In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In The First Circle

In The First Circle; translated by Harry Willets.

Russ Roberts on EconTalk interviewed Kevin McKenna (University of Vermont) about this book. I couldn’t wait to read it. I was warned not to read the 1968 (self-censored) version; yet that’s the one I accidentally started. When I checked the Econtalk discussion forum about this book, I soon realized I wasn’t reading the 2009 uncensored version. I started over with the new version rereading the opening chapters and those about Stalin.

Way back in high school I read “The Gulag Archipelago”. The accounts were so stunningly black and depressing I was never going to read Solzhenitsyn again. I though the book was one of the most important books I had (and have ever) read. In both books Solzhenitsyn tells a cautionary tale about the joys of living under socialism/communism.

As I read “In The First Circle” I thought it might be a black comedy.. at least that’s what I told everyone. But there is nothing funny in the book. The book isn’t as depressing as “The Gulag Archipelago”.
The story starts with a Soviet diplomat, Innokenty Volodin who warns the United States that their nuclear secrets are about to be handed over in New York. But this thread is only a back story to the role the prisoners have in finding him and helping their Soviet masters destroy their homeland.

Although it’s fiction, it mirrors the experiences Solzhenitsyn had in the special prisons Stalin created for his scientists and engineers. This after he realized it was a mistake to send them to work camps. Stalin needed the atom bomb and other toys, so he created a prison where these specialist could work for the state. Solzhenitsyn called it “In The First Circle” as a nod to Dante. Here the sinners were still tormented, but not like the poor zeks (prisoners) who end up in the work camps (death camps).

There are many characters in the book and it can be difficult at times to keep them straight, but the character guide in the book helps. Solzhenitsyn spends much of book recreating dialog that brings the characters to life: what they’re thinking; their relationships with each other, their superiors, and their inferiors; the role of the state, morality and ethics.. especially working for a government that every citizen knew was hopelessly corrupt and evil.
The book takes place in the Soviet Union from December 24 to 27, 1949 . It might seem like the distant past, but I found the subject matter current when you look at Venezuela and certain Democrats new infatuation with Socialism. It never ends well.

The book is a masterpiece and I’m glad I’ve read it. It’s only weakness is we don’t learn the final outcome to Volodin and the prisons. I can only assume Volodin will be tortured and then killed. The prisoners will be worked to death.

741 pages

Amazon Book Preview of “In The First Circle

Excerpts from the book:

“People are so stupefied that if you stood in the middle of the street right now shouting, ‘Down with the tyrant! Hurrah for freedom’ they wouldn’t know who the tyrant was and what you meant by freedom.”
page 252 [Sad to say, this sounds like America in 2019.]

Alyosha placed his pink, long-fingered hand caressingly on Clara’s clenched fist, which was resting on the red plush of the edge of the box. ‘No,’ he said in a mild, but emphatic voice. ‘Who do you mean by “they”? Nobody can do just what they want. Only history does what it wants. That sometimes seems appalling to people like you and me, but, Clara, you have to face the fact that there is a law of big numbers. The bigger the scope of some historical development, the greater the probability of particular errors, whether in tactics, or in the field of law, ideology, economics and so forth. We can grasp the overall process, the general trend of events, but the vital thing is to see that it’s both inevitable and necessary. Yes, some people get hurt, of course – often through no fault of their own. Think of all those killed in the war. Or all those people who died so meaninglessly in the Ashkhabad earthquake last year. And what about road accidents? As the traffic grows, more and more people will get killed. The wise thing is to accept all this as a fact of life.’ But Clara angrily tossed back her head. Fact of life!’ she exclaimed, in a whisper – the bell had already rung twice and people were coming back to their seats – ‘The law of big numbers ought to be tried out on you! It all sounds so nice and easy when you talk like that, but don’t you see that things aren’t always the way you write?’
page 321, Location 4852–4862

And the glass-blower, Ivan, returned from his visit, blew two funny little glass hobgoblins who appeared to be armed with rifles. Then he made a little cage out of glass rods, and inside it, on a silvery thread, he hung a glass moon which tinkled sadly.
page 324, Location 4921–4923 [A metaphor for their prison; for the Soviet Union.]

