Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Stalinist labor camp in which Shukhov is imprisoned is designed to attack its prisoners’ physical and spiritual dignity. Living conditions are nearly intolerable. Mattresses do not have sheets; prisoners eat only two hundred grams of bread per meal; and guards force prisoners to undress for body searches at temperatures of forty below zero. The labor camp also degrades its prisoners spiritually. By replacing prisoners’ names with officialistic combinations of letters and numbers, the camp erases all traces of individuality. For example, the camp guards refer to Shukhov as “Shcha-854.” This elimination of names represents the bureaucratic destruction of individual personalities.
Shukhov does not passively accept this attempt to dehumanize him, however. He shows that the way to maintain human dignity is not through outward rebellion but through developing a personal belief system. At meal time, no matter how hungry he is, he insists on removing his cap before eating. This practice, a holdover from his upbringing, gives Shukhov a sense that he is behaving in a civilized manner. No matter how ravenous he becomes, he never stoops to Fetyukov’s scrounging and begging for scraps. He scorns Fetyukov’s behavior, which he believes is subhuman. Shukhov may be treated like an animal by the Soviet camp system, but he subtly fights back and refuses to submit. His insistence on his own dignity amounts to an underground declaration of war against the state that imprisons him.
An important aspect of the Stalinist work camp that the novel describes is that the inmates have been convicted of activities that do not seem criminal to us. Gopchik took milk to freedom fighters hiding in the woods; Shukhov was captured by Germans and then accused by the Russians of being a spy; Tyurin was the son of a rich peasant father. We do not know much about the crimes of their fellow inmates, but none of them appears to be a terrible criminal. Whether the Soviet government has enforced unfair laws or simply made false charges, the inmates’ back-breaking labor in subzero temperatures is grossly unjust punishment.
The laws and punishment within the labor camp are as unjust as those outside the camp. Shukhov gets into trouble and is threatened with three days in the hole not for any active wrongdoing but simply for being ill. Similarly, Buynovsky receives ten days in the hole for trying to bundle up against the cold with a flannel vest. Neither Shukhov’s illness nor Buynovsky’s attempt to stay warm harm anyone, but the camp treats both as deep violations of the law, worthy of severe punishment. Such harsh retribution for such small offenses is absurd, and the heaping of more punishment upon men already locked into long, hard prison sentences seems like nothing more than a cruel exercising of power by Soviet officials.
Although Shukhov does not think or talk about religion for the bulk of the novel, his final conversation with Alyoshka, a devout Baptist, reveals that faith can be a means of survival in the oppresive camp system. Shukhov’s interest in Alyoshka’s discussion of God, faith, and prayer marks Shukhov’s expansion beyond his usual thoughts of work, warmth, food, and sleep. Alyoshka’s urging of Shukhov to pursue things of the spirit rather than things of the flesh renders Shukhov speechless, as if he is deeply reflecting on this philosophy. More important, he actually follows this advice in giving Alyoshka one of his biscuits, voluntarily sacrificing a worldly good. Shukhov’s sense of inner peace in the novel’s last paragraph, which resembles Alyoshka’s sense of inner peace throughout the novel, demonstrates that religious faith offers strength in the face of adversity.