Regarded as the author’s most elaborate novel, with a vision, scope, and breadth befitting its topic, The First Circle addresses the recurrent theme of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s oeuvre, namely the “internal freedom” which even the most totalitarian of political and cultural systems is unable to deny the individual. The title of this text by the Nobel Prize–winning Solzhenitsyn (1918– 2008) is drawn from Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, the first circle of the Inferno, or hell. Solzhenitsyn’s hell in his fictional universe is represented by a Soviet forcedlabor camp system.
The First Circle of the title is a higher echelon, an upper stratum that constitutes an institute oriented around scientific and technological research based on the periphery of Moscow. The employees of this institute are scientists and mechanical engineers who are promoted from lower circles of the labor camp system and then assigned to urgent, sensitive, and high-priority security assignments.
The majority of Solzhenitsyn’s narrative is structured around a project designed to create a scientific process that will allow a detailed analysis of telephone calls where the contents of the conversations have been monitored and the identities of the speakers are unknown. This creates a position where the “advantaged” members of the Soviet society are forced to use their cerebral superiority to trap their comrades. Solzhenitsyn compounds this scenario by revealing that a common motivation for working above and beyond the required levels is not just the prospect of imminent demotion, but a misguided intellectual curiosity and long-lasting loyalty to their party.
The central plot of the novel, which is narrated over three anxious and frantic days, is a suspense-laden technological problem. On December 24, 1949, an ambitious young Soviet diplomat, Innokentii Volodin, calls a childhood friend and colleague from a public telephone booth to warn him against revealing a medical innovation known only to him and his French cohorts. The conversation is monitored, recorded, and intercepted. After two days, a philologist and linguistic expert who works in the field of acoustics announces that a serious development in “voice identification” has taken place. Hours later, Innokentii Volodin is placed in the notorious Moscow Lubianka jail, his status as a political doyen downgraded to that of another number within the all encompassing political system.
One potential hero figure to emerge from The First Circle is Gleb Nerzhin, the central protagonist, who possesses a number of biographical links with Solzhenitsyn as well as sharing a name with a character from another of Solzhenitsyn’s works, The Feast of Victors. Nerzhin, born in 1918, has been brought up and steeled against the extreme rigors of Stalinist Russia. Following his imprisonment, Nerzhin is sent to the institute to work alongside the third narrator of The First Circle, an intellectually minded linguist named Lev Rubin. Although Nerzhin has knowledge of the client who will benefit from his developing a more efficient voice-monitoring system, he is immediately wary of and unhappy about his complicity with the regime. The vision that Solzhenitsyn conveys is bleak and chilling, with his characters informed by an overtly paranoid political sensibility. Everyone, from the head of the secret police to the security forces in the research institute, operates under the constant expectation and fear that their times of comparative freedom are about to be withdrawn and their privileges swiftly commuted to sanctions.
Critics have often pointed out one particular sequence within the narrative, Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of Joseph Stalin. Stalin was the premier of the Soviet Union from the 1920s to his death in 1953. His iron rule was punctuated by state terror, mass deportations, and political repression. Solzhenitsyn portrays the Soviet leader as a paranoid, cunning, vindictive, vituperative, and isolated tyrant. The writer was also criticized for authorial self-indulgence, outright political jockeying, and assimilating unnecessary fictions that intrude upon factual, well-documented testimony. The portrayal of the Russian dictator Stalin is not only scathing but also lacks the depth ascribed to other characters, as well as lapsing into outright sarcasm in some parts of the novel.
Moreover, there is a claustrophobic quality to The First Circle that embellishes the dominant theme: incarceration. Although Solzhenitsyn represents Russia as a giant prison, he also ironically suggests that it is only when one is imprisoned within the system that one can achieve a degree of true freedom. Even though the principal protagonists have lost their relationships with their wives, their material possessions, their influence, and their power, their positions within the Institute still afford them a dignity and basic humanity that also seems to threaten the tyranny of Stalin.
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Thomas, D. M. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.