measures in relation to which the zeks can orient their plans, actions, and behaviors if they want to survive.

Section 3 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (speaker), Buynovsky, Tsezar
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs while Shukhov and his fellow zeks are marching from the prison camp to the town where they'll be working for the day.

Here, we get a sense of how imprisonment in the camp affects not only a prisoner's external actions and behaviors--what he does and does not do in order to avoid punishment--but a prisoner's inner mental life as well. The psychological realm of one's inner thoughts--which some might conceive as a private, inner refuge which the outer world cannot ultimately influence--is revealed here, in the case of Shukhov, to actually be deeply impacted by the prison environment.

Even Shukhov's intimate, internal train of thought is somehow regulated by the prison: he's worried that his hidden piece of bread might be discovered, that he'll be rejected again by the sick bay, and he envies Tsezar's vest, which leads him to speculate about the manner in which Tsezar acquired it. This illustrates the severity of the anxiety which occupies much of Shukhov's thought. A moment of peace and contentment--though such a thing does exist, however crudely, at certain points in the novel--is something which seems very out of reach for Shukhov, here. His mind can never be steady or contently rested, for his thoughts are always "returning to the same things." Shukhov's thoughts are almost always subconsciously running through a mental checklist about the rights and wrongs of his behavior in order to gauge the probability of his being punished by the authorities.

During his years in prisons and in camps he’d lost the habit of planning for the next day, for a year ahead, for supporting his family. The authorities did his thinking for him about everything—it was somehow easier that way.

Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote, following shortly after the previous one, provides another depiction of Shukhov's thoughts as he walks from the prison camp to the town where the day's work will take place.

The monotony and repetitiveness of life in the prison camp, as well as the deep influence which the authorities have over the inner mental lives of the zeks, resurface here. The same, unchanging, scripted schedule that structures his every day in the prison camp causes Shukhov to lose the "habit of planning for the next day." On any given day in the camp's future, the same, pre-established routine will merely repeat itself; there's therefore no use in making special preparations for the next day, or even year, when every new day will follow the same pattern. (This is also a nod to the book's title and central conceit--the narrator only needs to describe "one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich" because all his days are mostly the same.) Shukhov's only horizon of future possibility is the prospect of being released at the end of his ten-year sentence; other than that, his life is wholly absorbed in the present, in the day-to-day procession of a relentlessly repetitive way of life.

That the "authorities did his thinking for him" illustrates how the lack of any thought about preparing for the immediate future has enclosed Shukhov's thinking within an omnipresent reality engineered by the Gulag. Shut off from the possibility of the future--the possibility of something new, something different than the present, day-to-day reality--Shukhov and his fellow zeks are looped into a perpetual replay of the same script, the daily schedule designed by the authorities. Having resigned himself to the inevitability of this constant repetition, Shukhov has effectively handed his power of creative thought--his ability to conceive of the future as something ultimately unpredictable and therefore worthy of advanced preparation--over to the authorities. By stripping Shukhov of his ability to think in terms of the future--which amounts to his ability to think for himself, to plan his own life--the authorities draw him into the daily, unchanging loop of their regime, drastically limiting the control Shukhov has over his own thoughts.

Section 6 Quotes

Why, you might wonder, should prisoners wear themselves out, working hard, ten years on end, in the camps? You might think they’d say: No thank you, and that’s all. We’ll drag ourselves through the day till evening, and then the night is ours.
But that didn't work. To outsmart you they thought up work squads—but not squads like the ones outside the camps, where every man is paid his separate wage. Everything was arranged in the camp that the prisoners egged one another on. It was like this: either you all got a bit extra or you all croaked.

Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs at the work site, when Shukhov and Kildigs are trying to warm up the room that is under construction in the power station.

