The First Circle of Dante's Hell -- where the souls of the pre-Christian philosophers are doomed to exist throughout eternity -- stands in this novel as a metaphor for certain penal institutions of Stalin's Russia. Set in Moscow during a three-day period in December 1949, The First Circle is the story of the prisoner Gleb Nerzhin, a brilliant mathematician. At the age of thirty-one, Nerzhin has, like the author, survived the war years on the German front and the post-war years in a succession of Russian prisons and labor camps. His story is interwoven with the stories of a dozen fellow prisoners -- each an unforgettable human being -- from the prison janitor to the tormented Marxist intellectual who designed the Dnieper dam; of the reigning elite and their conflicted subordinates; and of the women, wretched or privileged, bound to these men. As we follow Nerzhin's fortunes, we become familiar with the inner paths of an entire society -- one vast Inferno -- and the diverse ways in which different men and women managed, or failed, to live within it. While Solzhenitsyn portrays the exercise of moral and political authority at all levels of the hierarchy (even devoting a few chapters to a portrait of a failing Stalin), the novel's principal setting is a special prison where inmates conduct scientific research. Through his treatment of the prisoners, the secret police, and the non-prisoner Muscovites trying to lead honest lives during this difficult period, Solzhenitsyn explores the problems of complicity and conscience, ends and means. Included are many reflections on Soviet history of the sort Solzhenitsyn expanded in The Gulag Archipelago. In 1962 the publication of One Day in theLife of Ivan Denisovich brought Solzhenitsyn international fame. Two years later, The First Circle was accepted for publication in a Soviet journal. Its publication was blocked, however, by Soviet authorities; ultimately the manuscript was smuggled abroad and published in translation in 1968. A landmark of Soviet Circle is as powerful today as when it was first published.
“The . . .
Best Friend of Communications Workers; Best Friend of Counterintelligence Operatives; Best Friend of Sailors
Father of the People; Father and Teacher; Father of Western and Eastern Peoples
Great Coryphaeus; Great Generalissimo; Greatest of All the Great; Greatest Genius of Geniuses; Greatest Man on Earth
Leader of All Progressive Humanity; Leader Elected of God; Leader of Nations; Leader of the Peoples
Most Brilliant Strategist of All Times and Peoples; Most Humane of All Statesman
Nearest and Dearest
One-and-only and Infallible
Wise Father; Wisest of the Wise.”
I sense authorial insincerity. Also, a lineage that would come to include Kim Jung-un.
Most characters in The First Circle (1968 version) are not known at all to The All Highest, Best Friend of . . . etc. They are prisoners, called zeks. A select group—engineers, scientists, mathematicians, even a linguist and one artist—they are confined at a sharashka, a prison for work on technological projects. Their transgression? Somehow falling into the net of Stalin’s political paranoia. Nearly all have as their assigned work improving the state’s ability to capture more prisoners, ones as guilty or as innocent as they know themselves to be. This terrible irony informs much of what we witness in the novel.
But why shouldn’t Stalin be paranoid? Look at what he must face:
"The people loved him, yes, but the people themselves swarmed with shortcomings…How much quicker communism could be built if it were not for the soulless bureaucrats. If it were not for the conceited big shots. If it were not for the organizational weakness of indoctrination efforts among the masses. For the “drifting” in party education. For the slackened pace of construction, the delays in production, the output of low-quality goods, the bad planning, the apathy toward the introduction of new technology and equipment, the refusal of young people to pioneer distant areas, the loss of grain in the fields, overexpenditure by bookkeepers, thievery at warehouses, swindling by managers, sabotage by prisoners, liberalism in the police, abuse of public housing, insolent speculators, greedy housewives, spoiled children, chatterboxes on streetcars, petty-minded “criticism” in literature, liberal tendencies in cinematography."
Lucky the people loved him. Imagine the problems had they not.
While the political prisoners are constantly aware of any injustices they suffer, and are forced to work long hours, it’s the officials held directly responsible for the zeks’ progress who seem to suffer worse work-related stress—they have the burden of pleasing that “Most Humane of All Statesmen”:
"Stalin was terrifying because one mistake in his presence could be that one mistake in life which set off an explosion…he did not listen to excuses, made no accusations; his yellow tiger eyes simply brightened balefully…the condemned man…left [Stalin’s office] in peace, was arrested at night, and shot by morning."
The regular stresses of imprisonment at the sharashka are lightened by having intelligent comrades and sometimes absorbing work. They are darkened painfully by the impact imprisonment for their “crimes” can have on the status of wives and others who will suffer persecution if it is publicly known a relation is a political prisoner. The suspense of this novel, then, often is in what happens outside the prison, and that fate is linked to what happens inside it and in the net composed of the state apparatus and its informers. A baleful net it is. One where, if innocents are captured with the prey, so it goes.
The lasting lesson is that here, the Gulag, is where a society is led when government is too much beset with fear of insecurity. The First Circle forces readers to contemplate the question of what must be risked to preserve free action and thought when any action at all risks taking them from you. No complacent answer will do and Solzhenitsyn brings emphasis to the theme early in his novel with, appropriately, an interrogatory thought: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”
The prisoners have the understanding that they have struck a faustian bargain--they get to stay in relative luxury (for a prison camp), but they are also working for the machine that placed them there, and which puts people in far worse places every day.
Do they continue to serve the beast, as people without conscious, or do they rebel, and give up their coveted spot in the soviet food chain?
If you still have any doubts as to the depths of depravity characteristic of Joseph Stalin -- if, for example, you think he wasn't as bad as Hitler -- you _must_ read this book. Fictional though it is, its portrait of Stalin is true to life, and that's all I need to say on _that_ subject. He is in a way the central figure, the protagonist, of the novel; it's his policies, his paranoia born of his own successful treachery, his unhealthy fear of spies and Heaven only knows what else, that created the Russia in which the fictitious characters of the novel are trapped. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the then-MGB (IIRC) and the GULAG network; he knows only too well, in this book, of what he writes...