The first circle

by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenit︠s︡yn

Other authorsThomas P. Whitney (Translator)
Hardcover, 1968




New York, Harper & Row [1968]


Indirectly based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences of working as a mathematician in a prison research institute, The First Circle is set amongst a group of scientists caught up in the system of prison camps. Forced to work for the secret police, they debate the morality of what they doing but are cruelly aware that failure to co-operate would secure them a worse fate. The title is a reference to the first, and least unpleasant, circle of Hell in Dante's inferno but Solzhenitsyn's characters know that the lower circles of hell are there in the shape of the forced labour camps and that these await them if they make a false step. This searing insight into the dark side of Soviet life in the final years of Stalin's regime is both a brooding account of human nature and a scrupulously exact description of a historical period.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
Unlike Ivan Denosovich, the residents of this Russian prison are housed in a Moscow suburb, and spend their days, not laying bricks and worrying about food, but in a lab or a workshop, trying to improve the Soviet communications system. The First Circle of the title refers to Dante's first circle
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of hell, where the Greek philosophers got to be near paradise, but could not enter it.

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?
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LibraryThing member dypaloh
Joseph Stalin, as presented by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle, is no less than
“The . . .
All Highest
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
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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?”
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LibraryThing member Asperula
I feel that I should have liked this better, but it made me tired and the characters did not a whole lot for me. I would have enjoyed a few short stories more. All in all, I guess I am glad that I have read some Solzhenitsyn, but he did not move my earth.
LibraryThing member ex_ottoyuhr
I am about to do a very great injustice to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and I apologize for it in advance: I am going to discuss one of his novels without reference to its artistic merit. Let me make it clear that _The First Circle_ is a book that will always reward its reader, written as it is in a
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very coherent manner with an immense amount of skill and depth of characterization -- but at this point in time, what's more important than that is politics.

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...
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LibraryThing member tronella
It did not convince me that my stereotyping of Russian literature as slow and with too many characters is at all wrong. Well, I mostly liked it, though. Except for the one chapter which was apparently there just to enrage feminists. Since the book is set in a prison for men, I was not too bothered
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by there being hardly any female characters. However, was it really necessary to have a chapter in which all the female characters in the book talk about their boyfriends and their clothes in a non-plot-advancing way?
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LibraryThing member wamser
A book that improves with each reading. Rounds out Solzhenitsyn's view of the Soviet Gulag system.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Another scathing critique of Stalinist Russia with the trappings of a thriller/mystery. A crack team of investigators (all prisoners of the Gulag) is assembled to investigate who leaked nuclear secrets to the Americans. With daring and ingenuity, they eliminate all but two suspects - but there is
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no further evidence. Both suspects are arrested anyway. Who else but Solzhenitsyn could come up with a novel like this?
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LibraryThing member iansales
I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to
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Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
Somewhere in the Stone Reader documentary, likely its bonus features, a critic named The First Circle as the last novel of the 19th Century. The isolation of Soviet themes was likely exaggerated by the critic but the novel itself doesn't appear to reveal self-awareness: perhaps such would also be a
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violation of Article 58. I read this in tandem with my wife and what a glorious experience that was. As tragic as this tale of a neutered Hell of sorts remains, it begs so many questions about the nature of penal system in the Soviet Union. Cross-purposes appeared to proliferate with exposure to air. If Guilt was endemic why have them work, espeially around such sensitive areas of expertise? My naievety albeit bruised and riddled will likely cling for my life's extent. I still ponder motives.
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LibraryThing member beanbrarian
The epitome of Soviet historical suspense novels. Thorough and engrossing. The Stalin chapters are psychologically biting and very funny.
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
Soviet Scientists who are politically unreliable live in this prison facility and they are still allowed to work in their labs, but for the Secret Police projects....redemption may be a receding hope.
LibraryThing member Paul_S
This is one of the few books I read I consider life changing. It captures and explains people and society better than any sociology or psychology book I have ever read. Take advantage of this, there is a life's worth of observations by a sharp mind distilled in a book..
LibraryThing member Kristelh
Reason read: 2023 Quarterly 1001 read.
This book is a must read and plainly explains why progressive ideology does not work. Semi biographical.


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