Here, the fundamental question is raised: why, exactly, do the prisoners feel compelled to work so hard? The answer reveals the cunning strategy of how the Soviet authorities socially engineered the prisons. To ensure a high output and quality of work, the authorities organized the prisoners into "work squads," which promotes competition among fellow zeks because they must constantly be checking up on each other to see if everyone is performing satisfactory work. The zeks are punished or rewarded in rations on a collective, not individual, basis--another way in which individual identity is sacrificed for the collective, but also a sign of the hypocrisy of collectivism itself--for it's only in individual competition (a generally capitalistic idea) that good work is done by the Communist collective.

“The sun’s already reached its peak,” he announced.
“If it's reached its peak,” said the captain reflectively, “it’s one o’clock, not noon.”
“What do you mean?” Shukhov demurred. “Every old-timer knows that the sun stands highest at dinner-time.”
“Old timers, maybe,” snapped the captain. “But since their day a new decree has been passed, and now the sun stands highest at one.”
“Who passed that decree?”
“Soviet power.”

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (speaker), Buynovsky (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs shortly after Shukhov, working with his squad in the power plant, looks up at the sky and realizes that, based on the sun's position (it's at its peak), it's dinner time.

Seeking to confirm with someone (no name is given) who has informed him and his squad members that it is noon, Shukhov cites his observation of the sun at its peak. Buynovsky, however, challenges Shukhov's belief that the sun reaches its peak at noon. Mocking the severity and largely unchecked authoritarian rule of Soviet power, Buynovsky says that Soviet rule has decreed that the sun's peak now corresponds to one o'clock, and no longer noon. 

Buynovsky's comment satirizes the vast reach and extensiveness of Soviet power. That something seemingly so beyond the reaches of state power and intervention--the correspondence of the cycles of the natural world with the human clock--could become regulated and managed by Soviet rule seems absurd. Buynovsky has rather tellingly dramatized the seeming omnipotence of Soviet power for those living in the Gulag.

Even those serving three-year sentences were kept for another five. The law can be stood on its head. When your ten years are up they can say, “Here’s another ten for you.” Or exile you.

Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Occurring shortly after the last passage, this quote appears after Kildigs remarks that Shukhov's prison sentence is nearly finished. 

The narrator exposes the haphazard, unprincipled disorder of Gulag law here. Gulag authorities, we learn, often do not apply the law consistently: "the law can be stood on its head." A completed ten-year sentence can be deemed inadequate on a whim, with another ten years instantly issued in its place.

Further, the surprisingly casual tone of "Here's another ten for you" highlights the zeks' ingrained awareness and anticipation of brutality and injustice from the Gulag system. Though Shukhov is excited by and hopeful for the prospect of being released from the camp, he still has doubts about whether or not the authorities will actually follow through with it.

Yes, you live with your feet in the mud and there’s no time to be thinking about how you got on or how you’re going to get out.

Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs very shortly after the previous one. Kilgas has just remarked that Shukhov's sentence is nearing its end. 

The narrator, describing Shukhov's thoughts about the passing of his prison sentence, conveys here another instance of Shukhov's tendency to feel absorbed in the present moment. Shukhov thinks that, upon entering the camp, a prisoner has no time to think about how he was arrested or how he will escape. It's as if a zek's past life dies, for the past is no longer fruitful to mull over and contemplate; once a zek is arrested, his future becomes effectively predetermined for the next ten or even twenty-five years--and no memories from the past will be able to change this. The future similarly becomes almost non-existent and difficult to imagine for a zek, who lives repeating the same, seemingly omnipresent script day after day. It's as if the time-span that stretches from Shukhov's entrance to and exit from the camp constitutes one massive present moment.

Section 7 Quotes

And however much blood you sweat at work, however much you grovel on your belly, you’ll force no food out of that earth; you’ll get no more than the damned authorities give you.

Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs while Shukhov is having dinner with his squad at the work site.

Here, the narrator brings attention to the fact that food in the prison is distributed strictly according to a system of rations--not according to merit, effort, difficulty of labor, or health. Prisoners only eat what the authorities provide them, unless they happen to be fortunate enough to receive a parcel containing food. 

