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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057

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.

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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 remarks expressing the inmates’ strong character and moral indignation. In answer to Stalin’s questions about the unrest among the people, minister of state security Abakumov defends his work but begs Stalin to reinstate capital punishment. Stalin half-jokingly asks him whether he should be the first to be shot. This frightening conversation leads Abakumov to apply pressure on the lower apparatchiks, as each of them feels the threat of death lurks behind every corner.

Nerzhin is finally allowed to see his faithful wife Nadya, who has been trying constantly to find out where he is imprisoned. At the meeting, kissing and hand clasping is forbidden. Nerzhin, with four years of war behind him and at least ten years of imprisonment ahead, had written his wife a note asking her to give up hope of ever seeing him again. Despite the letter, Nadya has refused to abandon hope. To protect herself, however, she has ceased wearing her wedding ring and she always writes “unmarried” on official documents because Soviet wives are punished for the “sins” of their husbands. The couple parts with a kiss, and the watchman separates them forcefully, canceling all further meetings. After seeing Nerzhin, Nadya experiences miserable days and refuses to see anyone, even a...

(The entire section contains 1653 words.)

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