Freedom to Breathe 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Michael Glenny 

A shower fell in the night and now dark clouds drift across the sky, occasionally sprinkling a fine film of rain. 

I stand under an apple tree in blossom and I breathe. Not only the apple tree but the grass round it glistens with moisture; words cannot describe the sweet fragrance that pervades the air. I inhale as deeply as I can, and the aroma invades my whole being; I breathe with my eyes open, I breathe with my eyes closed—I cannot say which gives me the greater pleasure. 

This, I believe, is the single most precious freedom that prison takes away from us: the freedom to breathe freely, as I now can. No food on earth, no wine, not even a woman’s kiss is sweeter to me than this air steeped in the fragrance of flowers, of moisture and freshness. 

No matter that this is only a tiny garden, hemmed in by five-story houses like cages in a zoo. I cease to hear the motorcycles backfiring, radios whining, the burble of loudspeakers. As long as there is fresh air to breathe under an apple tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer. 


The Bonfire and the Ants 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Michael Glenny 

I threw a rotten log onto the fire without noticing that it was alive with ants. 

The log began to crackle, the ants came tumbling out and scurried around in desperation. They ran along the top and writhed as they were scorched by the flames. I gripped the log and rolled it to one side. Many of the ants then managed to escape onto the sand or the pine needles. 

But, strangely enough, they did not run away from the fire. 

They had no sooner overcome their terror than they turned, circled, and some kind of force drew them back to their forsaken homeland. There were many who climbed back onto the burning log, ran about on it, and perished there. 


Making Meanings

Freedom to Breathe/Bonfire and the Ants

1.  Consider how you feel about your home. Are you dying to get away, or do you hope you never have to leave? 

2. Reading these two thought sketches isn’t really like following an arrow-straight path. For a while, you may have thought you understood the speaker every step of the way, but by the end, he probably managed to surprise you with a sudden twist of thought. What was your reading experience like? 

3. Once you’ve absorbed Solzhenitsyn’s surprises, though, here’s the question: What do these writings mean to you?

4. Isn’t it possible to have “fresh air to breathe” and not be free? 

5. Isn’t an allegory, or symbolic story, that equates people with ants already manipulating readers? Would all humans drawn back to a homeland just “run about” and perish pointlessly?


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