The bland, rationed-out, and sparse diet provided to the zeks is yet one more element that exposes the dread of imprisonment. Overworked and subjected to extremely cruel working conditions, the prisoners are fed a shoddy diet that comes nowhere near being adequate fuel for the labor they're ordered to perform--all because of the whims of authority figures.

Section 9 Quotes

A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing.

Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs when the zeks have gathered before the gates of the work site, where the guards will count them before starting back towards camp. Tsezar asks Buynovsky how his day went, and the narrator calls this a foolish question, since "a man who's warm can't understand a man who's freezing." Tsezar, an office worker, had spent the day in an environment incomparably "warmer" (both literally warmer and far less harsh overall) than Buynovsky's.

The narrator's repeated emphasis in the novel on this theme--that feeling literally warm fundamentally bars one from empathizing with people who are freezing--highlights an important gap between certain people in the prison community. The zeks who are able to work in heated spaces are incapable, according to the narrator, of imagining how continual exposure to severe cold alters one's mental state. In a way, one's exposure to heat is a form of power; those who avoid working in the cold have a higher chance of surviving their sentence and, in general, suffer considerably less than those who face extended exposure to the cold. In addition to Tsezar, at the beginning of the book, the narrator considers Kolya--the medical orderly who takes Shukhov's temperature--to be another person who cannot understand those who must endure the cold.

Section 12 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (speaker), Alyoshka (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange betwen Shukhov and Aloyshka occurs after Shukhov and most of his squad have gone to bed, and just before the guards call for a second count.

Here we witness two radically different views about prison life. For Aloyshka, prison is a religious opportunity where one is able to think about and develop a closer relationship with one's soul. Freedom, for Aloyshka, is something that could easily destroy one's faith; freedom exposes one to a multitude of options and possibilities in life that can turn one away from a religious path. In prison, however, this isn't the case--faith is strengthened by the lack of any worldly distractions. 

For Shukhov, this way of thinking seems twisted and idealistic. Regardless of Aloyshka's piety and devotion, Shukhov says he is doomed to live out his sentence the same as everyone else. He therefore sees no point in Aloyshka's devoutness. But getting out of prison, as we've seen, is not the goal of Aloyshka's faith. This clash showcases an interesting meeting between two minds with diametrically opposed views of their lives in prison.

Freedom meant one thing to him—home.
But they wouldn’t let [Shukhov] go home.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs while Shukhov is in bed, just before the guards announce the second count.

Freedom, for Shukhov, has only one meaning, only one thing, object, or quality with which it's associated: home. Freedom doesn't mean a certain philosophy of the free will or a certain belief in a freedom granted through religious or spiritual practice, nor does it mean economic fairness or equal opportunity--it simply means "home." At the end of the day, for Shukhov, freedom is simply the thing that means the very opposite of the prison--and that thing is "home." Returning home would put an end to the prison, an end to that tragedy which has so far taken away eight years of his life. Home is the symbol of freedom resonating at the core of his mind.

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.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

The last and perhaps most profound paragraph of the entire novel, this quote ends our glimpse at one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

Here, Shukhov recounts a day which many people might consider to be a living hell as "almost a happy one." Simply avoiding peril--such as being put in the cells or sent to the settlement--serves as a basic source of satisfaction. The mere evasion of danger or harm becomes something that Shukhov can tally as a source of pleasure in his day. And so his day is "almost a happy one" simply because it didn't have a "dark cloud." 

"Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days"--made into a self-standing sentence--forces us to imagine an overwhelming repetition of the entire novel we've just read, of thousands of more versions of this one day where nearly every thought, with a few exceptions, is wracked with worry, uncertainty, bodily pain, and hopelessness. Multiplied by 3,653, this bundle of experience called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" becomes especially alive: we, as readers, are invited to imagine the vast stretch of identity-erasing monotony, hardship, and flickering hope that still remains in store for Shukhov.