In the First Circle

Solzhenitsyn’s autobiographical and much-admired In the First Circle is his first full-length novel.  For the first 40 years, since its publication in English from its publication in 1968 as The First Circle, the novel was only available in a version that Solzhenitsyn had “lightened” in the vain hope that it would pass muster with the Soviet censors.  Only in 2008 was the complete authorized English edition published (translation by Harry Willetts).

The novel is set during 24-27 December 1949, and the main action occurs on prison grounds near Moscow that originally encompassed a seminary.  The religious overtones of these time and place settings, along with the title drawn from Dante’sInferno, provide the groundwork for a novel about conflicting sets of beliefs.  Soviet authorities turned the ecclesiastical site into asharashka, an institution where incarcerated scientists and technologists are required to work on secret state projects but in exchange receive better provisions and gentler treatment than others in the Gulag system.  The large cast comprises a cross section of society, including persons inside and outside the sharashka and historical personages (such as Stalin) alongside fictional characters.

Every personage from Stalin on down, is responsible, above all else, for developing one’s innate humanity within the intrinsically dehumanizing setting of the Soviet system.  In keeping with the moral principle that ideas and actions have consequences, each character’s thoughts and deeds push toward one side or the other the line dividing good and evil that cuts through every human heart, according to the famous image in The Gulag Archipelago.  And in accord with consecutive chapters of Gulag entitled “The Ascent” and “Or Corruption?” some characters blossom spiritually but more shrivel.

The novel’s structure is polyphonic.  Thus, various major and minor characters take turns as the central consciousness for a chapter or more and, though retaining the third-person narration of the novel as a whole, are able to impart their points of view.  This technique facilitates the presentation of clashing worldviews.  Gleb Nerzhin, the author’s alter ego, reflects Solzhenitsyn’s own intellectual grappling during his four years in the Marfino sharashka.  Fellow zeks Lev Rubin and Dimitri Sologdin—based on the real-life Lev Kopelev and Dimitri Panin, respectively—provide foils for Gleb.

The intense but respectful conversations among these three intellectual inmates advance the central theme of the novel, namely, what it means to become a truly human . Rubin, far from being a stick-figure representation of a viewpoint, is a fully realized character who receives about as much space as Nerzhin.  Despite his blind fidelity to Marxism, Rubin is a man of conscience.  He cares deeply about humanity and is a true friend to Nerzhin.  Rubin’s presence underlines the moral appeal of Marxism. Sologdin’s critique of collectivism is grounded in his hearty commitment to Christianity.  As he watches Nerzhin moving away from Marxism, he confidently predicts that Nerzhin “will come to God”—not God in a general sense but “a concrete Christian God”—and to an acceptance of every Christian dogma, including the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception.

Nerzhin resists all ready-made worldviews; his characterization features his quest for a point of view of his own, a process that emphasizes actively cultivating one’s own soul. Nerzhin now denies that justice is relative or merely class-based and asserts, instead, that justice is “the foundation of the universe” and that we are “born with a sense of justice in our souls.”  Although giving thought to absolutes and universals suggests some movement in Sologdin’s direction, Nerzhin stops short of embracing Christianity.  An erstwhile Marxist, he examines the appeal of the longstanding Russian idea that wisdom resides in the peasantry, who in this view are the purest repositories of the Russian spirit.  He befriends Spiridon, who embodies, just as Ivan Denisovich and Matryona do in their eponymous stories, “the people” to whom Nerzhin considers going for wisdom . Yet Nerzhin has learned from observation that the peasants are not in all ways morally superior, and so he decides that his only path to becoming a fully actualized human being is to think for himself and in that way to fashion his own soul.  Nerzhin’s odyssey holds promise of further growth; it also remains open-ended.

Innokentii Volodin, a Soviet diplomat and the most important fictional character outside the sharashka, similarly finds his settled beliefs failing and in need of replacement.  He has learned that a Soviet spy in New York is about to pick up classified information on nuclear-bomb technology.  The comfortable insider, no longer able to suppress his awareness that he operates within a criminal, totalitarian regime, now faces a stark moral dilemma:  Should he act on the news that he has?  He decides to place a telephone call of warning to the US embassy.  Acting out of a sense of the highest responsibility imaginable causes him to commit the highest crime imaginable:  nothing less than treason.  He is up against spiritless, mindless functionaries who ceaselessly monitor phone calls – cogs in the fail-safe machinery of ruthless oppression, which now begins to grind him up.

Volodin was called an Epicurean by friends.  He decides to brush up on the old master but is distracted when he stumbles upon letters written by his now-dead mother.  She cherished—and capitalized—ideas rendered archaic by the Revolution:  “Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Good and Evil, the Ethical Imperative.”  Innokentii’s newly attained frame of mind opens him to receiving from her a posthumous message bespeaking the traditional outlook of pre-revolutionary Russia.  As the novel ebbs, Innokentii scrambles to find resources beyond Epicureanism that will allow him to face his imminent descent into the hell of Gulag with equanimity.

– adapted from Edward Ericson’s foreword to In The First Circle (HarperCollins, 2008) and from Ericson’s introduction to the novel in The Solzhenitsyn Reader


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