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Solzhenitsyn's Great Masterwork

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A new translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's In The First Circle which appeared in English last year, presents a "restored text" of the Russian novelist's masterwork. It is a towering achievement -- in fact, I cannot think of another 20th century novel that comes close to it in moral authority and humanism.

Reading some of our most acclaimed novelists today, one cannot but be struck by the smallness of their ambition. When was the last time an American or a British writer produced a great, sprawling work of literature encompassing dozens of characters and tackling truly great themes? (I certainly include my own modest works in this criticism). Perhaps the age of such novels is past. Perhaps there's no market for them. But for Solzhenitsyn, writing was an immensely powerful act of individual resistance to a monstrous regime. This magnificent book upholds the most important human values -- freedom, courage, dignity, truth and compassion in the face of totalitarian power.

Solzhenitsyn wrote the book in the 1950s from internal exile in Kazakhstan after he was released from eight years in Gulag prisons and work camps. It describes four days in the lives of prisoners at a special camp for scientists and engineers on the outskirts of Moscow called Marfino.

The Russian slang word for such a prison research institute is "sharashka." Solzhenitsyn himself spent three years at Marfino from 1947 to 1950 and his stay there had a powerful effect on his political, intellectual and spiritual development.

The time is Christmas 1949, just after the celebrations of Stalin's 70th birthday, shortly before he launched a new round of attacks on "Jewish cosmopolitans," a development which is foreshadowed in the novel.

The prisoners, or zeks, in the sharashka have it easier than in other Soviet camps -- they have enough to eat, warm, dry clothes, comfortable beds and access to work materials. Compared to the rest of the Gulag, they are, as it were, in the first circle of hell. But it is still hell. They are deprived of their freedom and contact with the outside world, which continues about its business just the other side of the razor wire. These prisoners can go years without receiving a letter from loved ones. If they are lucky, they are allowed one hour-long visit with their wives once a year, with a prison official present at all times. In the course of the book, we sit in on one of these heartbreaking meetings. And their crimes? More often than not, trumped up charges concocted by the state and arbitrarily applied.

The history of the book is interesting. In the early 1960s, there was a slight thaw in Soviet publishing which allowed Solzhenitsyn to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which became a worldwide sensation. The author had already completed In The First Circle and decided to try to get it approved by the Soviet censors. To do so, he toned it down, eliminating several chapters, shortening others and softening the book's general anti-Soviet tone. It was still rejected.

In 1968, when it was clear the regime would never allow his work to see the light of day, Solzhenitsyn agreed to allow this toned-down version to be published in the West. Even in its truncated form, it was hailed as a masterpiece. But that version, which I read as a student years ago, does not come close to the current, restored manuscript which finally appeared a year after the author's death.

After he reached the United States, Solzhenitsyn became a controversial figure, alienating many with his denunciation of what he saw as the West's weak moral fiber and his championing of some of the more reactionary aspects of Russian nationalism and Russian orthodoxy. He did not like and never really understood the West. However, the quirky political views he developed in his old age should not blind us to the fact that Solzhenitsyn was entirely correct in his critique of the Soviet Union. He saw the full truth earlier than almost anyone and he had the courage to reveal it in all its horrific details.

The book begins with a young diplomat, Innokenty Volodin, who phones the U.S. embassy from a pay phone in Moscow to report that in a few days a Soviet agent in the United States will be given crucial information about the atomic bomb. Innokenty has thought long and hard before making the call. He knows the risks, but asks himself, "If we live in a state of constant fear, can we remain human?"

The clueless American at the other end of the line doesn't grasp the importance of the conversation and suggests that Volodin call the Canadian embassy where they understand Russian better. Of course, the organs of the state have recorded the conversation and a hunt begins to identify the caller. Enter the prisoner-scientists of the sharashka, some of whom are working on voice identification technology. They are given the job of identifying the traitor.

They eventually narrow it down to two individuals, Volodin and one other, both of whom are arrested. After all, one of them is guilty of this crime -- and the other? He must be guilty of something -- for under Soviet jurisprudence, no-one is entirely innocent.

Innokenty is arrested and taken to the Lubyanka. Solzhenitsyn gives us, in exquisite detail based on personal experience, a chilling description of what actually happened to people who were taken to that infamous prison and how they were broken and dehumanized even before their interrogation began.

