A Different Kind of Soviet Labor Camp: Solzhenitsyn\'s <i>The First Circle</i>

Clara is a senior majoring in economics at Barnard College in New York. She is a regular contributor to the blog Liberty Belles.

The First Circle by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
Translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney
Bantam Books: New York, 1968. 674 pages.

The First Circle is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized account of life inside a special kind of Soviet prison under Joseph Stalin’s communist regime. In this institution, called a sharashka, inmates are set to work all day – not at manual labor, but at the sorts of tasks that use their scientific and technical education to develop technology for the Soviet state. With the novel’s title, Solzhenitsyn draws a comparison between the sharashka and the least horrific of nine circles of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno. Inmates in the research institution are well fed and well rested – not at all ill-treated, compared to prisoners in most Soviet work camps. No, these are “cushiony institutions where the snarl of the camp struggle for existence [is] not heard” (58). The prisoners have almost no contact with the outside world, however. Their time and labor belong to Stalin and to the faceless bureaucracy; ultimately, their very souls are chained to the sharashka’s workbenches.

The plot of The First Circle traces the stories of several sharashka inmates and their loved ones. Solzhenitsyn interweaves their stories, drawing implicit comparisons, conveying the similarities of their frustrating struggles against Stalin’s totalitarian rule. Using examples from the lives of each character, Solzhenitsyn shows the grim realities of life in the Soviet Union of that era. The police arrest men in the middle of the night – intellectuals, dissidents – and condemn their families to a lifetime of handicapped employment prospects. Everyone must watch what he says and who is listening.

In an early chapter, a man makes an anonymous phone call to warn a scientist that he has run afoul of the regime. It is a gripping scene: The scientist’s wife refuses to take the caller seriously. They argue as the wife demands to know more information, and the caller says only that there will be danger. Despite the concerned friend’s efforts, this scientist is later arrested by the Secret Police. In the mid-20th century Soviet Union, late-night seizures without warning – often with very little basis for the arrests – were common under Stalin’s regime. People informed on their neighbors and family members. Thought-crime was, well, an actual crime. Solzhenitsyn himself was arrested as a result of “disrespectful remarks about Stalin” made in private letters written to a friend, according to the author’s autobiography on the Nobel Prize website.

Dispatching the Secret Police to arrest every citizen-critic not only created a climate of fear, but it wasted resources. Inefficiencies in the Soviet system extended to every aspect of life: social, political and economic realms. Often in The First Circle, these problems stemmed from the nature of the central government’s inflexibility. The sharashka, the setting for much of the book, presents a microcosm of the Stalinist empire surrounding it. The out-of-touch bureaucracy imposes arbitrary rules, which underlings enforce long after they have outlasted their expediency. Unnecessary secrecy divides several of the prisoners’ research units. Inmates who create an invention or the solution to a technological problem receive handsome rewards – and, sometimes, their freedom – while others who have worked with just as much dedication, and for as many years, receive nothing. The result of this uneven reward system: Prisoners try desperately to attach themselves to successful research units. Cunning, not merit, is the key factor as they compete, trying to game the system, jockeying for the best spots – even in prison.

Most characters in The First Circle have spent much of their lives in prison. Solzhenitsyn illustrates their grim acceptance of this fate. Some of them have learned to enjoy the high points of sharashka life – the rare free time, camaraderie and even the occasional romantic interest in female workers. The intellectual Nerzhin reads books in the prison library and enters into philosophical discussions with fellow inmates. “He . . . would deliver a precise judgment of every book he read, which he then tried to force on others” (361). The men cook together, sing, celebrate birthdays, stage mock trials – making fun of the ridiculousness of the Soviet sentencing system – and tell stories about their lives before prison. Imprisonment, according to Solzhenitsyn, has a way of revising and focusing a man’s view of the important things in life. “In a prisoner’s vocabulary, ‘everything’ narrowed down to the possession of a female body, good clothes, good food, and liquor” (365). Prisoners must live without these things, even in the relative comfort of the sharashka (relative to harsher labor camps). To the vast, impersonal Soviet government, each of these men’s lives matters only because of what his labor produces at a workbench.

Clearly, the top-down bureaucracy cannot handle its millions of citizens. Solzhenitsyn describes the attempts of various characters to clear a path toward their goals, which prove challenging no matter how trivial. For most of the characters in The First Circle, random chance dictates the courses of their lives to an astonishing degree. One prison inmate ended up at the sharashka “through the mistake of an ignorant clerk who handled the cards in the GULAG card file” (59). Another – Rubin, an ardent communist – was just 16 years old when he hid some type-written materials for a cousin. A neighbor informed on him to the Secret Police, and thus began his long prison career.

