Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (b. Dec. 11, 1918-d. Aug. 3, 2008) is a Russian writer, and possibly the most important human being to live in the 20th century.
He was born into the Soviet Union, accepted the reigning communist worldview as a young person, fought against the Germans in World War II, was arrested late in the war for criticizing Stalin in personal letters, spent time in Soviet prison camps as a result, was exiled to the eastern Soviet Union, survived cancer, wrote secretly, uncertain that he would ever be published in his lifetime (if ever).
During the Khrushchev thaw he was permitted to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963), a short novel portraying an ordinary day in the life of a zek (a prisoner in a Soviet camp). That was the start of a career that included not just numerous superb novels, superb historical writing, the Nobel Prize for Literature (1970), but also worldwide fame as an opponent of the Soviet Union. Along the way he jettisoned his youthful Marxism and became eventually a committed Christian.
He was thrown out of the Soviet Union in 1974, and eventually ended up in Cavendish, Vermont, writing diligently both fiction and non-fiction. The Soviet Union ended in 1991, and Solzhenitsyn was able to return to his beloved Russia in 2004. He died in Russia in 2008, at the venerable age of 89.
He was a writer of enormous gifts, in both fiction and non-fiction. And he actually became a Christian–returning to the faith of his mother. (His father had died in a hunting accident before Solzhenitsyn’s birth.) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of God’s gifts to the world. We need to thank Him–and those of us with even a modest interest in reading need to pick up one or two of Solzhenitsyn’s books and see if they have anything to say to us.
Yesterday I finished my reading of In the First Circle, Solzhenitsyn’s second book. The history of the novel is somewhat complicated. Solzhenitsyn himself self-censored the book in order to try to get it published in the Soviet Union. That attempt failed, however. So the book was not published in the Soviet Union. That self-censored version was published in the West, under the title of The First Circle. That is the version I first read, many decades ago. I read it a second time eventually.
A current book-length writing project in which I am engaged prompted me to read the book for a third time in late 2019-early 2020. However, I discovered that ten years after the publication of The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn had restored the book to its original text–making some editorial improvements along the way, as any writer trying to put forth his best foot, would do. Finally, in 2008, 40 years after his restoration work, the book was published under a slightly new title: In the First Circle. Forty plus pages were added to what had been The First Circle, and the plot was changed slightly but significantly.
I did not have a strong memory of The First Circle, so In the First Circle was almost a brand new book to me. I am very glad to get the original uncensored version. It was a joy to read.
What is the first circle? The title fits the book perfectly. The prison camps of the Soviet Union–known as the Gulag Archipelago–were very numerous. The sharashka was a very unusual place. There some of the scientifically brilliant Soviet prisoners were put to work on scientific projects of interest to the Soviet leaders. The sharashka was no walk in the park. But the living conditions could have been much worse. The authorities were, after all, trying to coax important scientific work out of intelligent men. They were willing, therefore, to make the daily prison regimen much better than in other camps.
In Dante’s Inferno, the first circle of hell was the least wretched place in hell. That, compared to the rest of hell, was certainly the place you wanted to be if you had to be in hell. As one of the prisoners of In the First Circle says, ‘”The special prison is the highest, the best, the first circle of hell. It’s practically paradise.”‘ (p. 740)
But it is definitely still hell. Solzhenitsyn spent some time in a sharaska. He also spent time in the more common types of prison camps. He had enough experience of both types of camp to be able to make reasoned judgments.
In the First Circle can be obtained for a reasonable price on the Internet. The best prices I could find today were $6.72 (shipping included) at AbeBooks. (Sales tax might add a bit more expense.) Amazon featured pries a couple dollars higher. Be careful, though. Most of the ads at Abe were for The First Circle, the version of the book which is incomplete and self-censored by Solzhenitsyn. I had to scroll down to page 5 of the listings before I found In the First Circle advertised! Don’t settle for The First Circle; insist on In the First Circle, which is the book Solzhenitsyn had in mind from the start.
The 2008 version includes an excellent foreword by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. It is a sturdy paperback edition of 741 pages.
Next week I hope to deal some of the themes of In the First Circle. Solzhenitsyn has a lot to teach us, but today I am running out of time and space, so I will take a second day to deal with this fascinating book.