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The thrilling cold war masterwork by the nobel prize winner, published in full for the first time

Moscow, Christmas Eve, 1949.The Soviet secret police intercept a call made to the American embassy by a Russian diplomat who promises to deliver secrets about the nascent Soviet Atomic Bomb program. On that same day, a brilliant mathematician is locked away inside a Moscow prison that houses the country's brightest minds. He and his fellow prisoners are charged with using their abilities to sleuth out the caller's identity, and they must choose whether to aid Joseph Stalin's repressive state—or refuse and accept transfer to the Siberian Gulag camps . . . and almost certain death.

First written between 1955 and 1958, In the First Circle is Solzhenitsyn's fiction masterpiece. In order to pass through Soviet censors, many essential scenes—including nine full chapters—were cut or altered before it was published in a hastily translated English edition in 1968. Now with the help of the author's most trusted translator, Harry T. Willetts, here for the first time is the complete, definitive English edition of Solzhenitsyn's powerful and magnificent classic.

Published: HarperCollins on Jan 3, 2012
ISBN: 9780062194886
List price: $12.99
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I feel that I should have liked this better, but it made me tired and the characters did not a whole lot for me. I would have enjoyed a few short stories more. All in all, I guess I am glad that I have read some Solzhenitsyn, but he did not move my earth.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
A book that improves with each reading. Rounds out Solzhenitsyn's view of the Soviet Gulag system.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Unlike Ivan Denosovich, the residents of this Russian prison are housed in a Moscow suburb, and spend their days, not laying bricks and worrying about food, but in a lab or a workshop, trying to improve the Soviet communications system. The First Circle of the title refers to Dante's first circle of hell, where the Greek philosophers got to be near paradise, but could not enter it. The prisoners have the understanding that they have struck a faustian bargain--they get to stay in relative luxury (for a prison camp), but they are also working for the machine that placed them there, and which puts people in far worse places every day. Do they continue to serve the beast, as people without conscious, or do they rebel, and give up their coveted spot in the soviet food chain?read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Another scathing critique of Stalinist Russia with the trappings of a thriller/mystery. A crack team of investigators (all prisoners of the Gulag) is assembled to investigate who leaked nuclear secrets to the Americans. With daring and ingenuity, they eliminate all but two suspects - but there is no further evidence. Both suspects are arrested anyway. Who else but Solzhenitsyn could come up with a novel like this?read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
It did not convince me that my stereotyping of Russian literature as slow and with too many characters is at all wrong. Well, I mostly liked it, though. Except for the one chapter which was apparently there just to enrage feminists. Since the book is set in a prison for men, I was not too bothered by there being hardly any female characters. However, was it really necessary to have a chapter in which all the female characters in the book talk about their boyfriends and their clothes in a non-plot-advancing way?read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I am about to do a very great injustice to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and I apologize for it in advance: I am going to discuss one of his novels without reference to its artistic merit. Let me make it clear that _The First Circle_ is a book that will always reward its reader, written as it is in a very coherent manner with an immense amount of skill and depth of characterization -- but at this point in time, what's more important than that is politics.If you still have any doubts as to the depths of depravity characteristic of Joseph Stalin -- if, for example, you think he wasn't as bad as Hitler -- you _must_ read this book. Fictional though it is, its portrait of Stalin is true to life, and that's all I need to say on _that_ subject. He is in a way the central figure, the protagonist, of the novel; it's his policies, his paranoia born of his own successful treachery, his unhealthy fear of spies and Heaven only knows what else, that created the Russia in which the fictitious characters of the novel are trapped. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the then-MGB (IIRC) and the GULAG network; he knows only too well, in this book, of what he writes...read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
