Power as Exercised in Totalitarian Regimes of the Stalinist Era

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Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, once said that “Every communist must grasp the truth: political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Zedong’s metaphor accurately characterizes the oppressive nature of the Communist regime of the Stalinist era. Such totalitarian systems maintain control over its citizens through the exercise of coercion, reward systems, mass media, and propaganda. This kind of totalitarian government sought to deprive its citizens of individual rights and integrate them into the system as parts of the Stalinist machine. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn illustrates how the Stalinist labor camps, or gulags, utilized various modes of surveillance, the constant dehumanization of political prisoners, manipulative reward systems, and frequent brutality and force to maintain control over prisoners and uphold the ideology of Stalinism. Another perspective of the Stalinist power structure is offered in Andrezej Wajda’s controversial film, Man of Marble in which a young filmmaker tries to uncover the truth about a former national icon, Birkut, who fell to obscurity and encounters frequent resistance in her attempts to do so. This film illustrates how the Stalinist government manipulated the media and censored controversial literature, film, and artwork to portray false government success and brainwash its citizens into obeying the repressive regime. This paper will analyze the different mechanisms of power employed by the Stalinist totalitarian regimes depicted in Solzhenitsyn’s novel and Man of Marble and will further evaluate how the study of power in specific historical situations enables historians to determine the motivations of those in power and the effectiveness of certain power structures to achieve its goals and provide for its citizens.

In Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the labor camps are depicted as a microcosm for the totalitarian state in existence. Gulags became the Soviet government’s method of transforming individuals under its control into obedient workers existing simply to physically construct the Soviet state and strengthen the economy while embodying the ideology of the Stalinist system. The prisoners were forced to work in severe weather conditions, consume very little food, wear very little clothing, and were encouraged to spy on one another to improve their individual situations. The majority of the prisoners in the cap are helpless victims who should not even be imprisoned; the Soviet authorities have unjustly punished them for they provide free labor. At the camp, many of the officials delight in treating the prisoners with excessive cruelty. The Captain is sentenced to ten days of solitary confinement because he has worn an unauthorized jersey under his uniform in order to stay warm. They also think nothing of stealing part of the meager rations of the prisoners so that they can have more for themselves. The prisoners cannot receive adequate medical care for the rule of the hospital is to admit only two people a day no matter how many may be sick. Consider for example, the exchange between Buynovsky, who jokingly announces the Soviet decree, and Shukhov which shows the absurd pompousness of the Soviet government: “Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock,” Shukhov replies, “Who said that?” and Buynovsky replies “The Soviet government.” () For the characters laws are both unavoidable and arbitrary. The Soviet people have little to say in their government and they do what it tells them to do. Buynovsky’s joke reveals the Soviet regime’s delusion of grandeur. Shukhov’s forced false confession to being a traitor to his country also exemplifies the way in which the Soviet government tailors the truth to fits its needs. The Soviet regime imagines itself stronger than not only the sun but also reality itself. Furthermore, Volkovoy’s differing responses to Buynovsky’s charges...
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