Near the end of the Second World War, twice-decorated veteran Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn was arrested for sending a letter mentioning “the moustached one,” which the censors took to designate Stalin himself. Young Aleksandr was sent to the Soviet prison labor camps along with millions of dissidents, supposed conspirators, prisoners of war, and hapless civilians.

After Solzenhitsyn and his fellow inmates had spent several strenuous months in forced labor, a guard distributed registration cards in a belated effort to sort out who all these new prisoners were. One of the blanks on the form was marked “Trade or Profession.” Other inmates answered “tailor,” “barber,” or “cook” in hopes of obtaining a more advantageous position in the camps; but Solzenhitsyn, fed up altogether, scribbled in “nuclear physicist.” At this time, the top Soviet scientists were racing to discover the secret of the atomic bomb.

Solzenhitsyn didn’t give the survey another thought, but a year and a half later a Black Maria arrived just for him. It took him to a sharashka, a special scientific research facility run by Ministry of State Security. He had never studied nuclear physics.

We can imagine Solzenhitsyn on the laboratory bench the following morning, beginning his first day of work under the watchful eyes of elite guards. Concealing his dismay, he whispers to the inmate beside him, “Are you a nuclear physicist?”

“Shh—of course not,” hisses back his new colleague. “But don’t worry—these morons have no idea what’s going on.”