" The thrilling Cold War masterwork by the Nobel Prize winner. First written between 1955 and 1958"Taken from dust jacketread more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Believable and unbelievable at the same time, riveting, gripping, mesmerizing, poignant, shocking saga about a special prison where the intellectuals of genius, under pretext of being political prisoners, slaved away as a result of cowardly iniquities of Stalin's rule. The time period is just about 4 days in December 1949, with, of course, steps back into the past of all the characters. One gets the feeling that these people are real, and that the author used his own experience in the labor camps to portray them. The conditions in the unusual prison were relatively "improved" (and there were several such "institutions" at the time) as compared to most labor camps. Why? So that imprisoned researchers and engineers could physically survive and produce top notch scientific research for the benefit of the ruling party. Prisoners and guards, party officials and apparatchiks - they all come to life, each with their personal history.By now we all know of Stalin's atrocities. Yet this book is one of a kind. It made me forget the world around me while I was reading it, and if that is not an indication of a great book, I don't know what is. It made my heart wither in shame for the country of my birth, for the sordid crimes committed against the brightest minds of the land.I was lucky that I came across this particular edition of the book, as, I understand, the author had to revise the novel several times over the years (due to censorship), but this was the final, most complete edition where he was able to fearlessly add quite an amount of material, and he died in 2008 knowing that it would be soon published in this form - and it was, in 2009. My only regret is that I didn't get my hands on the original Russian edition, but I can do that later. The translation is quite adequate.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Solzhenitsyn wrote this book in the early 1950s and released a highly censored version in the West in the late 60s (censored by himself in order to get it published in the Soviet Union) under the name "The First Circle." The current version, which expands the original greatly, was published in English last year. I had read the original version in Spanish when it was publihed in 1968.This is probably the best of Solzhenitsyn's writings. It's a gripping novel that carries on the themes for which he is well known and to which he dedicated his life. Respect for the individual, love for one's own country, belief on a higher being or God, human selflessness and sacrifice for a greater good, resiliency of the soul. And, of course, he brings the idiocy of bureaucratic institutions guided by non-sensical rules, particularly those when Russians lived under the Soviet regime. The blind abeyance to those rules by officials and their cruelty towards fellow human beings- who were not considered beings is a common thread throughout the novel. The novel centers on the life of scientist prisoners of the Soviet Gulag system who, because of their scientist status, were imprisoned in what was called a "sharashka"- a research prison. The sharashaka housed all types of scientists- mathematicians, physicists, engineers, etc. and was the best of the Gulags. Life in the sharashkas was better than the other Gulag prisons; for example, prisoners were allowed a visit from a spouse or relative once a year, for an hour at best (imagine that, a whole hour). Scientists in the sharashka were given this preferential treatment in order to get them to produce some invention or scientific contribution which would, in due turn, released under the name of a Soviet official or non-discredited scientist.Although it's a long novel, like many serious Russian novels, and difficult at times because of the large number of characters who are referred variously under different names (e.g., last name, first name, patronymic, and short versions of the first name) I recommend it highly. It's a thoughtful book that reminds one how lucky to live in a free country; and how thankful we should be towards those before us who have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, to defend our way of living.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
A 2009 first release of an uncensored complete version of this Solzhenitsyn novel. The introduction's first sentence: "It has taken half a century for English-language readers to receive the definitive text of the best novel by the man who well may be the most famous author of our times." I wouldn't say it's his best novel, but it is broad while holding to a storyline that keeps a reader engaged--and is clearly Solzhenitsyn all the way.The 730+ page book is titled after the least oppressive circle of Dante's Inferno, and indeed portrays the most lax and easy of the Soviet Union's prison camps. Populated with jailed scientists tasked with inventing new technologies to aid the governments arms and espionage race with the West, the prison includes none of the traditional death-inducing grueling conditions of most of the camps, and a reader should not take away the conditions herein as reflective of the experience of the 5-20 million Russians jailed in prison camps/work camps throughout the 20th century.The book follows a novel with a concrete plot, but covers a broad range of topics from philosophy including Epicureanism and Dialectic Materialism, to moral commitments/dilemmas, to religion and government. It strays at times to ensure portrayal of everyone from Stalin himself including his thoughts to a lowly peasant living in the country-side reminiscing of the 19th century ways of living under Tsarist rule.Centering this breadth is a story of one Volodin, state diplomat, who finds himself in possession of a state secret that - if communicated to the West in time - could prevent or delay the USSR in developing nuclear weapons and thus presumably save millions of lives potentially lost in a nuclear conflict. The author toggles back and forth between the State's race to identify the anonymous informant and between a cast of intellectual engineer prisoners led by Gleb Nerzhin, a youngish outdoorsy moral martyr of sorts struggling with his wife's continued lack of means, status, and future, and Lev Rubin, the lead character of prisoners if there is one, a dedicated Marxist, gifted scientist and comedian who ultimately decides Volodin's fate.While the book could use editing, there's no clear way to delete any more than 20 pages or so without carving out the fifty or more points and dilemmas Solzhenitsyn leaves with the reader. A hard, slow read with little pace, the book is a realistic portrayal of perhaps every issue facing the Gulag inhabitant with the least struggles.