Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"Freedom to Breathe"

"Freedom to Breathe"
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
Ryazan, Russia

PLOT SUMMARY: While “Freedom to Breathe” is a short prose poem, Solzhenitsyn really focuses on beautiful descriptions of natural beauty. We start with an image of rain falling from a cloudy sky. The narrator (Solzhenitsyn’s persona) is standing under an apple tree surrounded by grass as it is raining, and he is just breathing deeply. After some vivid descriptions of deep breathing, the narrator/Solzhenitsyn begins to reflect on what those deep breaths mean to him. He connects his breathing to freedom and how in prison, one cannot breathe the way he can now. He compares breathing freely to food, wine and a woman’s kiss, but the deep breathing he is currently under the rain and apple tree is better than all those things.

     The narrator then zooms out a little and we learn he is standing in a small garden surrounded by tall houses and noises of a city. He is able to ignore the sounds though and just focus on his breathing and the rain and apple tree he is standing under.

ANALYSIS: Solzhenitsyn’s prose poem “Freedom to Breathe” analyzes the depths of the freedoms that are taken away by prison. He focuses more on the beauty that is missing in prison, rather than the misery in prison. At the beginning of the poem we have a beautiful description of the narrator surrounded by natural beauty and under an apple tree. Solzhenitsyn seems to be alluding to the garden of Eden, a heavenly garden, as where he has this freedom in contrast to prison where he does not. In the story of Adam and Eve the garden of Eden is taken away from them when Eve bites into an apple and then convinces Adam to do the same. Solzhenitsyn claims that after experiencing prison, nothing would tempt him away from his personal Eden.

     The key to breathing freely, according to Solzhenitsyn, is the incorporation of all the senses. He doesn’t just describe smells, but also sights and sounds as being important to breathing freely. This relates to a common theme in prison texts of the five senses and how they are limited in prisons. In this garden the narrator not only uses his senses more deeply, but also has the freedom to choose as he is able to block out the sounds of the city and instead focus on other things. Solzhenitsyn ends on a note of hope for survival, but also implying that life might be a bit like prison at times. The opposite of prison is not life outside of prison, but specifically being able to breathe freely in one’s garden of Eden.


“I breathe with my eyes open, I breathe with my eyes closed–I cannot say which gives me the greater pleasure.” (243)

“This, I believe, is the single most precious freedom that prison takes away from us: the freedom to breathe freely, as I now can.” (243)

“As long as there is fresh air to breathe under and apple tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer.” (243)

BIOGRAPHY: Aleksander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia on December 11th, 1918. He was a Russian novelist and a harsh critic of the Soviet state and Stalin. As a college student he was a firm believer and follower of Marxism-Leninism. There seemed to be a shift in 1945 while serving as a commander in the Soviet army, he was arrested, stripped of his medals, and sent to labor camps for eight years followed by three years in exile. He was arrested and exiled because he had criticized Stalin in letters to a friend. Since his arrest and exile, he fought hard to subvert Stalin and the Soviet government. It has even been argued that he did “more than any other single human being to undermine [Soviet Communism’s] credibility and bring the Soviet state to its knees” (Scammell).

     Much of his influence came through his writing. His time in the various labor camps became the inspiration and basis for most of his works including his first novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). His most famous and possibly most influential work was The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1975) which is a multi volume record documenting the many stories of the Gulag and its horrors. His work brilliantly appealed to the humanity of the reader while also highlighting the highly questionable ethics and morals of the Soviet government and prison system. His work also gained popularity and influence beyond Soviet Russia with his works The First Circle (1968) and Cancer Ward (1968). Both were published internationally before they were allowed to be published in Soviet Russia. His international impact can be noted in 1970 when he was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature, however he did not actually claim the award until December of 1974. He claimed it in 1974 after being forced into exiled as punishment for publishing The Gulag Archipelago in the Soviet Union. His citizenship was not restored until 1990 and he returned in 1994 where he lived until his death in 2008.


“Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.” Edited by Michael Levy, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Jan. 1999,

“Biography.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center, overview/biography.

Scammell, Michael. “The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire.” The New York Times, December    11, 2018.   putin.html.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. Stories and Prose Poems. Translated by Michael Glenny, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.


Garrard, J. G. “Art for Man's Sake: Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” Books Abroad, vol. 47, no. 1, 1973, pp. 49–53. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.
Garrard observes that Solzhenitsyn’s writing strays from providing solutions based in policy and instead finding them in art and nature. He argues that Solzhenitsyn is thus more like Dostoevsky than Tolstoy in his writing. 

Koehler, Ludmila. “Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Russian Literary Tradition.” The Russian Review, vol. 26, no. 2, 1967, pp. 176–184. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.
Koehler focuses more on the literary devices that Solzhenitsyn uses consistently and frequently throughout his writing. Koehler also focuses on Solzhenitsyn’s style of writing in comparison to other Russian writers. 

Wanner, Adrian. “From Subversion to Affirmation: The Prose Poem as a Russian Genre.” Slavic Review, vol. 56, no. 3, 1997, pp. 519–541. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.
Wanner looks into Solzhenitsyn’s use of contrasting imagery and how Solzhenitsyn uses that to clearly support one side of the opposing ideas. Wanner then compares this to other Russian poets and the different ways they use contrasting imagery.

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