The malls have been decorated for Christmas and the vapid holiday songs have been assaulting our ears since somewhere around Labor Day. But in the Christian calendar, we are still in the season of Advent, a time when believers around the world remember the 500 years in which the people of Israel lived and died under political oppression, waiting for the Messiah who would somehow “bring forth justice to the nations.”
While it may not be the first book that comes to mind, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel “In the First Circle” is an especially appropriate work for the Advent season because it asks, “How do you go on living when suffering and injustice will follow you all the way to the grave?”
A Life Like Hell
The novel is set in 1949, in a Soviet sharashka, a prison research institute where “class enemies” with useful skills are sent to develop and apply new technologies for the Soviet state. Here prisoners work in offices and laboratories instead of camps, and enjoy decent food and living conditions.
The residents are aware, however, that their state is like that of the souls in the first circle of Dante’s Hell — a place where worthy pagan philosophers and sages are permitted to live free from the torments of the lower depths but eternally separated from the joys of Heaven. Most of the sharashka’s prisoners will never be free, and they know it.
It is not fear of physical pain or imminent death that torments the prisoners. Rather, it is the knowledge of all they have lost and the hopelessness of the long years ahead:
Perhaps prison is most horrible when there is no horror? When the horror consists in the gray routine never varying from week to week? When you forget that the one and only life given to you on this earth has been wrecked? When you are willing to forgive, have already forgiven the swine for all this? …The reality of prison life can fully appreciated only after years of confinement, without a break and with no end in prospect.
On Christmas Eve a diplomatic service officer named Innokenty Volodin makes an anonymous call to the U.S. embassy to report that Soviet spies are about to steal American nuclear weapons secrets. The people in the sharashka are tasked with identifying the voice on the recorded conversation with all the machinery at their disposal.
Thus we are introduced to a (very) large host of characters, including the prisoners, their loved ones on the outside, the free workers, and their government overseers, including Solzhenitsyn’s Satan, Joseph Stalin himself, who like Dante’s, sits friendless and alone in the darkness, feeding on old resentments, on growing fears, and on the underlings who carry out his will.
Respect for Even His Enemies’ Humanity
“In the First Circle” is most definitely a Russian novel. Solzhenitsyn describes his world and its people in all their complexity. But where Tolstoy could not resist commenting ironically on the thoughts of every character he created, Solzhenitsyn more often shows restraint (and respect) in revealing his characters’ inner thoughts. When his prison philosophers engage in Karamazovian debates, he allows all sides to score points. Even those loyal to the ideology he hates are human beings first.
It is the unfairness of (most of) the prisoners’ suffering that infuriates the reader. Soldiers fighting on the front lines of the Great Patriotic War are imprisoned for counseling humane treatment of German civilians. Engineers are imprisoned en mass when the government’s economic failures require a scapegoat. Craftsmen are arrested to provide free labor to prison bosses. Even loyal soldiers liberated from Nazi “cannibal camps” are given 25-year sentences on their return.
The characters we meet respond in various ways to their fate. Gleb Nerzhin is a 31-year-old mathematician whose biography and development correspond with Solzhenitsyn’s. Imprisoned for a careless remark about “The Unsleeping One,” he has witnessed first-hand the inhumanity of the Soviet state, and he begins his search for a truth beyond the ideology that once inspired him.
Nerzhin’s wife Nadya is a graduate student who hides her grief and the fact that her husband is a zek lest she be “brought out into the open, isolated, hemmed in by the right-thinking public.” She waits for justice in silence, and “wept only at night.”
Nerzhin’s best friend in the sharashka is the committed Communist Lev Rubin, who remains loyal to his Revolutionary faith and even defends it to his fellow prisoners, like a religious believer offering answers to the Problem of Evil. Rubin hopes to be vindicated in the end through his undying zeal for the cause.
Rubin’s opponent in heated debates is Dmitri Sologdin, who holds to an idiosyncratic mix of “reactionary” political and cultural beliefs, takes the Soviet state as a permanent feature of life, and decides that serving his enemies is his only hope of winning his freedom.
Spiridon, the sharashka’s yardman, has survived decades of revolution, civil war, world wars, and government persecution. Spiridon’s sole devotion is to his family, and he shifts his allegiance, such as it is, to whoever will allow him to protect his loved ones. Spiridon distracts himself with hard work and waits for the day when the Soviet state that has separated him from his children will fall.
Disillusioned by Collectivism
On the outside, Innokenty Volodin, who made the fateful call to the embassy, has lived by the Epicurean maxim that you are only given one life. So he enjoys the perks of political power: a nice home; a beautiful — if shallow and unfaithful — wife; the best food and drink; and stints abroad.
But growing disenchantment with his life, disillusionment with his government, and a chance discovery of his deceased mother’s letters awaken in him a desire for Party-denigrated virtues like justice and pity. His mother’s words sink deep: “Injustice is stronger than you, it always was and always will be, but let it not be done through you.” So, by degrees, Volodin is driven to take action against the “insensate mass” that would enslave the whole world. He has no choice, he concludes. Just as we are given only one life, “we are given only one conscience, too.”
The main character and our guide through the novel, however, is Nerzhin. Readers watch him take on the hard work of thinking, listening, and debating his way to new conclusions about good and evil, the human heart, and the fate of his country. He is utterly helpless in the face of the armies and agents that oppress him and his fellow prisoners. But rather than remain mired in cynicism and despair, he searches for a solid grounding for our instinctive desire for justice.
A Witness to Evil
While Solzhenitsyn’s style is understated, and more than a few times even funny, “In the First Circle” is first and foremost a lament. The writer is as powerless as the prisoners to stop the pitiless machine from grinding up millions of innocent lives. All he can do is tell what he sees. But a lament is an act of faith, or at least of hope. In exposing the evil he witnessed, Solzhenitsyn implicitly invoked a Power that he hoped would someday bring an end to his country’s suffering.
Solzhenitsyn lived to see the fall of the wicked regime he battled all his life. But most of its victims did not. Like the Israelites who waited centuries for their liberation, Solzhenitsyn grieved so as to be heard. The Israelites also held fast to the truth that good and evil are real, and to the hope that one day a righteous Judge would make all things right. Among many possible responses, Nerzhin, like Solzhenitsyn, chooses to do the same.
Reader of “In the First Circle” are left with a healthy sense of outrage, but also offered glimpses of friendship, selflessness, beauty, humor, and love even in an earthly Hell. Above all, Solzhenitsyn’s novel gives readers hope that while we must wait for it over agonizing years, justice will one day be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Note: A “distorted” version of Solzhenitsyn’s novel was published in English under the title “The First Circle.” A more recent version with the missing chapters and other changes that Solzhenitsyn himself restored was published in English in 2008 under the title “In the First Circle.”