How can you compare people who are out to wreck socialism with those who serve it?“
Rubin’s face expressed suffering.
Nerzhin shoved his cap farther back he was feeling hot and rested his head in the fork of the tree again.
”Listen, whose marvelous lines were those I heard a little while ago, about the two Alyoshas?“
”Things were different then, before I’d learned to discriminate, before my ideals were clearly defined. In those days … it was still possible….“
”And now you see your ideal clearly in the shape of the Gulag?“
”No! In the shape of the ethical ideals of socialism! Capitalism has none, just greed for profit!“
”Listen!“ By now Nerzhin was wedging his shoulders into the fork of the tree, preparing himself for a long discussion. ”Could you kindly explain these socialist ideals you talk about? They’re nowhere to be seen at present. All right, maybe somebody’s botched the experiment, but when and where can we expect to see them; what do they amount to? Eh? Socialism, of whatever variety, is a sort of caricature of the Gospel message. Socialism promises only equality and a full belly, and that only by means of coercion.“
”Isn’t that enough? Has any society in history ever had as much?“
”You’ll find equality and full bellies in any good pigsty! What a tremendous favor they bestowed on us! Equality and plenty! Give us a moral society!“
We will! Just don’t make difficulties! Don’t get in the way!”
“Don’t Make bomb stealing difficult?”
page 339 [This is the classic argument those who support Socialism make. Rubin has been wrongly imprisoned by the socialist state he supports and he still can’t see how wrong Socialism is.]

As they talked, Nerzhin saw what Adamson was reading and he said: ‘I once read MONTE CRISTO in prison too, but I didn’t get to the end of it. I noticed that though Dumas tried to build up a feeling of horror, the Chateau d’If comes out as a nice old-fashioned sort of place. Of course, as you might expect from someone who’d never been in prison, Dumas says nothing about such charming details as how they dealt with the prisoners’ slops. But it’s not hard to see why it was so easy for Dantes to escape. No wonder his tunnel wasn’t discovered if his cell was never searched for years on end and the warders were never changed – all experience tells us that prison warders must be changed every two hours to make sure they keep each other up to scratch. At the Chateau d’If days went by without anyone coming into the cells and looking around. They didn’t even have peep-holes in the doors. The place was really more like a seaside resort than a prison. They even left a metal bowl in the cell, so Dantes had something to dig through the floor with. Then, to crown it all, they were fools enough to put him in a sack in the morgue without first running a red-hot iron or a bayonet through him. Dumas should have paid more attention to detail instead of piling on the agony the way he does.’ Nerzhin never read a book just for amusement. He always saw either an ally or an enemy in the author and delivered cut-and-dried judgments, which he expected other people to share.
page 401–402, Location 6185–6195 [Funny how they argue that Dumas’ prison is too easy on the prisoners.]

‘To be fair,’ he resumed, ‘- our lives aren’t as bad as all that. Think how fortunate we are to be sitting here round this table, able to exchange ideas without fear or concealment. We couldn’t have done that when we were free, could we?’ ‘No, and as a matter of fact, we were seldom free for very long,’ Adamson said with a wry smile. Not counting his childhood, he had spent less than half his life outside prison.
Page 410, Location 6346–6349 [There is a kind of joke that these prisoners are actually freer than their jailers.]

He (Innokenty) found, though, that even reading was a special skill, not just a matter running your eyes along the lines. He discovered that he was a savage, reared in the caves of social science, clad in the skins of class warfare. His
whole education had trained him to take certain books on trust and reject others unread. From boyhood he had been sheltered from erroneous books and had read only those that were warranted sound, so that he had got into the habit of believing every word, of submitting without question to the author’s will. When he began to read authors who contradicted one another, his resistance was low, and he could not help surrendering to whichever of of them he had read last. What he found most difficult of all was to lay down his book and think for himself.
page 440 [This sounds like what passes for higher education in America today.]

Resting his hand on Spiridon’s shoulder and leaning back against the sloping underside of the staircase as before, Nerzhin began to put his question in an oblique, roundabout fashion: ‘There’s something I keep wanting to ask you, Spiridon, but I don’t quite know how to put it. You’ve been telling me all these things that have happened to you. You’ve had a very hard life with all kinds of ups and downs, and I suppose there are a great many more like you. All these years you’ve been thrashing around trying to work things out, haven’t you? What I mean is, what’s your…’ – he almost said ‘criterion’ – ‘what’s your judgment of life in general? For instance, do you think there are people who do wicked things on purpose? Is there anybody who says to himself: ’ “I’ll show everybody what for”? Do you think that’s likely? Perhaps everybody wants to do good – or they THINK they want to do good, but since none of us are blameless and we all make mistakes – and some of us are just crazy, anyway – we do all these bad things to each other. We tell ourselves we are doing good, but in fact it all comes out the other way. It’s all a bit like that saying of yours – you sow rye and weeds come up.’ Spiridon was looking hard at him, as though suspecting a trap. Nerzhin felt he was not expressing himself very well, but he went on: ‘Now, suppose I think you’re making a mistake and I want to put you right, and I tell you what I think, but you don’t listen and even tell me to shut up? What should I do? Hit you over the head with a stick? That wouldn’t be so bad if I really were right, but suppose I only THINK I’m right? After all, things are always changing, aren’t they? What I mean is: if you can’t always be sure that you’re right, should you stick your nose into other people’s business? Is there any way for a man to know who is right and who is wrong?’ ‘I can tell you,’ Spiridon said brightening up, and as readily as if he had been asked which of the warders had come on duty that morning. ‘I can tell you: wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.’ ‘What’s that again?’ Nerzhin said, taken aback by the simplicity and force of Spiridon’s judgment. ‘What I said was,’ Spiridon repeated with stark conviction, turning his head towards Nerzhin and breathing hotly into his face from under his moustache: ‘the wolf-hounds are right and the cannibals wrong.’
Page 510, Location 7915–7933 [Some things are just obvious: like cannibalism and socialism.]

