I try to use the praise of “Masterpiece” sparingly, but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “In the First Circle” is worthy of the mantle. I have never read anything quite like it. Borrowing from a sentiment I once heard expressed regarding another powerful book, I am envious of those who may read it for the first time, as it is an experience I can never obtain again.
It’s theme is dark and tragic. The title itself is taken from Dante’s Inferno’s description of the first circle of hell. And yet, it is full of humor and irony. It will make you cry. It will make you laugh. It is polyphonic – meaning it has no singular character but captures the essence of the authoritarian prison-state of the Soviet Union through multiple and varied characters representing a wide range of backgrounds and current perspectives – everything from guards, diplomats, Secret Service officers, prisoners, wives separated from prisoners, non-communists, growing skeptics, committed communists, ex-soldiers, Christians, children of powerful men, powerful men thrown from power into prison, prosecutors, and more. It even spends significant text diving into the macabre psyche and motivations of Stalin. It is culturally and artistically rich, introducing well-placed quotes and references from Tolstoy, Turgenev, Hemingway, Liszt, Dostoevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, to name a few. It is a spy-thriller, as the backdrop of the story that moves the narrative and connects many of the characters is related to the team of imprisoned engineers who are tasked with isolating the voice of a Soviet diplomat who attempts to reveal atomic bomb secrets to the Americans.
I have so many highlighted passages in my personal copy, but here is one snippet, in which one prisoner, who is awakened in prison to the hopeless evil of Communism, argues with one who still believes in the cause:
“Could you kindly explain these socialist ideals that you talk about? They’re nowhere to be seen at present. All right, maybe somebody’s botched the experiment, but when and where can we expect to see them; what do they amount to, eh? Socialism, of whatever variety, is a sort of caricature of the Gospel message. Socialism promotes only equality and a full belly, and that only by means of coercion…you’ll find equality and full bellies in any good pigsty! What a tremendous favor they have bestowed on us! Equality and plenty! Give us a moral society!”
A necessary book shopping tip is to make sure to get the full uncensored version In the First Circle as opposed to the author self-censored (in an attempt to get it past Soviet censors) The First Circle. I also recommend getting a physical copy, since the reader will appreciate the ability to flip back and forth to the notes on characters that begin the book.
Also – this EconTalk podcast
is a great place to start to get a quick biography and background for the author as well as the historical context, meaning, and global impact and acclaim of the book at the time it started getting leaked to the West. The podcast also offers great practical tips for getting the most out of this rich and rewarding book. Perhaps most importantly, there are no spoilers in the podcast.