Power as Exercised in Totalitarian Regimes of the Stalinist Era

| September 15, 2020

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 exemplify the hypocrisy in which the entire Stalinist state thrives. He ignores Buynovsky’s assertion that strip searching in subzero temperatures outdoors violates an article of the Soviet Criminal Code, showing his lack of concern for right and wrong.
He is altogether indifferent to others’ opinions of state-sponsored actions. Yet when Buynovsky goes a step further and accuses Volkovoy of being a bad Soviet citizen, Volkovoy becomes violently indignant. He knowingly violates Soviet law and is thus, in a way, a bad Soviet citizen, but he is unwilling to admit as much. He cares much more about making himself look good than making his country look good. Though he disrespects his country’s laws with his action, he wants, hypocritically, to be seen as an ideal Soviet citizen. The labor camp also attacks its prisoners spiritually.
By replacing their names with a combination of letters and numbers, the camp erased 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. In Man of Marble, Andrezej Wajda attempts to expose how propaganda, through national icons, was used to present a false impression of Polish success and how these national icons were removed and fell to obscurity when they offered the slightest hint of discontentment with the norm.
The film begins by showing propaganda films that praise Birkut as a devout worker who slaves away at brick laying for the officials. Then, Agniezka proceeds to interview the director, who was hired by the government. He tells her about the reality of making the film such as how Birkut was given more food and water unlike the other bricklayers. This is an example of reward power in which the government manipulated Birkut, elevated him to the status of national icon, and gave him additional food and water to ensure that he would continue to work hard for them thereby sustaining that glorified worker’s image common to the Stalinist ideology.
Wajda uses these two scenes to deconstruct the false imagery that propaganda gives to its viewers. He illustrates how officials manipulate these kinds of situations to their own political good. The character of Agniezka, the young filmmaker, resists this form of government manipulation of film and art by embarking on an endeavor to uncover the truth about a once great Polish national icon that fell into obscurity, Birkut. She encounters frequent resistance from others regarding the subject matter of her film but despite the controversy, she continues her work and unleashes the truth about Stalinism.
Moreover, Birkut is fundamentally erased from memory because he refused to change with the existing political system that was overwhelmed with corruption, manipulation, and exploitation. Birkut spoke against that system and essentially the Stalinist government of Poland at this time, erased aspects of the nation’s collective memory in order to control its citizens. This kind of erasure from memory appeared to be the standard penalty for those who refused to conform. Consider the scene in which Birkut is trying to defend Witek who has been accused of treason.
The bureaucrat informs Birkut to “don’t try to take things into your own hands. Leave it to us. Trust the people’s Justice. ” This statement reveals how the government attempted to integrate its citizens to fully that their existence became that of automatic obedience, the trust in the Soviet regime would be so solidified that there would surely be little resistance or defiance and the utter submission to their power. At a union meeting where Birkut again tries to address the question of Witek, he shouts that a horrid injustice has been committed.
Trade union officials then turn off his microphone and a chorus begins: “Socialism will prevail by force of example, onward stout workers! ” This line is quite possibly the most important in the film for it exemplifies how the Soviet regime would glorify workers like Birkut and broadcast his intense labor and a glorified image of him through the mass media to encourage citizens to abide by the socialist ideology. However, later on as the film reveals, Birkut becomes demoralized and turns to drinking. His life is now in ruins. Birkut originally came to prominence for supposedly breaking the single shift brick-laying record.
However, the newsreel director who recorded the event confides to Agnieszka how he manipulated and outright fabricated aspects of the episode for propaganda purposes. Yet poor guileless Birkut originally accepts everything he is told at face value. As a result, when he falls out of favor with the Party for championing workers’ rights, it is wrenchingly difficult for him to adjust to life when essentially persona non grata. There mere difficulty that Agniezka experiences in her quest to finish her film exemplifies how the government employs censorship to hide the truth.
The propaganda newsreel claiming to chart Birkut’s life only demonstrates the parading of his image, as he acts out the role of labor hero, admires his marble stature, and the endless posters, which produce his form, and appears before the public as a crowd-pleasing vision of physical glamour. The proliferation and repetition of images of the idealized citizen were designed to eclipse any suggestion that the state may have no other basis for authority other than the manipulation of these icons.
The power of the state to appear to dissolve the individual into the mass is disturbingly echoed twenty years later in exchanges between Agonies and two women who belonged to the generation of the 1950’s: the television editor tells Agniezka that, “I’ve selected everything to do with Birkut…although the rest is pretty much the same”, while Agonies, attempting to divert suspicion as to why she is particularly interested in Birkut’s statue in the museum when, as the museum guide points out, there are so many others like it, says, “I like this one…although it’s all the same. Implicit in this proliferation of idealized effigies of model citizens and leaders is the constant presence of state ideology. The collective memory that she unearths crumbles the seamless portrait of Birkut though revealing the painful, lived-through process of molding his image, which the opening newsreel only parades as a finished product.
In flashbacks, Birkut is shown to be force-fed for weeks before the event, shaved, and groomed, when to smile, and carefully directed by Burski who ironically tells him to act more like a worker, and quickly turns his camera away when Birkut collapses, bleeding from the hands, upon completion of the task. Agniezka’s investigation of the manipulation of Witek and Birkut is synonymous with the excavation of the very foundations of the communist system itself, which claimed popular support upon the basis of the patronage of the worker.
Her disinterment of the hidden infrastructure of totalitarian power reveals its construction on baseless myths and rituals. “Better to growl and submit. If you were stubborn, they broke you. ” (41) This quote exemplifies how the Stalinist regime used brutality and force to ensure obedience. Throughout history, individuals and groups have exercised various forms of power in order to control others and their surroundings. It is important to analyze how power is exercised, constituted, and contested in specific historical situations because the world will learn how to use power to produce the greatest results in a given situation.
In a totalitarian regime as those depicted in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Man of Marble, the individual operates as part of a social machine on the principle of automatic obedience. This is the highest level of the institution of power, the creation of an efficient mechanism in which individuals act predictably on the principle of utter submission. The oppressive nature of the Stalinist regimes depicted in the aforementioned novel and film illustrate how the coercive power employed by the system was most ineffective because it builds resentment and resistance from the people who experience it. “He was a newcomer.
He was unused to the hard life of the zeks. Though he didn’t know it, moments like this were particularly important to him, for they were transforming him from an eager, confident naval officer with a ringing voice into an inert, though wary, zek. And only in that inertness lay the chance of surviving the twenty-five years of imprisonment he’d been sentenced to. ” (65) This quotation exemplifies how the gulag transformed once proud individuals with fulfilling lives into components of the Stalinist machine and illustrates how the basic need to survive was motivation enough for the prisoners to obey those in power.
A man that at was formerly a distinguished Naval officer was now being integrated into the masses and stripped of his individuality and identity to join the Soviet’s source of free labor. The passage suggests that by submitting to the hopeless status of a zed without resistance, one would almost surely survive the brutality of the camp. Works Cited Man of Marble. Dir. Andrezej Wajda. Poland 1977 Solzhenitsyn, Alexander . One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Inc, 1991. The Definition of Totalitarian. www. dictionary. reference. com/browse/totalitarian

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