Equally gripping are the passages about Stalin and his high-level assistants. According to Solzhenitsyn, the ruler’s closest aides feared him. Often, they told him what he wanted to hear – or whatever was most likely to secure their continued employment in his government. Solzhenitsyn portrays Stalin as an obsessive, paranoid madman who felt no affection for his longtime acquaintances. “Stalin was terrifying because one mistake in his presence could be that one mistake in life which set off an explosion, irreversible in effect” (117). The so-called “Absolute Ruler” would summon a man, hear his report, and dismiss him without showing any emotion. There was no way to predict whether the man had won Stalin’s favor or had aroused his contempt and would be arrested and shot.

In a particularly vivid scene, Stalin summons a security advisor named Abakumov. Solzhenitsyn shifts the narration, first describing Abakumov’s fearful experience as he tries to propitiate Stalin, then giving the reader a glimpse of Stalin’s cold thoughts. Abakumov worries that Stalin will discover that troops under his direction stole German booty for private gain during the Second World War. Meanwhile, the reader learns, Stalin knows about this affair and is glad of it because he finds self-interested people “easier to understand and easier to manage. Most of all, Stalin was wary of people committed to staying poor…. He did not understand their motives” (121). Stalin’s shrewd approval of a fellow villain provides insight into his character.

Ironically, the insulated world of the sharashka provides a haven from Stalin’s regime. In the research institute, prisoners have greater freedom of speech and association than they would on the outside. They feel a common bond with each other, knowing that they share similar punishments for having run afoul of the regime. With a prison sentence comes certainty, a prescribed routine, even safety from the Secret Police. At a birthday party for a friend, a prisoner raises his glass in a toast: “This happiness we have right now – a free banquet, an exchange of free thoughts without fear, without concealment – we didn’t have that in freedom.” He then raises a glass “to the friendship which thrives in prison vaults!” (370) According to Solzhenitsyn, free men devote all their energies to work and family; they have no time for friendships, as prisoners do.

Solzhenitsyn takes great care in describing the personalities and backgrounds of the prisoners. With the exception of Stalin, nearly every character receives the author’s sympathy and understanding. Rubin, the communist revolutionary, becomes an individual in full dimensions through Solzhenitsyn’s careful description. Highly educated, intensely intellectual and honest, Rubin in his youth informed on a beloved relative when questioned by Communist Party officials because “he could not . . . lie to the Party” (480). Solzhenitsyn describes his zealous opposition to the peasants, whom Stalin had accused of hoarding grain. Desperate for food in the cities, the Communists wrested grain from the peasants at gunpoint. To Rubin, a committed disciple of Lenin, “It all seemed perfectly natural [to take the peasants’ grain]. And if a peasant child died – die, you starving devils, and your children with you, but you’ll not bake bread!” (481) At the time, Rubin truly believed he waged a war against greedy oppressors, enemies of the workers. The inclusion of this character provides a window into the minds of Stalin-era true believers in Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

The power of Solzhenitsyn’s work is its realism. He describes the daily minutia of prisoners’ lives, from sharashka table-talk to the complex relations between husbands and wives when one spouse has spent a decade in prison. After several hundred pages of this, Joseph Stalin appears as just another character – and the reader may believe that he is every bit as despotic and self-isolating as he appears in Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal. Stalin’s actions reflected the mind of a leader who lacked compassion and had paranoia to spare. Solzhenitsyn cannot have known the leader’s inner dialogue; he only guessed and perhaps exaggerated to make a point. As one who suffered directly from Stalin’s despotism, Solzhenitsyn could vouch for the harm caused by his executions and purges.

Neither Stalin nor his political regime is the focus of The First Circle, however. Solzhenitsyn devotes his time and attention to the prisoners, the unseen side of the regime, those known to free people as mere statistics. These men carried out dull, spartan lives closed off from the rest of the world, rarely in contact with their families. The research institute was “the first circle,” requiring no backbreaking work, but it was Hell nevertheless.

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Well written, Clara. You

Well written, Clara. You have described the spirit of this most important work very well.

How many kids who so

How many kids who so enthusiastically call Guantanamo Bay a 'Gulag' have even heard of Solzhenitsyn, never mind read him? This is an excellent article, but I wonder how many people whose worst problem is chosing which mobile phone to buy and think they're being oppressed by McDonalds are going to read it? The bleak history of the Soviet Union seems to be disappearing down the memory hole even today so thanks for this act of remembrance.