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Reading about a man doing twenty-five years in a Russian gulag is always a good antidote to grumbling about doing six weeks in a lockdown at home. Today I spent with Ivan Denisovich, and listened as he told me about his day in a freezing labour camp. I got to meet some of the 400 other men with whom he shared the prison, and one of them, Alyoshka, who got twenty-five years just for being a Baptist. (I didn’t dare tell him about my day! I kept my mouth shut.)
That Baptist in Solzhenitsyn’s famous story asked Ivan a very poignant question. Ivan raised the topic of having his sentence reduced and getting out early. “What good is freedom to you?” Alyoshka asked him, if you’ve got nothing to ultimately live for. It would be like swapping a cold rat cage for a warm one. And what is the difference between a man who dies in luxury and one who dies in a gulag?
But Alyoshka asked the question not as some cynic nor as one disillusioned with religion, but as one who was trying to awaken something in the frozen soul of his friend. It mattered not to Alyoshka whether he got out early or whether his sentence was cruelly augmented. He had something to live for. Some One to ultimately live for. And in the question he put to his friend, and in the testimony he gave of his greater Friend, Ivan Denisovich had the opportunity to be ultimately free.
DM 4th May 2020