After about ten days of joyous reading, I have actually finished the chunkster! And I must say that it has been a remarkably rewarding experience. This is one of the longest books I have read in a long while, and sinking myself into the depths of it, not rushing myself, becoming involved in the characters and their lives and fates, has been marvellous – and has also convinced me that I haven’t lost the knack of reading long works!

“In The First Circle” has had a chequered history. On the back of the success of “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich”, which Solzhenitsyn had somehow managed to get published in the Soviet Union in 1962, the author decided to try to get more of his work out there. He knew that ITFC was unlikely to be published in its original format, so he edited it heavily, changing a number of plot details and removing whole chapters in the hope that the censors would pass it. They didn’t – but the truncated copy was smuggled to the West and published there in 1968 to great acclaim.

However, once Solzhenitsyn had defected to the West, he worked on reinstating the missing material and putting ITFC back into its original state. This 96 chapter version was finally published in English in 1999, translated by his approved linguist, Harry Willetts, and this is the volume I read.


Firstly, a short plot summary from Wikipedia:

In the First Circle depicts the lives of the occupants of a sharashka (a R&D bureau made of gulag inmates) located in the Moscow suburbs. This novel is highly autobiographical. Many of the prisoners (zeks) are technicians or academics who have been arrested under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code in Joseph Stalin’s purges following the Second World War. Unlike inhabitants of other gulag labour camps, the sharashka zeks were adequately fed and enjoy good working conditions; however if they found disfavour with the authorities, they could be instantly shipped to Siberia.

The title is an allusion to Dante’s first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy wherein the philosophers of Greece, and other non-Christians, live in a walled green garden. They are unable to enter Heaven, as they were born before Christ, but enjoy a small space of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.

Innokenty Volodin, a diplomat, makes a telephone call he feels obligated to his conscience to make, even though he knows he risks arrest. His call was taped and the NKVD seek to identify who made the call.

The sharashka prisoners work on technical projects to assist state security agencies and generally pander to Stalin’s increasing paranoia. While most are aware of how much better off they are than “regular” Gulag prisoners, some are also conscious of the overwhelming moral dilemma of working to aid a system that is the cause of so much suffering. Lev Rubin is tasked with identifying the voice in the recorded phone call, he examines printed spectrographs of the voice and compares them with recordings of Volodin and five other suspects. He narrows it down to Volodin and one other suspect, both of whom are arrested.

By the end of the book, several zeks, including Gleb Nerzhin, the autobiographical hero, choose to stop cooperating, even though their choice means being sent to much deadlier camps. Volodin, initially crushed by the ordeal of his arrest, begins to find encouragement at the end of his first night in prison.

However, a bare bones description of the plot gives no real hint of the richness and complexity of this novel. It’s remarkably well constructed and features a disparate cast of characters who are in fact connected by a complex web, which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. The story features a wide range of people, from the zeks, who are portrayed as having a relatively comfortable existence in the special prison, compared with those in Siberia; their wives and families, trying to scrape out an existence in the free world but often shunned because of their prisoner family members; the free employees of Marfino, who supervise the work of the zeks but in many cases become involved with them; the officers and the officials of the various state agencies who are often in conflict with each other while desperately hanging on to their positions; even the Great Leader, Stalin himself, is portrayed.

Because the book is so rich in characters, it’s hard to pick out just some to focus one, but my favourites included:

