The First Circle takes place at the Mavrino Institute outside Moscow in 1949, when Stalin’s postwar frenzy of arbitrary arrests and detentions was at its height. As opposed to the hard-labor camps, Mavrino offers a relatively pleasant life to its highly educated “zeks.” Like the wise pagan philosophers whom Dante consigned to the “first” or least horrible circle of his Inferno, they are the privileged inmates of the Gulag.
There is, however, a price for their privileges. A young minor diplomat, Innokenty Volodin, has tried to warn an eminent scientist, once his family physician, not to make an exchange of information with foreign doctors that will be used to accuse him of treason. The phone is tapped. Can the caller be identified from a recording of his voice? The prisoners of Mavrino are told to come up with a device that will identify telephone voices as surely as if they were fingerprints.
Among the central figures who are thus faced with a moral dilemma are Lev Rubin, a linguist and convinced Communist, and Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician who, as Solzhenitsyn himself did, writes in secret. Watching the effects of Nerzhin’s imprisonment on his relations with his wife, Nadya, we see how much each prisoner has to lose.
Under Stalinism, as Solzhenitsyn satirically observes, jailers and bureaucrats tremble as much as the prisoners themselves. Stalin himself, lost in fearful, deadly paranoia, is captured in an unforgettable psychological portrait.
In the end, Volodin is arrested, and Nerzhin, who has refused a job that would have led to his release and reunion with his wife, is transported back to an ordinary camp. Yet the ending is upbeat. This collective novel finds its real hero in the solidarity of the prisoners, who uphold moral principles despite their imprisonment and defeat.
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Kodjak, Andrej. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1978.
Krasnov, Vladislav. Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky: A Study in the Polyphonic Novel, 1980.
Lukacs, Georg. Solzhenitsyn, 1969.
Rothberg, Abraham. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1971.