Solzhenitsyn's narrative technique is notable. Like Tolstoy in War and Peace he follows a pattern of having one character take central stage for a few chapters, before giving way to a second and then a third and fourth and fifth. In this way, he is eventually able to present a panoramic view of the whole of Soviet society. Occasional flashbacks enable the reader to get a taste of life in Moscow and in a Russian village, establishing a counterpoint to the main action within the prison.

We get inside the heads of the various prisoners, each with his own experiences and worldview. We meet Rubin, a devout communist, still convinced of the correctness of a system that has done nothing but persecute and incarcerate him. Rubin is intelligent and kind, a loyal friend -- but morally blind. In one chapter, he organizes a satirical show trial for the historical figure, Prince Igor. He knows how cruel and unjust the system is, yet he persists in his loyalty to the revolution.

The other main protagonist and counterpoint to Rubin is Gleb Nerzhin, the author's alter ego, a veteran of the camps groping for way to remain human and moral and find meaning in the world.

As the book proceeds, we gain a full picture of prison life. We learn about stoolies, about how the inmates divert themselves; we listen to their discussions about history, Russia and the system that is destroying them. We also meet some of their doomed wives, fighting to hang on in the absence of their loved ones, trying to stay faithful while scratching out a living in a system that regards their husbands as "enemies of the people."

And then the book's focus widens even more. We meet the KGB officer in charge of security, the camp commandant, the Minister of State Security and in five chilling chapters we are privy to the thoughts of Stalin himself. These are some of the most masterful passages of the book. Solzhenitsyn resists the temptation to ridicule or satirize. He takes the monster completely seriously, without a trace of irony. There is dark comedy in these scenes as the head of State Security, Viktor Abakumov, sweating with fear, is summoned to the monster's lair at 3 am, not knowing whether to sit or stand, not knowing if he will survive the meeting or be taken out to be shot. This is an immensely powerful man, presiding over all the cruel power of the organs of security -- yet he himself is little more than a slave when confronted by the Supreme Leader. Stalin tells him not to worry: "When you deserve it, that's when we'll shoot you," he says.

The Stalin that emerges from these pages is totally convincing as a literary creation -- and totally evil.

There are other passages of comedy in this book that lighten the load of the reader. In one chapter, none other than Eleanor Roosevelt visits one of the Gulag camps. Before she arrives, the place is cleaned up, pristine sheets are placed of the beds, the library is stocked with books and the prisoners are dressed in decent clothes, even blue silk underwear, and fed a wonderful meal. The First Lady departs full of admiration for the Soviet penal system. Of course, as soon as she leaves, the underwear is ripped off, the sheets disappear and it's back to normal.

Even at this early stage of his career, Solzhenitsyn clearly viewed the Soviet Union as powerful and ruthless and the West as weak and gullible.

In another scene, an official gives a hilarious lecture on dialectical materialism. Solzhenitsyn perfectly captures the verbal gymnastics, complete with pompous slogans and phrases, all of which mean nothing, of the 90-minute lecture. In another, a doctoral candidate has problems finishing her thesis. She is not allowed to quote foreign sources or give credit to capitalist authorities. She also has to make sure she is not citing any Russian who has fallen afoul of the system. She finds herself constantly rewriting to delete the names of people who have been arrested or disgraced since she completed the previous draft.

Despite these moments of comedy, this is a sad book. So many lives destroyed, so much suffering - it's hard to come to terms with it all. The book's hero, Nerzhin, is obviously based on the author himself. We see him finally come to terms with the truth about his own country and its ideology and begin a journey toward spiritual freedom. Nerzhin refuses to work on the voice identification technology, knowing he will be expelled from the sharashka and transferred back into the Gulag proper. But before he goes, Nerzhin has one last conversation with a fellow prisoner in which he foretells the fall of the Soviet Union: "Perhaps ... the new age ... with its globalized information... I'm saying that maybe in the new age a new means will be discovered for the Word to shatter concrete."

To think this was written in the 1950s is incredible.

Solzhenitsyn's narrative technique allows him to demonstrate that the entire Soviet Union is a place from which humanity has almost been eradicated. The prisoners of the sharashka may be in their own version of hell -- but in fact the country has been turned into a kind of penal colony.

Solzhenitsyn and millions of others had their lives shattered by Stalin and his henchmen, who gave themselves the right and the power to enslave and indiscriminately pass sentence on an entire nation. But thanks to this book, we can be sure that history's verdict on Stalin and on the Soviet Union will be largely written by Solzhenitsyn.