Imagine being in a terrible place. The food is beyond bad. The clothing is inadequate. The weather is unbearably hot in the summer and way below what we consider cold in the winter. The work is hard, menial, and endless.
Then imagine that you get to go to a better place. The food is better. You can be warm in the winter. You’re not afraid you’ll die from the bad treatment.
But you find out that, in order to stay there, you have to do things you don’t want to do. You have to help your oppressors spy on your fellow citizens. You have to help them send others to the place that is so bad.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not have to imagine this scenario.
After spending years in a Siberian gulag, he was able to go to a place where the Soviet government was doing research. In the 1940s, they wanted Solzhenitsyn to help them develop voice recognition technology. If he didn’t cooperate, they would send him back.
So send me back, he told them.
“Even in the camps, human dignity matters,” says Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Alexander’s son. “We always have choices. Even in the camps. Even where everything is decided for you. What clothes you wear, what food … you’re given, and everything is regimented. There is always the choice to behave with freedom and a sense of dignity.”
Freedom in a gulag? Always. Freedom and dignity everywhere? All the time. Solzhenitsyn is proof that Soviet tyrants overplayed their hand.
“You only have power over people as long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything, he’s no longer in your power—he’s free again.”
In prison, Solzhenitsyn found he could speak freely. He was already in trouble. What else could they do?
Even later in exile, he spoke. His iron will was forged behind the iron curtain. He was a man whose heart was full and whose character was steel.
“You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”
The choice is ours–always.