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)As an American who didn't do too much academic reading before opening CCLaP, there are of course numerous entire sections of the literary world that I could stand to learn a whole lot more about; take Russian literature for a good example, not just its beginnings with Pushkin and the like but also its heydey of the late 1800s and early 1900s (the time period of such famed authors as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov), all the way through to both the sanctioned and underground writers of the Soviet period of the 1920s through '80s. And that's why I was so excited to find out that last fall, Harper Perennial ended up putting out a brand-new edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1968 In The First Circle (originally known as simply The First Circle, one of the hundreds of details that have been put back in the book for this 2009 edition), because this gave me a good excuse to sit and finally read the thing; after all, Solzhenitsyn is one of the most important writers of the entire Soviet era, essentially the first intellectual to break the news to the Western world of what Stalin's prison camps (or gulags) were actually like, a fact which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1970 even as he was still a Soviet prisoner.And the irony, of course, is that less than ten years before In The First Circle, he had been able to publish the first of this highly anti-Stalinst work in the actual Soviet Union itself -- namely, 1962's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is what first gained him an international following; and this was because of Nikita Khrushchev's campaign of de-Stalinization in that country then, which came as news to me when first studying this book, which gives you a good idea of just how much about Russian history I still have to learn. Even though that book went well, Solzhenitsyn knew that the original 96-chapter version of his much more expansive follow-up would never pass the muster of Soviet censors, which is why he voluntarily cut almost a dozen of those chapters from the original In The First Circle before submitting it, and radically changed a dozen more; then when he later became critical of Khrushchev himself and was once more sent back into the camps, it was this trimmed-down version that was snuck out of the country, and published in the West in 1968 to huge infamy. But like many former dissidents, Solzhenitsyn made peace with his homeland again after the fall of communism in the early '90s, moving back there in his old age and for the first time in his life going back comprehensively over his entire oeuvre; and apparently at the end of his life, he decided it was important to get the original 96-chapter version out finally to the public, the project he was working on all the way up to his death in 2008, just a year before the completely uncensored version came out.For those who don't know, the book is a highly autobiographical look at a special kind of work camp that existed during the "Stalinist Purge," the period of the 1930s and '40s when that Modernist leader and World War Two overseer had several tens of millions of his fellow citizens imprisoned and/or killed in order to keep himself and his supporters in power; because with that many people in the camps, you could of course fill entire prisons with nothing but scientists and artists if you wanted to, which is exactly what Stalinist authorities did, called "sharashkas" and actually more like college dorms than traditional prisons, where intellectuals were treated decently and fed well in exchange for them continuing to work on various cultural and scientific projects, like the space program or nuclear weapons or Bond-style spy devices. This is where the title In The First Circle comes from, in fact, inspired by Dante's concept in The Inferno of there being nine circles of Hell, the first one not actually that terrible and designed for only light sinners; because when all was said and done, except for the lack of free movement, these sharashkas actually weren't all that bad, or at least compared to the nightmarish conditions of the Siberian hard-labor camps, where said intellectuals were shipped off to if refusing to voluntarily work on these state projects. That's a major theme of the book, the philosophical argument over which of these options is better -- to remain ideologically pure yet pay a high price for it, or to do what is simply going to be done by someone else anyway, and in the meanwhile living to fight another day.And besides this, the thousand-page tome is also of course a highly detailed look at what daily Soviet life was like during the Stalinist years of the late '40s; and in fact that may be the biggest surprise about this manuscript, is that its details regarding the real Soviet Union in those years are so eerily similar to the speculative fancifulness of George Orwell's anti-Stalinist 1984 to not even be funny. Because let's not forget, Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (which is how he came up with the