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Monday, May 16, 2016

The First Circle (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Book Review
The First Circle (1968)
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

   The collapse of the Soviet Union was a bitter sweet moment for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  On the one hand, he survived to see the collapse of the entity that was responsible for sending him to a series of prison camps for making fun of Joseph Stalin in a letter.  On the other, it meant the immediate downgrade of Solzhenitsyn as a saint of the anti-Communist movement to a half-crack pot/half-literary immortal in the larger field of totalitarian regimes and their excesses.  In 2016, his trilogy of fictional prison camp books:  A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward (which is about the Soviet practice of internal exile to remote locations rather than a prison camp, per se) are more relevant for what they say about the 20th century totalitarian experience than anything specifically Russian.

  At the same time, Solzhenitsyn is an undeniably Russian writer, steeped in the technique of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  The First Circle, or In The First Circle as it is also known, takes place in a special "Sharaskha" prison in the suburbs. The Sharaskha were special, technically skilled prisoners who were kept outside the brutal forced labor camps that comprised the great majority of GULAG priso camps.  The Soviet government used them to work on special technical projects.  In The First Circle, the prisoners devote themselves to problems with acoustics and optics.

  Solzhenitsyn develops a thin plot about a diplomat who places a warning call to a scientist who is about to be arrested for trading with an enemy nation.  The zeks, and one in particular, are asked to identify the caller based on a new technology developed by the prisoners.  The development of the plot is interspersed with lengthy descriptions about almost every significant character in regards to their pasts, and how they came to be in the special Sharaskha unit.

  These character portraits overwhelm everything else.  By the end of The First Circle, the reader gains a firm understanding of just how arbitrary and capricious the purges following Stalin's rise to power were.   Ironically, the most victimized were the Party members who pre-dated Stalin's rise to power.  These were the most loyal soldiers of the Revolution, many playing key roles in the Civil War and World War II.  And yet, it wasn't enough for Stalin who appears in The First Circle in a memorable scene that reveals him offhandedly reminiscing about the millions he's killed, his anger at the way Adolph Hitler betrayed his trust and whether or not to kill his top security officer.

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