it’s just a title, an idea. In Old Russia there were conservatives, reformers, statesmen; now there are none. In Old Russia there were priests, preachers, bogus holy men in rich households, heretics, schismatics; now there are none. In Old Russia there were writers, philosophers, historians, sociologists, economists; now there are none. And of course there were Revolutionaries, conspirators, bomb throwers, rebels; they, too, are no more. There were artisans wearing headbands, and there were tillers of the soil with beards down to their waists, peasants in troikas, daredevil Cossack horsemen, hoboes roaming free … none of them left, none at all! The shaggy black paw raked them all in during the first dozen years…. But while the plague raged, living water still filtered through … and its source was ourselves, the scientific elite. Yes, engineers and scientists were arrested and shot, but fewer of us than of other groups. Because any mountebank can churn out ideological drivel for them, but physics obeys only the voice of its master. We studied nature, whereas our brothers studied society. We’re still around; our brothers are no more. So who inherits the unfulfilled destiny of the elite in the humanities? Perhaps we do? If we don’t take a hand, who will? And who says we can’t manage it? Though we’ve never laid hands on them, we’ve weighed Sirius B and measured the kinetic energy of electrons; surely we can’t go wrong with society? But what are we doing instead? Making them a gift of jet engines! Rockets! Scrambler telephones! Maybe even the atomic bomb! Anything, just so long as we live comfortably. And interestingly! What sort of elite are we if we can be bought so cheaply?“
Bobynin sighed like a blacksmith’s bellows.
”It’s a very serious problem,“ he said. ”Let’s carry on tomorrow, all right?”
The bell was ringing for work.
Gerasimovich caught sight of Nerzhin and arranged to meet him after nine that evening in the artist’s studio on the back stairs.
He had already promised to tell him about the rationally Constructed society.
page 600 [Be careful what you wish for.. socialism is a plague.]

Dilly Tomatoviches (incorrigible intellectuals)
page 609 [I love this description.]

You talk about a rational social structure. Then you tell me it will be nonsocialist. Well, I don’t give a damn about that; the form of property ownership is of minimal importance, and who knows which is best. But when you say ‘not democratic,’ that frightens me. What does that mean? Why?”

Out of the pitch darkness, Gerasimovich answered precisely, choosing his words as carefully as a fastidious writer.
“We have been starved of freedom, so we think that freedom should have no limits. But unless limits are set to freedom, there can be no well-adjusted society. The restrictions, however, must not be of the kind that shackle us now. And people must be kept honestly informed, not deluded. We think of democracy as a sun that never sets. But what does democracy really mean? Truckling to the uncouth majority. And that means accepting mediocrity as the norm, pruning the highest and most delicate growths. The votes of a hundred or a thousand blockheads set the course for the enlightened.”

“Hm-m.” Nerzhin seemed to be at a loss. “This is all new to me….I don’t understand … don’t know … must think about it…. I’m used to the idea of democracy. What would we have in place of democracy?”

“Equitable inequality. Inequality based on talent, natural or cultivated. You can please yourself whether you call it ‘the authoritarian state’ or ‘the rule of the intellectual elite.’ It will be rule by selfless, completely disinterested, luminous people.”

“Heavens above! As an ideal, that’s just fine. But how is your elite to be selected? And, above all, how do you persuade the rest that this is the true elite? After all, a man’s intellectual capacity isn’t stamped on his brow, and honesty doesn’t give off a glow. We were promised that it would be just like that under socialism; our rulers would be clad in light, like angels – and look at the ugly customers who crawled out of the woodwork. All sorts of questions arise. What about political parties? Or rather, how do we dispense with political parties, the old type and- heaven forfend- the new type? Mankind awaits the prophet who can tell us how to do without political parties altogether. Party membership always means leveling down to the majority, accepting discipline, saying things you don’t mean. Every party warps the individual and perverts justice. The leader of the opposition criticizes the government not because it has really made a mistake but because well, what else is the opposition for?”

“There you are- you yourself are moving away from democracy and toward my system.”