title, by simply switching the last two numbers), while Solzhenitsyn's book is set just a year later, during Christmas week of 1949, retroactively backing up many of the most outrageous suppositions of Orwell's original, including the Soviet invention of a "Newspeak" type official new language, designed to be reductive so to literally remove from dictionaries the very words themselves that stood for subversive ideas, as well as the very real endeavor back then to officially erase the very existence of state enemies, including airbrushing them out of old photos and re-writing archived newspaper articles that once mentioned them. If nothing else, this might be the most important lasting legacy of In The First Circle, is that it dutifully chronicles many of the absurdly comedic yet horrifying things that took place during the Stalinist years, shows us just how right we in the West were to be terrified back then by the idea of a Stalinist planet, even if that did lead to some pretty horrible things on their own, like McCarthyism and book burnings.But this isn't the only thing about In The First Circle to enjoy; there's also the inventive cyclical nature of its very structure, which like Richard Linklater's Slacker is told in a "vertical storytelling" style, where the different main characters of each chapter are introduced causally in the end paragraphs of the previous chapter. So in other words, one chapter might be about a prisoner in an electronics lab inside the camp, who at the end of the chapter has a conversation with the 21-year-old girl who's been hired to oversee them; the next chapter then might be about that girl now at home that evening, ending with her talking to her husband, a mid-level bureaucrat who works in the personal offices of Joseph Stalin, with the next chapter after that perhaps being about Stalin himself, one of the hundreds of both real and fictional people featured in this doorstop of a book. And then of course is the sly humor found throughout, the fascinating details about life inside one of these "intellectual prisons," the history lessons provided through the cynical discussions of the older "zeks," the ones old enough to remember the original 1917 communist revolution and who sit around endlessly debating what's gone wrong in the thirty years since, a big reason they're in the camps to begin with.Now, just so we're on the same page, let me confess that there are problems as well with In The First Circle; for example, like so many other Russian novelists, Solzhenitsyn tends to be in love with the sound of his own voice, turning what could've been a truly mindblowing 400-page book into a merely important yet highly digressive thousand-page one. Despite its limitations, though, it's a highly rewarding book to actually make one's way through and eventually finish, and I applaud Harper for spending the time, energy and money needed to put out this restored version in the first place, when commercially speaking it is obviously only going to appeal to a small niche audience. This single book alone filled a huge chunk of that gaping hole in my life when it comes to Russian history and culture, and it comes highly recommended to those who are looking to fill such a similar hole in their own lives.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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I feel that I should have liked this better, but it made me tired and the characters did not a whole lot for me. I would have enjoyed a few short stories more. All in all, I guess I am glad that I have read some Solzhenitsyn, but he did not move my earth.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
A book that improves with each reading. Rounds out Solzhenitsyn's view of the Soviet Gulag system.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Unlike Ivan Denosovich, the residents of this Russian prison are housed in a Moscow suburb, and spend their days, not laying bricks and worrying about food, but in a lab or a workshop, trying to improve the Soviet communications system. The First Circle of the title refers to Dante's first circle of hell, where the Greek philosophers got to be near paradise, but could not enter it. The prisoners have the understanding that they have struck a faustian bargain--they get to stay in relative luxury (for a prison camp), but they are also working for the machine that placed them there, and which puts people in far worse places every day. Do they continue to serve the beast, as people without conscious, or do they rebel, and give up their coveted spot in the soviet food chain?
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Another scathing critique of Stalinist Russia with the trappings of a thriller/mystery. A crack team of investigators (all prisoners of the Gulag) is assembled to investigate who leaked nuclear secrets to the Americans. With daring and ingenuity, they eliminate all but two suspects - but there is no further evidence. Both suspects are arrested anyway. Who else but Solzhenitsyn could come up with a novel like this?
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
It did not convince me that my stereotyping of Russian literature as slow and with too many characters is at all wrong. Well, I mostly liked it, though. Except for the one chapter which was apparently there just to enrage feminists. Since the book is set in a prison for men, I was not too bothered by there being hardly any female characters. However, was it really necessary to have a chapter in which all the female characters in the book talk about their boyfriends and their clothes in a non-plot-advancing way?