Ruska, a young zek mechanic who falls in love with Klara, a prosecutor;
Klara herself, who finds this love so unexpectedly, only to have it snatched away.
Gleb Nerzhin, the main autobiographical character, a mathematician who represents Solzhenitsyn
Nadya, Gleb’s wife, a student in Moscow, waiting patiently for her husband, but has been unable to see him for a year, and is afraid to let anyone know her husband is a prisoner because of the consequences to her
Lev Rubin, a hardened communist who refuses to accept that the regime is wrong, despite having imprisoned him. Rubin is instrumental in the downfall of Volodin and the character is based on one of Solzhenitsyn’s friends
Sologdin is another designer working on the various scientific projects, and apparently based on another friend of Solzhenitsyn.
Innokenty Volodin, a diplomat, used to the good life and married to another daughter of the prosecutor. It is his actions at the start of the book that have such a dramatic effect on the rest of the characters.
To say that the action takes place over 4 days is perhaps slightly misleading. Although the actions of the first chapter set in motion a train of events which will come to fruition over the following 96 hours, Solzhenitsyn does not restrict our understanding of the characters to only what we see happen to them during that period. Instead, he enriches our experience of them with the use of flashbacks and memories, each character recalling events from their lives and things that have brought them to this point in time. Some of these ‘back stories’ occur over several chapters, as in the sequence in which the Great Leader recalls his life and his rise to power. And each is illuminating and speaks with the individual voice of the character who is narrating it.

The structure of the book is unusual in that the narration is described as “polyphonic”. Although in the third person, each chapter or sequence of chapters is told from the viewpoint of a different character. This enables us to get to know them all well and also creates a more intimate style of storytelling than that of an omniscient narrator but without the restrictions of a first person narrative. These shifting perspectives enable us to see events outside the sharashka and also allow us to appreciate different characters’ views of the same situation.

Lev Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn and Dmitri Panin(Lev Rubin, Gleb Nerzhin and Dmitri Sologdin in The First Circle)

Lev Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn and Dmitri Panin
(Lev Rubin, Gleb Nerzhin and Dmitri Sologdin in The First Circle)

The story is of course based on events in Solzhenitsyn’s life and men he knew. Like Gleb, he was imprisoned in a scientific research prison (Marfino) and we presume that the book is in fact a roman-a-clef. This is no criticism however – it would be a foolish author who claimed that his work was not influenced by his life, and if you have lived through remarkable experiences and times it makes sense to turn them into fiction, into a work that will outlive you and talk to future generations.

And this book does talk to us – it paints a remarkable picture of what it was like to live under the Soviet regime: the fear; the impossibility of fighting back against a complex and iron-fisted bureaucracy; the distrust of fellow man; the mindless cruelty; the blind following of the cause. There is a magnificent chapter where many of the prison staff have to attend an educational talk on the Soviet state which is littered with meaningless sentences and statements which make no sense at all, which nevertheless they all have to pretend to agree with.



One of the most moving sequences in the book is the chapter 61 when Innokenty visits his mother’s brother, Uncle Avenir, whom he barely knows and has not seen since her death. Despite this, and Ink’s initial doubts, the two men discover an instant family bond and are soon exchanging deep and treasonous opinions. Uncle Avenir is a secret memory man, retaining old newspapers back to the time of the revolution which show how the party line has changed and history has been re-written. His connection with his Uncle is one of the things which changes Innokenty irrevocably so that he goes on to take the momentous action of the first chapter.

And irrevocable actions happen at several points during the book. Many of the characters make heartbreaking decisions which they know they will result in them being sent to Siberian camps and probable death, but they also know that they will be failing themselves morally if they do not make those decisions. Innokenty’s phone call, Gleb’s refusal to join a cryptography research group, Gerasimovich’s refusal to work on a project which will enable the Cheka to spy on other citizens, Ruska’s decision to put his status as an informer at risk by letting other zeks know who the informers are – these are all moral decisions with far-reaching consequences but which allow their makers to rise above their captors.

The book also captures brilliantly how institutionalised the zeks have become after years of captivity – a kind of captivity with no hope of justice or freedom at the end of it. In the West, a prisoner knows he or she will be released when they have served their term but under this regime there is no prosect of escape:

Their dreams were all different, but whatever they dreamed, the sleepers were miserably aware that they were prisoners. If in their dreams they roamed over green grass or through city streets, it could mean only that they had tricked their jailers and escaped or had been released in error and were now wanted men. That total, blissful forgetfulness of their shackles imagined by Longfellow in “The Prisoner’s Dream” was denied them. The shock of wrongful arrests, followed by a ten- or twenty-year sentence, the baying of guard dogs, the sound of escort  troops priming their rifles, the nerve-racking jangle of reveille in the camps, seep through all the strata of ordinary experience, through all their secondary and even primary instincts, into a prisoner’s very bones so that, sleeping, he remembers that he is in jail before he becomes aware of smoke or the smell of burning and gets up to find the place on fire.  (chapter 71)

