It’s over a decade since Russian great Alexandr Solzhenitsyn passed away aged 89. In one heck of an action-packed, often traumatic, life the novelist and historian won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1970) for landmark titles such as Cancer Ward and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
But The First Circle (1968), an epic in the way only Russian authors know how, is arguably his finest work. Our Harvill edition came out in 1996, but in 2009 a more complete translation made it out to the UK and beyond. So if you dare take on this novel, then you may want to pick up the most recent publication.
The First Circle
Due to censorship issues in the USSR at the time, Solzhenitsyn had concerns his masterwork wouldn’t reach publication. To combat the issue, he varied the chapter total to skip out certain controversial topics.
As his novels are so critical of the Stalinist regime and putative failure of Stalin’s concept of communism (which totally collapsed and turned into a far-right fascist dictatorship), he wasn’t exactly a friend of the state. Ultimately, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, returning 20 years later after the collapse of the USSR.
But he was writing from the heart, having spent years in a gulag prison during the 1940s – a fate that befell so many of his fellow citizens.
And this is, as a 500+ page epic, what the novel deals with. Set in Moscow, 1949, the central character is one Gleb Nerzhin – a mathematician. 31 years old, the man survived the horrors of WWII but is now struggling against Stalin’s paranoid regime.
Joining him are a dozen other prisoners in a Russian sharashka (which was a research and development bureau made of gulag inmates – a step above what takes place in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).
The narrative follows their daily lives as they contemplate their actions, most of which lead to a great deal of suffering to millions of other Russians. But this is a pitched battle for survival, where sycophancy and backstabbing ensure individuals get to live on for at least another day.
The book isn’t a cheerful read. It’s got serious intellectual heft behind it, but you’re tested due to the various intersecting plotlines and weight of the subject matter.
Through it all emerge themes of stoicism, humanism, and dignity. Solzhenitsyn takes the reader through a philosophical journey – a character study of the 20th century’s worst moments – and it’s often a breathless trip.
The First Circle is intense, often agonising, but always masterful. If you fancy reading a landmark in literature there here’s a mighty one for you – otherwise turn to Solzhenitsyn’s smaller works for history lessons like few others. They’re a bit less emotionally draining.
Stalin’s demented rule of the Soviet Union is the stuff of nightmares. Vladimir Lenin actually set up the gulag labour camp system. But, unsurprisingly, it was the moustached tyrant Stalin who took the concept to its total extreme through the 1930s until his death in 1953.
It’s estimated (although difficult to clarify, due to Russian records receiving official – fake – amends) 18 million people went through Stalin’s gulag system. Millions died in it, too.
Solzhenitsyn somehow survived some eight years of incarceration in these things. But it’s his survival that ensured – through his award-winning writing – that Stalin’s dark secret was eventually spread to the rest of the world.
Politics is a volatile arena (*ahem*) and many use Stalin’s rule as a cautionary tale of the dangers of Marxist ideologies. Yet Stalin was simply a despot – his totalitarian rule has little to do with the concepts Karl Marx laid out in the 19th century.
What took place was Stalinism, a fearful autocratic state governed by one lunatic based on deranged, self-absorbed goals and paranoia. Oh, the paranoia. And, well, John Steinbeck’s fabulous A Russian Journal details the aftermath of that rather wonderfully.
But even satirist Armando Iannucci could make something of it for the fabulously dark comedy The Death of Stalin.
If you want your mood cheering just a little, then there’s the largely excellent The Death of Stalin to watch. A jet black comedy and satire, it’s a glorious look at the pomp and ceremony of political life. Kind of fitting for the chaos of modern times, eh?