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I am about to do a very great injustice to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and I apologize for it in advance: I am going to discuss one of his novels without reference to its artistic merit. Let me make it clear that _The First Circle_ is a book that will always reward its reader, written as it is in a very coherent manner with an immense amount of skill and depth of characterization -- but at this point in time, what's more important than that is politics.If you still have any doubts as to the depths of depravity characteristic of Joseph Stalin -- if, for example, you think he wasn't as bad as Hitler -- you _must_ read this book. Fictional though it is, its portrait of Stalin is true to life, and that's all I need to say on _that_ subject. He is in a way the central figure, the protagonist, of the novel; it's his policies, his paranoia born of his own successful treachery, his unhealthy fear of spies and Heaven only knows what else, that created the Russia in which the fictitious characters of the novel are trapped. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the then-MGB (IIRC) and the GULAG network; he knows only too well, in this book, of what he writes...
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
" The thrilling Cold War masterwork by the Nobel Prize winner. First written between 1955 and 1958"Taken from dust jacket
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Believable and unbelievable at the same time, riveting, gripping, mesmerizing, poignant, shocking saga about a special prison where the intellectuals of genius, under pretext of being political prisoners, slaved away as a result of cowardly iniquities of Stalin's rule. The time period is just about 4 days in December 1949, with, of course, steps back into the past of all the characters. One gets the feeling that these people are real, and that the author used his own experience in the labor camps to portray them. The conditions in the unusual prison were relatively "improved" (and there were several such "institutions" at the time) as compared to most labor camps. Why? So that imprisoned researchers and engineers could physically survive and produce top notch scientific research for the benefit of the ruling party. Prisoners and guards, party officials and apparatchiks - they all come to life, each with their personal history.By now we all know of Stalin's atrocities. Yet this book is one of a kind. It made me forget the world around me while I was reading it, and if that is not an indication of a great book, I don't know what is. It made my heart wither in shame for the country of my birth, for the sordid crimes committed against the brightest minds of the land.I was lucky that I came across this particular edition of the book, as, I understand, the author had to revise the novel several times over the years (due to censorship), but this was the final, most complete edition where he was able to fearlessly add quite an amount of material, and he died in 2008 knowing that it would be soon published in this form - and it was, in 2009. My only regret is that I didn't get my hands on the original Russian edition, but I can do that later. The translation is quite adequate.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Solzhenitsyn wrote this book in the early 1950s and released a highly censored version in the West in the late 60s (censored by himself in order to get it published in the Soviet Union) under the name "The First Circle." The current version, which expands the original greatly, was published in English last year. I had read the original version in Spanish when it was publihed in 1968.This is probably the best of Solzhenitsyn's writings. It's a gripping novel that carries on the themes for which he is well known and to which he dedicated his life. Respect for the individual, love for one's own country, belief on a higher being or God, human selflessness and sacrifice for a greater good, resiliency of the soul. And, of course, he brings the idiocy of bureaucratic institutions guided by non-sensical rules, particularly those when Russians lived under the Soviet regime. The blind abeyance to those rules by officials and their cruelty towards fellow human beings- who were not considered beings is a common thread throughout the novel. The novel centers on the life of scientist prisoners of the Soviet Gulag system who, because of their scientist status, were imprisoned in what was called a "sharashka"- a research prison. The sharashaka housed all types of scientists- mathematicians, physicists, engineers, etc. and was the best of the Gulags. Life in the sharashkas was better than the other Gulag prisons; for example, prisoners were allowed a visit from a spouse or relative once a year, for an hour at best (imagine that, a whole hour). Scientists in the sharashka were given this preferential treatment in order to get them to produce some invention or scientific contribution which would, in due turn, released under the name of a Soviet official or non-discredited scientist.Although it's a long novel, like many serious Russian novels, and difficult at times because of the large number of characters who are referred variously under different names (e.g., last name, first name, patronymic, and short versions of the first name) I recommend it highly. It's a thoughtful book that reminds one how lucky to live in a free country; and how thankful we should be towards those before us who have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, to defend our way of living.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
