(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On Christmas Eve, 1949, a young Soviet diplomat, Innokenty Volodin, tries to warn professor Dobroumov how provocative and dangerous it can be to give anything to foreigners because on a recent trip to Paris the professor had promised a French colleague some medicine. Gleb Nerzhin is a prisoner in Mavrino, a ward on the outskirts of Moscow. He was a captain in the Soviet army but was caught blaming Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in a private letter for the defeats and losses of the war. For this “crime,” he was sentenced to ten years in prison, where he works as a mathematician. He has befriended a fellow prisoner, philologist Lev Rubin, who teaches Russian to German prisoners. Rubin was imprisoned because he expressed doubts about Marxism, in which he idealistically believed. In one of many sarcastic statements, Rubin compares Mavrino to the hell portrayed by Dante in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Dante’s hell consists of nine progressively worse circles; the first circle contains the souls of everyone who was born before Christ and therefore necessarily died unredeemed by the Savior.

The prisoners, also known as “zeks,” are working in the acoustics laboratory on phonoscopy—creating voice prints on cryptic telephones to provide a secure means of telephonic communication for Stalin. Nerzhin is working as a cryptographer in Laboratory Number Seven, which is responsible for the phonoscopy project. All free employees at Mavrino are secret police officers, including Simochka, whose assignment is to keep an eye on Nerzhin. She and Nerzhin have an affair while the cryptographer’s wife Nadya is living somewhere in Moscow.

Nerzhin has been offered the chance to have his sentence commuted if his work is successful. However, in a heated discussion with Yakonov, the chief of operations at the Mavrino Institute, Nerzhin refuses the offer. He says, “Let them admit first that it’s not right to put people in prison for their way of thinking, and then we will decide whether we will forgive them.” Nerzhin has maintained a proud and defiant attitude throughout his incarceration. His outburst provokes Yakonov to issue the order “Nerzhin to be sent away.”

Soviet officials at Mavrino—Abakumov, Yakonov, Pryanchikov, Bobynin, Poskrebyshev, and others, known to their critics as apparatchiks—demonstrate a subservient relationship to Stalin and are arrogant in their treatment of the prisoners. Nerzhin and Rubin, unafraid of further punishment, do not hesitate to condemn the apparatchiks with caustic...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

The First Circle Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The First Circle depicts four days in December, 1949, in a special prison near Moscow where people are conducting research on specific projects for the state and the secret police. Again drawing from his personal experiences, Solzhenitsyn speaks out through the protagonist of the same age, mathematician Gleb Nerzhin, who is serving a ten-year sentence for having been suspected of unspecified activities against the state. He is surrounded by fellow inmates, the assisting personnel (all of them secret police agents), and the authorities. The inmates enjoy a favored status because of their expertise and potential usefulness to the state, which explains the title, taken from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1820) as the first and the least punishing of the nine circles of Hell designed for sinners in Christian mythology. The inmate specialists are working on two main projects, a decoder of human voice and a scrambler, both of which the state intends to use in controlling the telephone communications of their citizens. Many of the inmates are reluctant to lend their services to the evil intentions of the state, but some want to use their service to attain benefits for themselves, even an early release. The real competitors, however, are prison authorities who are vying among themselves for success of the projects, so that they can impress the ultimate order-giver, Stalin. Within these two spheres, the dramatic tension of...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

The First Circle Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The First Circle takes place over four days at the end of 1949. The novel is a virtual anatomy of Russian society in the late 1940’s. Solzhenitsyn dissects a wide range of social and character types within that society, including the prisoners, guards, free workers, prosecutors, government officials and ministers, and even the supreme ruler of that society, Joseph Stalin. The center of this society, however, is, for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not the political or social leader but the prison, the gulag system established by Stalin. All other characters and levels of society are tested by the standard of the moral and realistic vision of the zek, the familiar term for a prisoner.

The novel is set in the hell of the Stalinist prison system, but it begins in the “first circle” of that hell; Solzhenitsyn applies the categories of Dante’s Inferno to the extensive prison system, and the “first circle” is easier and pleasanter than the usual labor camp, but it is still hell. The prisoners are deprived of their freedom of movement, of ownership of all but their meager clothes, of visits and letters from their loved ones. It is a psychological rather than a physical prison and is called a sharaska, which means a fake or sham. Paradoxically, since they are already in hell, they have more freedom to think, speak, and resist threats than those above them who fear the descent into the underworld.

In this privileged first circle, the prisoners are engaged in electronic work; predictably, that work has been perverted from its original purpose, and they are trying to find a safe phone for Stalin and a method of identifying “voice prints” on telephone calls for the secret police. The plot of the novel begins with a telephone call by Innokenty Volodin to warn Professor Dobroumov not to pass on medical information to the West. The seemingly aimless and unproductive work in the laboratory then takes on a sinister meaning. Will the prisoners create a system that will entrap Volodin? Will they manage to produce a “safe” phone for Stalin? At the end of the novel, the phone may be the means to freedom for one prisoner, Sologdin, but Volodin is captured and condemned to the “hell” of the gulag. In another allusion to Dante, the chapter in which Volodin is captured is called, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”—the words which greet those who enter Dante’s Inferno.

The other plot interest in the novel is whether the main characters will remain in the sheltered alcove of the first circle of Marvino Laboratory or return to the hard labor of a Siberian camp. The three characters that are most at risk are Gleb Nerzhin, Lev Rubin, and Dmitri Sologdin. In his...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)