‘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’.
Despite great documentary interest most Samizdat writings are groping and confused attempts to grapple with Soviet reality in a society where politics and history have been replaced by apologetics for over a generation. It is not surprising that the resulting vacuum should very often be filled by traditional Russian obscurantism or bourgeois ideology filtering in from the West. The threadbare official political culture has proved quite unable to challenge these despite, or perhaps because of, its monopoly control of education and the media. It is probably the political tradition of the Russian novel which helps Solzhenitsyn to surmount so successfully the severe obstacles which limit or defeat the more purely political Soviet writings available to us so far. It gives him a confidence and a method of communicating and examining his experience which these writers lack.
The model by which Solzhenitsyn is influenced is Leo Tolstoy rather than Chernyshevsky. The First Circle is particularly reminiscent of Resurrection, possibly Tolstoy’s greatest novel and certainly his most subversive. Tolstoy relates in this novel the experiences of a liberal aristocrat, Nekhlyudov, who is called to serve on a jury to try a servant girl whom he once seduced. He tries to save the girl from the merciless and arbitrary oppression of Tsarist justice. Through the girl and her fellow prisoners Nekhlyudov comes to see that ‘all these people were arrested, locked up, exiled, not really because they had infringed justice or behaved unlawfully but only because they were an obstacle, hindering the officials and the rich from enjoying the property they have taken away from the people . . . all this talk about justice, law, religion, God and so on was mere words veiling the coarsest cupidity and cruelty’. The novel is studded with naive insights like this which the narrative renders entirely compelling. With some necessary modifications the contemporary Soviet reader must discover much that is familiar. In Cancer Ward the patients are discussing Tolstoy. Rusanov, an illiterate official of the Security Ministry, knows that this writer is politically suspect. He is not at all discountenanced when informed that
‘The position occupied by Toporov, involving as it did an incongruity of purpose, could only be held by a man who was dull and morally obtuse. Toporov possessed both these negative qualities. The incongruity of the position he occupied was this. It was his duty to maintain, and to defend by external measures not excluding violence, that Church which, by its own declaration, was established by God himself and could not be shaken by the gates of Hell nor by any human effort. This divine and immutable God-established institution had to be sustained and defended by a human institution—the Holy Synod—managed by Toporov and his officials. Toporov did not see this incongruity, nor did he wish to see it, and he was therefore much concerned lest some Romish priest, some pastor, or some sectarian, should destroy that Church against which the gates of Hell could not prevail. Toporov, like all those who are quite destitute of the fundamental religious feeling which recognizes the equality and brotherhood of man, was fully convinced that the common people were creatures entirely different from himself, and that the people needed what he could very well do without; for at the bottom of his heart he believed in nothing, and found such a state very convenient and pleasant. Yet he feared lest the people might also come to such a state, and looked upon it as his sacred duty, as he called it, to save them from it. His position towards the religion he was upholding was the same as that of the poultry keeper towards carrion he feeds his fowl on: carrion is very disgusting, but fowls like it and eat it, therefore it is right to feed fowls on carrion.’
The targets of The First Circle are strikingly similar, the corruption and cynicism of Soviet officials, the arbitrary and vicious workings of the State’s apparatus of coercion. The action of this novel mainly revolves around the inmates of Mavrino, a ‘special’ prison where those with technical or scientific skill are put to work on urgent research jobs and allowed slightly easier conditions than those which prevail in the vast Stalinist prison system. The prisoners represent a vast and varied galaxy of the Soviet intelligentsia under Stalin ranging from oppositionist to ‘honest Stalinist’. The prison administration provides an equally diverse cross section of the Soviet bureaucracy. Thus it seems only consonant with the minimum demands of realism that, under Stalin’s rule, the fate of the ‘fictional’ prisoners and administrators should be seen to be so directly dependent on the lightest decisions of the real historical characters in the book, Stalin and his immediate minions. Thus the novel contains numerous sharp vignettes of life on the ‘outside’, including an evocation of Stalin in his study and of his personal secretary, Poskryobyshev, whose knock on his study sounded ‘rather as though the person outside had softly pawed the door like a dog’. Though in every way calculated to give a Zhdanov a nightmare, The First Circle is in some ways the first socialist realist novel ever to have been written. The choice of Mavrino (a Soviet prison in ‘real life’) as
Solzhenitsyn affords the reader more than one glimpse of those forces making for the mutation and stabilization of the Stalinist system in post-Stalin revisionism. For example a senior official of the Security Ministry, Mamurin, is dismissed by Stalin. Incipient caste solidarity cushions his fall: ‘Anyone else would have been sent to Norilsk, sentenced to a prison sentence term of twenty-five years and a further five of deportation and deprivation of rights but, mindful of the saying, “You today, me tomorrow”, Mamurin’s former colleagues stood by
Solzhenitsyn explores the ambiguous consolations which Mavrino offers to its prisoners. Just as in Dante’s Inferno, the ‘first circle’ is not such a bad place to be compared with the likely alternatives. Solzhenitsyn pictures the prisoners one Sunday evening: ‘In that night between Sunday and Monday the prisoners could not be troubled by telegrams from relatives, tiresome phone calls, a baby catching diphtheria or arrest by night. The men floating in this ark were detached and their thoughts could wander unfettered. They were not hungry and not full. They were not happy and therefore not disturbed by the prospect of forfeiting happiness. Their heads were not full of trivial worries about their jobs, office intrigue or anxieties about promotion, their shoulders unbowed by cares about housing, fuel, food and clothing for their children. Love, man’s age-old source of pleasure and suffering, was powerless to touch them with its agony or its expectation. Their terms of imprisonment were so long that none of them had started to think of the time when they would be released. Men of outstanding intellect, education and experience, who were normally too devoted to their families to have enough of themselves to spare for friendship, were here wholly given over to their friends. From this ark serenely ploughing its way through the darkness, it was easy for them to survey, as from a great height, the whole tortuous, errant flow of history: yet at the same time, like people completely immersed in it, they could see every pebble in its depths. On these Sunday evenings the physical, material world never intruded: a spirit of manly friendship and philosophy hovered over the sail-shaped vault of the ceiling. Was this, perhaps, that state of bliss which all the philosophers of antiquity tried in vain to define and describe?’ Solzhenitsyn shows us the numberless ways in which this blissful isolation is fictitious: the consequences for themselves and their families of the prisoners’ acute deprivation of everyday social intercourse; the corrosive presence of the informers; the dilemmas in confronting the subtler techniques of repression; and, above all, the yawning abyss of the labour camps awaiting them, should they refuse to co-operate. Yet the comparative freedom of Mavrino is real enough to allow Solzhenitsyn to show the prisoners as responsible for the widely differing political and personal choices they make.