A 2009 first release of an uncensored complete version of this Solzhenitsyn novel. The introduction's first sentence: "It has taken half a century for English-language readers to receive the definitive text of the best novel by the man who well may be the most famous author of our times." I wouldn't say it's his best novel, but it is broad while holding to a storyline that keeps a reader engaged--and is clearly Solzhenitsyn all the way.The 730+ page book is titled after the least oppressive circle of Dante's Inferno, and indeed portrays the most lax and easy of the Soviet Union's prison camps. Populated with jailed scientists tasked with inventing new technologies to aid the governments arms and espionage race with the West, the prison includes none of the traditional death-inducing grueling conditions of most of the camps, and a reader should not take away the conditions herein as reflective of the experience of the 5-20 million Russians jailed in prison camps/work camps throughout the 20th century.The book follows a novel with a concrete plot, but covers a broad range of topics from philosophy including Epicureanism and Dialectic Materialism, to moral commitments/dilemmas, to religion and government. It strays at times to ensure portrayal of everyone from Stalin himself including his thoughts to a lowly peasant living in the country-side reminiscing of the 19th century ways of living under Tsarist rule.Centering this breadth is a story of one Volodin, state diplomat, who finds himself in possession of a state secret that - if communicated to the West in time - could prevent or delay the USSR in developing nuclear weapons and thus presumably save millions of lives potentially lost in a nuclear conflict. The author toggles back and forth between the State's race to identify the anonymous informant and between a cast of intellectual engineer prisoners led by Gleb Nerzhin, a youngish outdoorsy moral martyr of sorts struggling with his wife's continued lack of means, status, and future, and Lev Rubin, the lead character of prisoners if there is one, a dedicated Marxist, gifted scientist and comedian who ultimately decides Volodin's fate.While the book could use editing, there's no clear way to delete any more than 20 pages or so without carving out the fifty or more points and dilemmas Solzhenitsyn leaves with the reader. A hard, slow read with little pace, the book is a realistic portrayal of perhaps every issue facing the Gulag inhabitant with the least struggles.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)As an American who didn't do too much academic reading before opening CCLaP, there are of course numerous entire sections of the literary world that I could stand to learn a whole lot more about; take Russian literature for a good example, not just its beginnings with Pushkin and the like but also its heydey of the late 1800s and early 1900s (the time period of such famed authors as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov), all the way through to both the sanctioned and underground writers of the Soviet period of the 1920s through '80s. And that's why I was so excited to find out that last fall, Harper Perennial ended up putting out a brand-new edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1968 In The First Circle (originally known as simply The First Circle, one of the hundreds of details that have been put back in the book for this 2009 edition), because this gave me a good excuse to sit and finally read the thing; after all, Solzhenitsyn is one of the most important writers of the entire Soviet era, essentially the first intellectual to break the news to the Western world of what Stalin's prison camps (or gulags) were actually like, a fact which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1970 even as he was still a Soviet prisoner.And the irony, of course, is that less than ten years before In The First Circle, he had been able to publish the first of this highly anti-Stalinst work in the actual Soviet Union itself -- namely, 1962's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is what first gained him an international following; and this was because of Nikita Khrushchev's campaign of de-Stalinization in that country then, which came as news to me when first studying this book, which gives you a good idea of just how much about Russian history I still have to learn. Even though that book went well, Solzhenitsyn knew that the original 96-chapter version of his much more expansive follow-up would never pass the muster of Soviet censors, which is why he voluntarily cut almost a dozen of those chapters from the original In The First Circle before submitting it, and radically changed a dozen more; then when he later became critical of Khrushchev himself and was once more sent back into the camps, it was this trimmed-down version that was snuck out of the country, and published in the West in 1968 to huge infamy. But like many former dissidents, Solzhenitsyn made peace with his homeland again after the fall of communism in the early '90s, moving back there in his old age and for the first time in his life going back comprehensively over his entire oeuvre; and apparently at the end of his life, he decided it was important to get the original 96-chapter version out finally to the public, the project he was working on all the way up to his death in 2008, just a year