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New Left Review I/63, September-October 1970


Robin Blackburn

The First Circle

‘For a country to have a great writer is like having another government,’ remarks one of the characters in The First Circle. This observation has always been especially true of Russia and a reading of Solzhenitsyn’s work confirms that it has as much relevance today as at any time in the past. The First Circle is a political tour de force as well as a major literary achievement: in fact by far the most vivid and eloquent account of Stalinism to have emerged from the contemporary Soviet Union. This fact has been obscured for Western Marxists by the tendency for bourgeois critics to acclaim any Soviet writer who can be construed to be oppositional as a towering literary genius. Solzhenitsyn deserves better than to be uncritically assimilated with a Pasternak—and discrimination should also be made between his master-piece, The First Circle, the weaker Cancer Ward and the more modest but entirely successful novella, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Above all Solzhenitsyn’s work must be read politically: the following is intended as a commentary on a political reading of ‘The First Circle’.

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