As a good young conservative, I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The
First Circle at some point in the late 60's/early 70's. As it turns
out, that was a version that Solzhenitsyn himself censored in hopes that
it could get published in the Soviet Union. That didn't happen, but it
did make it out to the West. But it wasn't the story he really wanted to
This slightly-retitled version is the restored original, with some
revisions. I was prompted to buy it
when it was selected by Russ Roberts
Book Club. And, although this wasn't part of my decision, we also
just celebrated the 100th anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's birth.
Due to that, there's been a lot of other recent web content relevant to
the book and its author. See, for example:
The book is set in the final few days of 1949, mostly around the
Marfino sharashka, a special prison on the outskirts of Moscow where
technically-skilled prisoners are imported from the far reaches of Gulag
Archipelago to work on projects for the state. It's relatively
it is the "First Circle"
of Hell (see Dante), where the prisoners ("zeks") are always under the explicit
threat of being returned to the Gulag if they fail to cooperate.
Most notably: in the first chapter, a disillusioned diplomat, Volodin, has been
informed of an upcoming transfer of US atomic bomb secrets to a Soviet
agent. He doesn't want to see that technology in the hands of Stalin, so
he makes a desperate call from a public phone booth to the US embassy in
Moscow. Unfortunately, the call is being monitored, taped, and nearly
immediately terminated by Soviet security.
So the technical problem is dumped on the zeks of Marfino:
here's the tape, here are the suspects, can you match up the voice to
the guy we should arrest?
Well, we kind of know how things turned out: the Soviets got the A-bomb
(although they already tested it by the timeframe of the book). And the
world got a lot more dangerous.
The novel is told from a number of perspectives: Volodin's, the
zeks', the families, and even Joe Stalin's. (You will not be shocked, I
Solzhenitsyn's take on Stalin is devastatingly bleak.)
Somewhat surprisingly, the book contains a lot more humor than I
remembered. It's very dark, bitter, sarcastic humor, but nonetheless.
There's an episode where Eleanor Roosevelt is duped by a
Potemkin-village prison; another where a van transporting prisoners off
to the Gulag, disguised as a food delivery truck, fools a rosy-eyed
reporter for Libération, a fellow-travelling French newspaper.
Here's a description of how one hapless prisoner, Ivan Feofanovich
Dyrsin, wound up at the sharashka:
His original conviction was itself an absurdity.
He had been jailed early in the war for "anti-Soviet agitation,"
denounced by neighbors who coveted his apartment (and subsequently
It became clear that he had engaged in no such agitation—ah, but he
might have done so, since he listened to German radio. He had in
fact never listened to German radio—but he might have done so,
since he had an illegal German radio in the house. In fact, he had no
such radio—but he might very well have had one, since he was a
radio engineer, and information received led to the discovery of a box
containing two valves [vacuum tubes] in his apartment
It's not an easy book to read: 741 very dense pages, dozens of
characters. And there's the normal problem with Russian literature: each
character has a variety of patronymic names, good luck keeping them
straight. (There's a cast of characters at the beginning of this
edition, and you might want to bookmark it.)