“Not really! Just a tiny bit closer, perhaps. Authoritarianism, now. What are we to say about it? The state must exercise authority, of course. But what sort of authority? Moral authority! Power relying not on bayonets but on love and respect. Able to say, ‘Fellow countrymen! You must not do this! It is wrong’ so that they are all conscience»stricken and know in their hearts ‘This is bad! We will eschew it! We will do it no more!’ What other way is there? What is called ‘authoritarianism’ is totalitarianism in embryo. I’d sooner have something on the Swiss model. Remember what Herzen says? The lower the authority, the more powerful it is: The most powerful is the village assembly, the most impotent man in the state is the president…. All right, l’m not really serious. Perhaps you and I are being a bit premature? Rational structure! It would be more rational to discuss how to escape from the irrational. We can’t even do that, although it’s a more immediate concern.”

The voice from the darkness was unperturbed.
“That is, in fact, the main subject of our discussion.”
And, as calmly as if they were talking about changing a fused valve in a circuit: “I think the time has come for us, the Russian technical intelligentsia, to change the form of government in Russia.”

Nerzhin was taken aback. Not that he did not trust Gerasirnovich; the very look of the man had inspired a feeling of kinship, although they had, as it happened, never talked until now.
But the quiet voice from the darkness, composed and somewhat solemn, sent a little shiver along Nerzhin’s spine.

“Alas, spontaneous revolution is impossible in our country. Even in Old Russia, where those intent on subversion enjoyed almost unrestricted freedom, it took three years of war and what a war to stir up the people. While nowadays a joke at the tea table can cost you your head what hope is there of revolution?”

“No need for the ‘Alas’,” Nerzhin replied. “To hell with revolution: Your elite would be the first to be massacred. Culture and beauty would be eliminated; everything good would be destroyed.”

“All right, forget the ‘Alas.’ But that’s why many among us have begun to set their hopes on help from outside. That seems to me a profound and damaging mistake. What the ‘Internationale’ says isn’t all that stupid. We too nowhere else for deliverance; let us win freedom with our own hands! You have to understand that the more prosperous, the more free and easy life becomes in the West, the less ready Western man is to fight for fools who have allowed themselves to be oppressed. And they are right; they haven’t opened their own gates to the robber band. We have deserved our regime and leaders; we got ourselves into this mess, and we must get ourselves out of it.”

“Their turn will come.”

“Of course their turn will come. There is a destructive force in prosperity. To prolong it for a year, a day, a man will sacrifice not only all that belongs to others but all that is sacred. He will defy the dictates of common prudence. They fattened Hitler, they fattened Stalin, gave them half of Europe each; now it’s China’s turn. They’ll gladly surrender Turkey, if that will allow them to postpone general mobilization by as much as a week. They will perish; of course they will. But we may perish first.”


“The trouble with pinning our hopes on the Americans is that it eases our conscience and weakens our will; we win the right not to struggle, the right to submit, to take the line of least resistance and gradually degenerate. I do not agree with those who claim that over the years our people have begun to see more clearly, that something is maturing in them. Some say that it is impossible to oppress a whole people indefinitely. That’s a lie! It is possible! We can see for ourselves how our people have degenerated, how uncouth they have become, how indifferent they are not only to the fate of the country, not only to the fate of their fellows, but even to their own fate and that of their children. indifference, the organism’s last self preservative reaction, has become our defining characteristic. Hence also the popularity of vodka- unprecedented even by Russian standards. This is the terrible indifference of the man who sees his life not cracked, not chipped, but shattered, so fouled up that only alcoholic oblivion makes living still worthwhile. If vodka were prohibited, Revolution would break out immediately. But while he can charge forty-four rubles for a liter that costs ten kopecks to make, the Communist Shylock will not be tempted to enact a dry law.”
pages 665–667 [See what a conversation like this gets them.. in the next excerpt.]

“No, Ilya Terentich, that isn’t hell. That is not hell! Hell is where we’re going. We’re going back to hell. The special prison is the highest, the best, the first circle of hell. It’s practically paradise.”

He left it at that no need to say more. They all knew, of course, that something incomparably worse than the special prison awaited them. They knew that, from the camp, Marfino would be remembered as a golden dream. But for the present, to keep their spirits up, and to feel that they had done the right thing, they had to curse the special prison, so that no one would feel any lingering regret or reproach himself with a rash act.

“When war breaks out, they’ll kill off the zeks in special prisons with poisoned bread, like the Hitlerites did, because they know too much.”

“Well, that’s what I keep telling you,” Khorobrov exclaimed. “Bread and water is better than cake and woe.”

As their ears grew accustomed to the noise of the engine, the zeks fell silent.
Yes, what awaited them was the taiga and the tundra, the Cold Pole at Oymyakon, the copper mines at Dzhezkazgan. What awaited them yet again was the pickax and the wheelbarrow, a starvation ration of half-baked bread, hospital, death. They could look forward to nothing but the worst.
Yet in their hearts they were at peace with themselves.
They were gripped by the fearlessness of people who have lost absolutely everything- such fearlessness is difficult to attain, but once attained, it endures.
page 740

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