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

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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 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 young captain who offers her a drink “to the resurrection of the dead.”

Back at Mavrino, Nerzhin meets another zek, who is ordered to paint pleasant pictures of the prisoners at work. He produces a painting titled The Maimed Oak, portraying a tree on a cliff, battered by storms but surviving. To Nerzhin, it represents the prisoners’ struggle to survive. The painter also paints The Castle of the Holy Grail, a symbol of undying hope. Another young prisoner agrees to become a double agent, but only to report those whose punishment will benefit the rest of the prisoners. The zeks amuse themselves by staging a comedy, allegedly written by Rimsky and Korsakov (an allusion to composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov). The comedy, based on an old opera, is adapted to their present, imprisoned circumstances. They also stage a parody of the visit of a Mrs. R. (an allusion to Eleanor Roosevelt).

Innokenty’s connection with the professor is discovered through a trap set by the secret police, and he is arrested before he can go to Paris. He reminisces about necessary conditions for Soviet diplomats: a high level of ideological orientation, deep loyalty to the cause, deep devotion to Stalin, and unwavering obedience to instructions from Moscow. In Mavrino, Rubin and Sologdin carry on endless arguments about philosophical and political questions. Rubin accuses Sologdin of employing high-flown, empty verbiage, and Sologdin accuses Rubin of clinging to fanatical Marxist beliefs that are not confirmed by facts, as proven by Rubin’s being in prison. Nerzhin, meanwhile, converses with Spiridon, an uneducated peasant who is extremely wise in practical matters. Another prisoner, Gerasimovich, is offered early discharge if he can build microphones into park benches, but he refuses, saying it is not his field.

After his wife’s visit, Nerzhin must explain to the crying Simochka that they cannot continue their relationship. He realizes that by alienating the secret police agent, he may be condemning himself to be sent to another prison in Siberia, where he may die, but he feels that he has no choice, saying “If you know when you die that you haven’t been a complete bastard, that’s at least some satisfaction.” High morality in Nerzhin prevails, contracting sharply with the corruption of the authorities.

The novel ends with another reference to The Divine Comedy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Because of their failure successfully to complete the cryptographic telephone project, several prisoners, including Nerzhin, are sent to another camp. Looking through the van window, Nerzhin can see printed on the van the word “Meat” in four languages; the vans have been disguised so that onlookers will not know they carry prisoners.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

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 novel uncoils.

Nerzhin is an intelligent, humanistically inclined person, fully aware of the moral dilemma confronting him and other inmates (Zeks, as they are called). He is torn between pangs of conscience and personal sorrow stemming from the suffering of his faithful wife, who endures much on account of her husband. In constant meetings with his colleagues, Nerzhin discovers that they all react differently to the dilemma: from willingness to cooperate for personal gain, to reluctance to “sell one’s soul” to the devil, to outright rejection after a painful soul-searching. Nerzhin belongs to the last category, refusing to help the state entrap other victims; he would rather go to the next, much harsher circle of Hell instead, realizing that it may be ten or twenty-five years before he regains his freedom, if at all. His reasoning is firm, however: “If you know when you die that you haven’t been a complete bastard, that’s at least some satisfaction.” Thus, Solzhenitsyn reduces a complex ethical dilemma to the simple preservation of one’s personal dignity, which, in turn, is perhaps the most difficult thing a person can do. As in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he points at the solution of the central problem that his compatriots are forced to face.

Aside from this central dilemma, the novel offers many other aspects: several sharply sketched portraits of Soviet rulers and officials, from Stalin down to the smallest henchman; the way the Soviet prison operates; several heartrending human dramas, some of which concern love between Zeks and their families and between Zeks and their female assistants; the enormous waste of human potential; a rich variety of psychology of the imprisoned; and various aspects of freedom among both the rulers and the ruled. Solzhenitsyn also depicts the relationship, and conflicts, between the prisoners and guards, prisoners and higher authorities, authorities themselves, prisoners and other prisoners, and prisoners and their own consciences. These concentric circles reinforce structurally the basic premise of the novel, that of the nine circles of “guilt” and punishment. In building such a monumental edifice, worthy of Tolstoy and Dostoevski, Solzhenitsyn wrote a work of lasting and universal value.

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