Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In the First Circle (the uncensored edition) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“What is the most precious thing in the world? I see now that it is the knowledge that you have no part in injustice. Injustice is stronger than you, it always was and always will be, but let it not be done through you.”

He found, though, that even reading was a special skill, not just a matter of running your eyes along the lines. . . From boyhood he had been sheltered from erroneous books and had read only those that were warranted sound, so that he had got into the habit of believing every word, of submitting without question to the author’s will. When he began to read authors who contradicted one another, his resistance was low, and he could not help surrendering to whichever of them he had read last. What he found most difficult of all was to lay down his book and think for himself.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent eight years (the maximum allowed under NKVD policy) in Soviet prison camps for being critical of Stalin in private letters to a friend. During the course of his imprisonment he spent time in a sharashka - a prison camp made up of scientists and engineers, who had been picked out of the more brutal taiga camps, for the purpose of solving technological problems for the state. The living conditions in the sharashka were often much better than other prisons and it is in one such camp, Marfino, that In the First Circle is set. The title itself is a reference to Dante’s Inferno and the first level of hell.

In the First Circle begins with a breathless (and dangerous) phone call made by Innokenty Volodin, a Soviet diplomat, to the American embassy.



attempts to warn the West about Russian plans for the production of the atomic bomb. The scene quickly moves to the Marfino sharashka and the zeks (prisoners) who’ve been assigned to help the state with this most unusual “problem” – how to best spy on (and record) private citizen’s phone calls . Throughout the 700+ pages Solzhenitsyn offers his readers a masterful picture of humanity, politics, ideology, love and loss. In the First Circle is much more than a compelling mystery. It provides an incredible glimpse into the power of the human spirit as well as brilliant sketches of Stalin and his team of terrified subordinates and even features a humorous cameo by Eleanor Roosevelt.

The 2009 Harper Collins edition that I read was a reprint of the first uncensored edition and was translated by Harry T. Willets. Today movies and books scream “uncensored” to us from store shelves and typically only mean they offer a larger and more steamy heap than the FCC would originally allow – but the uncensored edition of In the First Circle contains no tawdry material, rather it offers a deeply moving and melodrama-free account of Soviet society from the bottom up.

1 comment:

joelchopp said...

I strongly recommend his Nobel Lecture (it's accessible online but it's worth owning the hard copy). He speaks with clarity and insight, and the gems of illumination come out more often in his speeches than his novels (it is either that, or I don't have the patience to dig for them in his larger works). It seems to me that the Russian authors seem to have been given the gift of prophecy more than their western counterparts.

"So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?"
~A. Solzhenitsyn