Alexander Solzhenitsyn died last week at the age of 89. His reputation in the West had experienced meteoric rises and falls since the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich during the Khrushchev thaw of the early 1960s. Several of his novels became best sellers in the West during the 1970s, but after his exile from the (I also enormously enjoyed August 1914 and Cancer Ward, but I never read The Gulag Archipelago.)
(I also enormously enjoyed August 1914 and Cancer Ward, but I never read The Gulag Archipelago.)
When I first picked up The First Circle in 1972, while on my way to the
The characters in The First Circle, the author shows us again and again in dozens of ways, are the only free people left in the
Real freedom, Solzehnitsyn tells us, comes from renunciation. The system occasionally tempts prisoners with privileges or even a promise of release, but to accept is usually to surrender one’s independence and one’s soul. Nerzhin (Solzehnitsyn) himself turns down an offer of a better job in the opening pages of the book because it will give him no time to meditate on the future of Communism (Solzehnitsyn at that time was, apparently, still a socialist), and is rewarded at the end with a transfer to
One after another, in chapter after chapter, we learn the life histories of dozens of characters, and in almost every case they face some climactic choice that will determine both their external and internal fate. Two—which by the genius of the plot become closely connected—deserve particular attention. The first is Rubin—Kopelev, who later described the same camp in a memoir—who had been imprisoned in early 1945 because he tried to stop atrocities against Germans during the advance through East Prussia, but who in 1949 remained a committed Communist and a supporter of Stalin. Like Faust, whom Rubin discusses in a revealing fashion, Rubin has been seduced by the Communist dream of eternal human happiness, and even his own fate—which he certainly feels to be unjust—has not yet shaken his faith. And thus, in the midst of the book, he is initially delighted to be given a special assignment—an order to try to identify the voice of a Soviet diplopmat who, he is told, has tried to stop a doctor from betraying a state secret.
The diplomat, whose own personal drama begins the book, is Innokenty Volodin, a successful though somewhat skeptical young man, the son-in-law of an old Bolshevik and public prosecutor, who has accidentally heard that his old family doctor is about to travel to France for an international conference and provide a French colleague with a new drug. Under Stalinism this could only be construed as a treasonous act, and Innokenty, after a long struggle with himself, decides to call the doctor to warn him off from a pay phone. (He is moved, not coincidentally, by primal feelings from his childhood—a visit from this doctor had always calmed his household in any moment of crisis.) Unfortunately for him, the doctor’s phone is already being tapped, and he is one of only five diplomats who knew what was going to happen. The State Security office immediately passes the task of identifying the culprit to Mavrino, where Rubin, a purported authority on the identification of individual speech, is given the original recording and recordings of all five and set to work. (Ironically, Kopelev revealed in his own memoir that when he was given a similar assignment, it actually involved a genuine case of treason—an apparent attempt by a security officer to tip off the American embassy about the
Chapter 33, in which Rubin receives this assignment, is one of the most dramatic of the book. Going inside Rubin’s head, as great novelists always do, it brilliantly portrays the struggle between one’s feelings and powers of thought that plays such a huge role in people’s submission to an ideal. Expecting to hear a vile traitor giving away state secrets, Rubin instead immediately realizes that no sane person can regard medical information in this light—“and on purely human grounds, Rubin couldn’t help liking this man who had been brave enough to telephone a flat under surveillance, probably without realizing what a risk he was taking.
“But objectively, although this man had imagined he was doing good, he was in fact working against the forces of progress. If it was considered part of the vital interests of the state to claim that all scientific discoveries had been pioneered in
Meanwhile, Innokenty gradually emerges as the most important character in the last third of the book. Obviously recalling his own experience, Solzhenitsyn traces his steps during his last 48 hours of freedom and describes in great detail the experience of his arrest and initial confinement. We learn the long chain of events that has brought Innokenty to his present pass, including the discovery of some of his mother’s papers, including the extraordinary remark, “Injustice is stronger than you—it always has been and always will be. But never let it be done through you.” At a dinner party, too, Innokenty discusses the philosophy of Epicurus, who believed that simple pleasures made a happy life and that man’s insatiable appetites were his worst enemy. (Epicurus also discouraged his followers from taking part in public life.) Yet by the time Innokenty leaves the scene—on the way to his interrogation—we cannot help but feel that all is for the best. His name was obviously carefully chosen—he is innocent, as the book begins, because he has never before obeyed a spontaneous impulse at the risk of his status and freedom. His innocence is now lost, but he, like the other prisoners, is now on the path to wisdom and self-respect.
Rubin, meanwhile, has been hard at work identifying the culprit, and has managed to narrow the field from five to two—Innokenty and the innocent Shchevronok. Having gotten that far, he becomes involved in a long argument with his boss on the subject, arguing that while Innokenty certainly sounds guilty, the characteristics of the voiceprints point to Shchevronok. When they present their dilemma to the security service, however, the solution is swiftly applied—both of them are arrested, plunging Rubin into new fits of despair. I can never read this passage without believing that Rubin’s subconscious is at work—that it has not forgotten that in this case, the words “innocent” and “guilty” actually mean their own opposites, and that Innokenty is innocent precisely because he did indeed make the call. Shchevronok winds up in the cell next to Innokenty, and Rubin has to console himself that, without his investigation, all five might have been arrested and, of course, convicted, since no one arrested under Stalinism was ever released.
The novel is indeed on of the last great artifacts of the Russian/Western literary tradition that gave us Dickens and Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and all the rest. References to literature, painting and music abound throughout—the author is writing as a citizen of the world. Both its completion and its publication were nothing short of miraculous, all the more so since Solzhenitsyn had a bout with cancer not long after his release, when he must have been first working on it. I doubt however that very many American college courses are using it any more—some years ago it had actually gone out of print here. Anyone who takes the trouble to go to abebooks.com and secure a copy of the British edition, however, will feel amply rewarded.
I have only scratched the surface of the enormous resonance the book has always had for me. The choices Solzhenitsyn describes in such an extreme form between integrity and compromise are, of course, always present in life, and some of us seem capable of only one choice. Meanwhile, this blog has now been running weekly for almost four years and amounts to a rather large book--though not yet, I do not think, as long as The
“How shall I put it?” Sologdin replies. “Isn’t there perhaps a certain moral ambiguity? . . . . .It’s not as if it were a bridge, or a crane or a lathe. Our assignment is not for something of great importance to industry—it’s more like making a gadget for the boss. And wen I think of this particular ‘customer’ picking up the receiver we’ll make for him. . . .Well, anyway, so far I’ve been working on it just . . .to test my strength. For myself.”
He looked up.
“For myself.” Chelnov knew all about this kind of work. As a rule it was research of the highest order.”