But at that very moment the hand of authority whipped his jerkin and his blanket away. [...] Down below, with his head on the level of the upper bunk, stood the gaunt Tartar. (25)
It's interesting that the "hand of authority" is depicted as almost God-like here; it's not an actual person yanking Shukhov's blanket away, but some sort of omnipotent, or all-powerful and all-knowing, force. Or a mad parent. Either way.
Every portion was underweight - the only question was by how much. Twice a day you looked at it and tried to set your mind at rest. Maybe they haven't robbed me blind this time? (132)
Injustice is a constant theme throughout this text and the zeks have to confront, and largely let slide, various injustices throughout the day. There's no way to directly fight injustice in the camp, as we see with poor Buynovsky, who gets tossed in the hole after protesting his unfair treatment.
"Maybe it was in their day!" the captain snapped back. "Since then it's been decreed that the sun is highest at one o'clock." "Who decreed that?"
"The Soviet government."
The captain took off with the handbarrow, but Shukhov wasn't going to argue anyway. As if the sun would obey their decrees! (363-6)
We don't get many direct mentions of the Soviet government in the book, but it's definitely the unspoken, and harsh, force behind the entire camp system. It is interesting that the Soviet government is invoked, or brought up, directly in relation to an illogical decree. Like the camps, the entire government itself passed a lot of irrational "decrees."
"But would it have got past the censor if he'd handled it differently?"
"Oh well, if that's what matters [....] Only don't call him a genius – call him a toady, a dog carrying out his master's orders. A genius doesn't adjust his treatment of a theme to a tyrant's taste." (495-6)
We encounter very few prisoners who are in the camp for some sort of cultural activity – most of the men are ex-soldiers, resistance fighters, peasants, etc. This debate stands out for bringing up art, and it also serves as an interesting metaphor for survival in the camps. To rephrase it, should a prisoner openly fight against a tyrannical camp system, or should he adapt to the system in order to survive and resist only in small ways?
You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like. (827)
This is a powerful thematic statement for the entire gulag system, and sums up exactly how the gulag operates and exactly what the gulag's power really is.
Who is the convict's worst enemy? Another convict. If zeks didn't squabble amongst themselves, the bosses would have no power over them. (865)
We see signs of this sort of chaotic in-fighting among the zeks throughout the entire day, especially in the mess hall, where it is always five seconds away from a food fight/brawl. The bosses just have to set up a system where the zeks are forced to compete against each other.
[Volkovoy] would pop up when you least expected him, shouting, "Why are you all hanging around here?" There was no hiding from him. At one time he'd carried a lash [...] They said he thrashed people in the camp jail. Or else, when zeks were huddled outside [...] he would creep up and slash you across the neck with it. (173)
Volkovoy stands in as a representative for all the guards and their worst abuses of power. It's interesting that he is depicted as "surprising" or sneaky multiple times in the book, which is something of a metaphor for prison life: something or someone is always there to catch the zeks off guard.
"You have no right to make people undress in the freezing cold! You don't know Article 9 of the Criminal Code!"
But they did have. They did know. It's you, brother, who don't know anything yet! (187-8)
Poor Buynovsky, still clinging to his ideas of justice and fairness, is punished for this outburst, while Shukhov cynically comments that he doesn't realize how powerless the zeks are yet. In his later work, Solzhenitsyn would discuss how the Criminal Code itself was set up to abuse power.
All the men in Gang 104 saw Shukhov being led out, but nobody said a word: what good would it do, whatever you said? (34)
Futility, or the uselessness of taking action, is a running theme throughout the book, and may be the most terrible aspect of camp life. If everything is futile for zeks, then it's a constant battle not to slide into depression or hopelessness.
What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery. Canvas belts were drawn tight around empty bellies. The frost was crackling merrily. Not a warm spot, nor a spark of fire anywhere. All the same - Gang 104 had arrived, and life was beginning all over again. (313)
Shukhov is unusually metaphysical here as he considers how life itself has the power to go on in the camps. Shukhov even uses metaphorical language here as well, when he speaks of a "spark of fire," which can act a symbol for life.