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.
Power and Authority ThemeTracker
Power and Authority 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.
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.
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.
No clocks or watches ticked there—prisoners were not allowed to carry watches; the authorities knew the time for them.
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?
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.
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.
A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing.
“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.”
Freedom meant one thing to him—home.
But they wouldn’t let [Shukhov] go home.
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.