One important aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s method of characterization is the brief history he provides for the prisoners and their superiors. These histories are often ironic: Those who have performed heroic deeds have been imprisoned, and those who are brutal and cruel are rewarded. For example, Rubin became a hero in World War II by convincing two towns to capitulate, but his sympathies for those people he captured led to his own arrest and sentence; as a good Communist, supporting the system that oppresses him, he awaits his acquittal. Nerzhin is in prison because he fought on the front against the Germans and therefore became suspect for his contacts with the West. The story of the janitor Spirodin is the most remarkable. He is a typical peasant who resists any attempt to sever him from his small plot of land; he will not fight for an abstraction called the state. He is loyal to his family and the older values of the Russian peasant. As a result, he has spent years in a prison camp and may never be released. His simple wisdom, which intrigues Nerzhin, is: “The wolfhound is right and the cannibal is wrong.” (Spirodin contrasts the natural killer of wolves with the unnatural killer and devourer of men.)
While these and other characters in the novel are vividly realized, they are subordinate to Solzhenitsyn’s larger design: The First Circle is intended to be a study of a system and a whole society.