In the novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we are shown the horrendous conditions in Stalin’s labor camps through the protagonist’s eyes. We share only 24 hours of Shukhov’s life, as shown by the title of the novel, but the awful living conditions are well shown. The author creates a dramatic foil between the privileged and ordinary prisoner, also called zeks. In these camps we know that food is the money and that without it you cannot survive, it is a power! The contrast shows the corruption and injustice that this power brings; some zeks abuse the power that is given to them and misuse it by treating others badly, others make good use of it and help out the rest of their squad, finally, the rest of these privileged zeks take advantages of their power but would still share some of their “wealth” with the ordinary zeks.
In this novel, there are many examples of abuse and corruption. The main one is the mess chief and the limper. The mess chief has the “money” of the camp; he is the most powerful prisoner in the camp. By the way Shukhov describes him, we realize how corrupted he is. “The mess chief was a fat swine, with a head like a pumpkin and a mighty pair of shoulders. … Once they’d tried to beat him up but all the cooks – choice thugs they were – had leaped to his defense. ” (100).
This detailed description shows well the kind of person the mess chief is. He knows he has the control and he abuses it as much as he can, he’s even better off than civilians with his lambskin waistcoat! It also illustrates the way that he uses his immense power to get more advantages than any other prisoners in the camp. This is shown by the fact that he is a strong and healthy person, and that he is full of energy. He doesn’t have to wear a number due to his incredible influence on the camp authorities. Another strong abusive character is the Limper, he’s hated by all the zeks, the reader eventually sees his cruelty and abusive temper during the passage where Shukhov describes his activity while going to the mess hall. “Because of his lameness he had managed to get classed as disabled, …. He hit the down-and-outs.” (99). This quote illustrates very clearly the fact that the Limper is a coward and is full of cruelty.
He already has privileges, he doesn’t go to work, but yet he has to abuse the ordinary prisoner who had a hard work day and show them how much more powerful he is. It also shows that whenever a prisoner has some power, they need to get more of it, no matter what it takes. But the Limper also has to lower other prisoners to make himself feel better and look more important. This especially happens when the zeks are waiting for their turn in the mess hall. “One hundred and fourth” shouted the Limper. “Where d’you think you’re crawling, shit?” He whammed a man from another team on the back of the neck with his cudgel” (102). The way he treats ordinary prisoners stresses the Limper’s disrespect towards them. He has to insult them to make him look like he’s better off than the rest of them. This shows that he’s in fact lower than the rest of the zeks, just like the squealers.
Another example for this category of zeks is Der and Shkuropatenko. Der is the kind of prisoner that betrays any zeks, not quite like a squealer because he gets privileged treatment. Right after the incident with Tiurin: “Der went across the open ground, looking haggard. To warm up in the office. He must have had the wind up. … He should keep pleasant with team leaders like that, then he’s have nothing to worry about: the camp authorities didn’t insist on his doing any real hard work, he received top category rations, he lived in a separate cabin – what else did he want? Giving himself airs, trying to be smart.” (74). This emphasizes the fact that Der wants more, even though he has everything an ordinary zek could ask for, but it doesn’t satisfy him. It shows that a little power corrupts you to the point of wanting everything, even what you can’t have. We also know that Der used to be an important figure in the political world.
“Up the ramp came yet another snooper, another chief – building-foreman Der. A muscovite. Used to work in some ministry, it was said.” (71). Just like the mess chief, Der’s clothing differed somehow from the ordinary’s zeks. “Der was wearing a regulation camp coat, but it was new and clean. His hat was stylish, made of leather” (72). In these quotes we clearly see the fact that Der was a previous important political figure and he still has privileges. Due to his position and attitude, he’s not well seen from the other prisoners, yet the ordinary zeks cannot do much about it because of Der’s sympathetic relations with the authorities.
Another prisoner who’s shown as taking advantages of his status is Shkuropatenko. He’s not shown as taking directly advantages of his role. “The lanky Shkuropatenko, a mere cipher, a trusty who’d been given the temporary job of guarding the prefabs from any pilfering by the prisoners. Yes, it was Shkuropatenko who was most likely to spot them on the open ground” (41). This pictures Shkuropatenko as telling on others to make himself look more important to the guards and authorities of the camp. In this way he doesn’t have to work hard but he is vicious but he abuses the power he has by telling off everyone he sees. He even continues watching the prefabs from inside an office.