before the completely uncensored version came out.For those who don't know, the book is a highly autobiographical look at a special kind of work camp that existed during the "Stalinist Purge," the period of the 1930s and '40s when that Modernist leader and World War Two overseer had several tens of millions of his fellow citizens imprisoned and/or killed in order to keep himself and his supporters in power; because with that many people in the camps, you could of course fill entire prisons with nothing but scientists and artists if you wanted to, which is exactly what Stalinist authorities did, called "sharashkas" and actually more like college dorms than traditional prisons, where intellectuals were treated decently and fed well in exchange for them continuing to work on various cultural and scientific projects, like the space program or nuclear weapons or Bond-style spy devices. This is where the title In The First Circle comes from, in fact, inspired by Dante's concept in The Inferno of there being nine circles of Hell, the first one not actually that terrible and designed for only light sinners; because when all was said and done, except for the lack of free movement, these sharashkas actually weren't all that bad, or at least compared to the nightmarish conditions of the Siberian hard-labor camps, where said intellectuals were shipped off to if refusing to voluntarily work on these state projects. That's a major theme of the book, the philosophical argument over which of these options is better -- to remain ideologically pure yet pay a high price for it, or to do what is simply going to be done by someone else anyway, and in the meanwhile living to fight another day.And besides this, the thousand-page tome is also of course a highly detailed look at what daily Soviet life was like during the Stalinist years of the late '40s; and in fact that may be the biggest surprise about this manuscript, is that its details regarding the real Soviet Union in those years are so eerily similar to the speculative fancifulness of George Orwell's anti-Stalinist 1984 to not even be funny. Because let's not forget, Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (which is how he came up with the title, by simply switching the last two numbers), while Solzhenitsyn's book is set just a year later, during Christmas week of 1949, retroactively backing up many of the most outrageous suppositions of Orwell's original, including the Soviet invention of a "Newspeak" type official new language, designed to be reductive so to literally remove from dictionaries the very words themselves that stood for subversive ideas, as well as the very real endeavor back then to officially erase the very existence of state enemies, including airbrushing them out of old photos and re-writing archived newspaper articles that once mentioned them. If nothing else, this might be the most important lasting legacy of In The First Circle, is that it dutifully chronicles many of the absurdly comedic yet horrifying things that took place during the Stalinist years, shows us just how right we in the West were to be terrified back then by the idea of a Stalinist planet, even if that did lead to some pretty horrible things on their own, like McCarthyism and book burnings.But this isn't the only thing about In The First Circle to enjoy; there's also the inventive cyclical nature of its very structure, which like Richard Linklater's Slacker is told in a "vertical storytelling" style, where the different main characters of each chapter are introduced causally in the end paragraphs of the previous chapter. So in other words, one chapter might be about a prisoner in an electronics lab inside the camp, who at the end of the chapter has a conversation with the 21-year-old girl who's been hired to oversee them; the next chapter then might be about that girl now at home that evening, ending with her talking to her husband, a mid-level bureaucrat who works in the personal offices of Joseph Stalin, with the next chapter after that perhaps being about Stalin himself, one of the hundreds of both real and fictional people featured in this doorstop of a book. And then of course is the sly humor found throughout, the fascinating details about life inside one of these "intellectual prisons," the history lessons provided through the cynical discussions of the older "zeks," the ones old enough to remember the original 1917 communist revolution and who sit around endlessly debating what's gone wrong in the thirty years since, a big reason they're in the camps to begin with.Now, just so we're on the same page, let me confess that there are problems as well with In The First Circle; for example, like so many other Russian novelists, Solzhenitsyn tends to be in love with the sound of his own voice, turning what could've been a truly mindblowing 400-page book into a merely important yet highly digressive thousand-page one. Despite its limitations, though, it's a highly rewarding book to actually make one's way through and eventually finish, and I applaud Harper for spending the time, energy and money needed to put out this restored version in the first place, when commercially speaking it is obviously only going to appeal to a small niche audience. This single book alone filled a huge chunk of that gaping hole in my life when it comes to Russian history and culture, and it comes highly recommended to those who are looking to fill such a similar hole in their own lives.
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