Solzhenitsyn allows his characters free rein to discuss their beliefs. And many of them do disagree quite violently – the chapters covering the disagreement of the communist Rubin and the religious Sologdin being a case in point, where the author describes the argument beautifully:

Like an express train rushing through the night, stopping nowhere, past rural stops, past wayside signal lights, across empty steppes, and through brightly lit towns, their argument sped over light and dark places in their memories, and everything that briefly loomed threw an uncertain light on, elicited a muffled echo from, their uncontrollably swaying, coupled thoughts. (chapter 69)

The irony is that it is only in prisoner that the characters can discuss their beliefs and feelings this freely – outside in the so-called free world they would be arrested instantly for any of the views they profess. Nerzhin starts the book as a sceptic having reached that point after much reading and thought, and he has a somewhat cynical outlook:

…..Nerzhin saw the People differently. None of his books had prepared him for his new insight. “The People” did not mean all those who speak your language, nor yet the chosen few branded with the fiery mark of genius. Neither birth nor the labor of your hands nor the privileges of education admit you to membership of the People.
    Only your soul can do that.
    And each of fashions his soul himself, year in and year out.
    You must strive to temper and to cut and polish your soul so as to become a human being. And hence a humble component of your people.
    A man with such a soul cannot as a rule expect to prosper, to go far in his career, to get rich. Which is why for the most part “the People” is not to be found at the higher levels of society. (chapter 66)

Solzhenitsyn is a master at portraying the realities of the Soviet regime – the chapters where Innokenty is arrested, then transferred to prison, give a chilling and detailed description of the whole dehumanising process. But it is not just the men who suffer – the women characters have to endure separation from their loved ones, a scrabble for survival, lack of money, the endless bureacracy which affects everything from their chances to qualify through university or the simple ability to eat well. Chapter chapter 82 indoctrination in optimism – women on the outside and their hideous lives of grinding poverty and shortages

I should say here that I hadn’t actually read all of the truncated version “The First Circle”, only the first half-dozen or so chapters – but a quick comparison reveals how much more powerful the original, restored version is. The catalyst for action in the first chapter is watered down in the cut version from the passing of atomic secrets from the USA to Russia, to a warning to a doctor that he is about to be arrested. The impact is considerably lessened and it is hard to accept that Innokenty would risk his comfortable in the cut version, whereas it is entirely believable in the original, restored book.

I find this book easy and a delight to read, but I do accept that it’s not for everyone and the fact that I’ve steeped myself in Russian culture and history helps! A basic knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet years that followed it would be useful to any reader, but it isn’t essential – there is always the Internet to check up on an unclear reference! And on a practical level, there is a useful list of characters names and who they are at the front of the book.

I find it astonishing that people have criticised Solzhenitsyn’s writing and claimed that he has only received attention because of the circumstances about which he is writing. This book is a remarkable piece of work – brilliantly written and constructed, populated with real, believable characters and painting a living picture of a group of human beings’ lives. I came out of the book feeling as if I had lived alongside the events in and around Marfino and I still have mental images of the action and the characters in my head.

As Wikipedia states:

The novel addresses numerous philosophical themes, and through multiple narratives is a powerful argument both for a stoic integrity and humanism. Like other Solzhenitsyn works, the book illustrates the difficulty in maintaining dignity within a system designed to strip its inhabitants of it.

My personal belief is that Solzhenitsyn’s reputation has suffered because of his refusal to embrace Western values. When he left Russia, the West (America in particular) seemed to want him to reject his cultural heritage and espouse Western views. But he never did this, pursuing his own beliefs and agenda to the end. Whether or not you agree with his views (and I don’t always) this doesn’t give you the right to condemn his writing with no grounds. His books are wonderful windows into a dark time, peopled with living characters and situations, and I highly recommend them to anyone who loves literature.