“Beyond him, like a bent pole, stooped Shkuropatenko – B219. That eyesore – staring out of the window, trying to see, even now, whether anyone was pinching some of his precious prefabs! You didn’t spot us that time, you gawk” (59). This quote illustrates the hatred that the ordinary prisoners show towards the privileged ones and how they mock their devotion to their “work”. We clearly see why Shukhov dislikes Shkuropatenko as well as other abusive characters of the novel. He feels that they shouldn’t be telling on other fellow zeks, even thought they have more power than him. This shows how power corrupts the simple minds to the bone.
There are some zeks that don’t abuse their powers at all and make use of it to help out others. Tiurin, the squad leader is one of them. He does his best to keep them out of trouble and get them good rations. This is shown when Tiurin confronts Der about the prefabs Shukhov and Kilgas grasped previously during the day. “Shukhov feared nothing for himself. His team-leader would never give him away. ” (72). This is a good description fro Tiurin’s strength, he would never betray his squad. He has privileges; he doesn’t abuse them, but uses them to get his men out of trouble. All the things he does are for his men, and when they talk about him, they always show a great deal of respect. “He had no jokes or smiles for his team, but he took pains to see they got better rations. (….)
In camp the team leader is everything: a good one will give you a second life (…) He’d only just averted the danger of the team being sent to work at the Socialist Way of Life Settlement, now he was probably deliberating over the “percentage” on which the team’s rations for the next five days depended.” (33). This adds to the generous picture of Tiurin. He would never use his power to get advantages for himself; he would get them for his whole squad. This emphasizes that fact that he has a big heart and shares everything with his fellow squad members. The privileges brought by power don’t interest him; he despises corrupted zeks, such as Der and Shkuropatenko and does all he can to make life easier for his zeks around the camp. This is also why he’s shown as a good squad leader. He is one of the only zeks that act like that towards the ordinary prisoners.
Yet, there is another example of zek, Tzesar is one of them. He’s the kind of zek that had many privileges, slightly abuses them, but uses them to get things his way around the camp. He’s one of the few prisoners who gets parcels twice a month. He works in an office but he acquired this place through bribes. He doesn’t have to go and work in the cold unlike the other members of the 104th. He always has extra food to eat and something to smoke. These belongings bring him power and influence in the camp. The ordinary zeks ask him for some of his special goods and his good heart usually gives some away. “Tzesar Markovich,” slobbered Fetiukov, unable to restrain himself. “Give us a drag.” His face twitched with greedy desire. …. But the moment he lighted a cigarette he read in several pairs of eyes an unspoken plea for the fog-end. Tzesar turned to Shukhov and said: Take it, Ivan Denisovich.” (22). This shows that even though he doesn’t share often, he’s generous.
He gives the fog-end to Shukhov without him asking for it directly. It means that he’s kind deep down, even though he’s using his privileges to get a better position.. Yet there is another side of him. He believes that he’s higher than other zeks in the camp. When Shukhov brings him his lunch, he ignores him. “Tzesar swung round and held out his hand for the bowl, not even looking at Shukhov, as though the kasha had materialized out of thin air” (60). This shows how selfish he is, he doesn’t care about other prisoners. He should be out in the cold like all the other zeks but due to his power, he sits all day long in warm office. Yet Shukhov feels pity for him as he knows that he’s the kind of prisoners that can only survive as long as parcels as being sent to him This kind of prisoners can only survive as long as parcels as being sent to them
In One Day in the Life Denisovich, the different kind of privileged prisoners either makes ordinary prisoner’s lives worse or better. In the first case, the privileged prisoners are hated by all the zeks and could eventually get murdered. For the other kind, the rest of the squad respects them as they give men a second life. No matter what kind of privileges they have, they are all a big foil to all the ordinary prisoners and bring about a sense of injustice towards the ordinary prisoners.