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Set In Moscow During A Three Day Period In December , The First Circle Is The Story Of The Prisoner Gleb Nerzhin, A Brilliant Mathematician At The Age Of Thirty One, Nerzhin Has Survived The War Years On The German Front And The Postwar Years In A Succession Of Russian Prisons And Labor Camps His Story Is Interwoven With The Stories Of A Dozen Fellow Prisoners Each An Unforgettable Human Being From The Prison Janitor To The Tormented Marxist Intellectual Who Designed The Dnieper Dam Of The Reigning Elite And Their Conflicted Subordinates And Of The Women, Wretched Or Privileged, Bound To These Men A Landmark Of Soviet Literature, The First Circle Is As Powerful Today As It Was When It Was First Published, Nearly Thirty Years Ago Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography cclapcenter.com I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP it is not being reprinted illegally As an American who didn t do too much academic reading before opening CCLaP, there are of course numerous entire sections of the literary world that I could stand to learn a whole lotabout take Russian literature for a good example, not just its beginnings with Pushkin and the like but also its heydey of the late 1800s and early 1900s the time period of such famed authors as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov , all the way through to both the sanctioned and underground writers of the Soviet period of the 1920s through 80s And that s why I was so excited to find out that last fall, Harper Perennial ended up putting out a brand new edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn s 1968 In The First Circle originally known as simply The First Circle, one of the hundreds of details that have been put back in the book for this 2009 edition , because this gave me a good excuse to sit and finally read the thing after all, Solzhenitsyn is one of the most important writers of the entire Soviet era, essentially the first intellectual to break the news to the Western world of what Stalin s prison camps or gulags were actually like, a fact which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1970 even as he was still a Soviet prisoner.And the irony, of course, is that less than ten years before In The First Circle, he had been able to publish the first of this highly anti Stalinst work in the actual Soviet Union itself namely, 1962 s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is what first gained him an international following and this was because of Nikita Khrushchev s campaign of de Stalinization in that country then, which came as news to me when first studying this book, which gives you a good idea of just how much about Russian history I still have to learn Even though that book went well, Solzhenitsyn knew that the original 96 chapter version of his muchexpansive follow up would never pass the muster of Soviet censors, which is why he voluntarily cut almost a dozen of those chapters from the original In The First Circle before submitting it, and radically changed a dozenthen when he later became critical of Khrushchev himself and was oncesent back into the camps, it was this trimmed down version that was snuck out of the country, and published in the West in 1968 to huge infamy But like many former dissidents, Solzhenitsyn made peace with his homeland again after the fall of communism in the early 90s, moving back there in his old age and for the first time in his life going back comprehensively over his entire oeuvre and apparently at the end of his life, he decided it was important to get the original 96 chapter version out finally to the public, the project he was working on all the way up to his death in 2008, just a year before the completely uncensored version came out.For those who don t know, the book is a highly autobiographical look at a special kind of work camp that existed during the Stalinist Purge, the period of the 1930s and 40s when that Modernist leader and World War Two overseer had several tens of millions of his fellow citizens imprisoned and or killed in order to keep himself and his supporters in power because with that many people in the camps, you could of course fill entire prisons with nothing but scientists and artists if you wanted to, which is exactly what Stalinist authorities did, called sharashkas and actuallylike college dorms than traditional prisons, where intellectuals were treated decently and fed well in exchange for them continuing to work on various cultural and scientific projects, like the space program or nuclear weapons or Bond style spy devices This is where the title In The First Circle comes from, in fact, inspired by Dante s concept in The Inferno of there being nine circles of Hell, the first one not actually that terrible and designed for only light sinners because when all was said and done, except for the lack of free movement, these sharashkas actually weren t all that bad, or at least compared to the nightmarish conditions of the Siberian hard labor camps, where said intellectuals were shipped off to if refusing to voluntarily work on these state projects That s a major theme of the book, the philosophical argument over which of these options is better to remain ideologically pure yet pay a high price for it, or to do what is simply going to be done by someone else anyway, and in the meanwhile living to fight another day.And besides this, the thousand page tome is also of course a highly detailed look at what daily Soviet life was like during the Stalinist years of the late 40s and in fact that may be the biggest surprise about this manuscript, is that its details regarding the real Soviet Union in those years are so eerily similar to the speculative fancifulness of George Orwell s anti Stalinist 1984 to not even be funny Because let s not forget, Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 which is how he came up with the title, by simply switching the last two numbers , while Solzhenitsyn s book is set just a year later, during Christmas week of 1949, retroactively backing up many of the most outrageous suppositions of Orwell s original, including the Soviet invention of a Newspeak type official new language, designed to be reductive so to literally remove from dictionaries the very words themselves that stood for subversive ideas, as well as the very real endeavor back then to officially erase the very existence of state enemies, including airbrushing them out of old photos and re writing archived newspaper articles that once mentioned them If nothing else, this might be the most important lasting legacy of In The First Circle, is that it dutifully chronicles many of the absurdly comedic yet horrifying things that took place during the Stalinist years, shows us just how right we in the West were to be terrified back then by the idea of a Stalinist planet, even if that did lead to some pretty horrible things on their own, like McCarthyism and book burnings.But this isn t the only thing about In The First Circle to enjoy there s also the inventive cyclical nature of its very structure, which like Richard Linklater s Slacker is told in a vertical storytelling style, where the different main characters of each chapter are introduced causally in the end paragraphs of the previous chapter So in other words, one chapter might be about a prisoner in an electronics lab inside the camp, who at the end of the chapter has a conversation with the 21 year old girl who s been hired to oversee them the next chapter then might be about that girl now at home that evening, ending with her talking to her husband, a mid level bureaucrat who works in the personal offices of Joseph Stalin, with the next chapter after that perhaps being about Stalin himself, one of the hundreds of both real and fictional people featured in this doorstop of a book And then of course is the sly humor found throughout, the fascinating details about life inside one of these intellectual prisons, the history lessons provided through the cynical discussions of the older zeks, the ones old enough to remember the original 1917 communist revolution and who sit around endlessly debating what s gone wrong in the thirty years since, a big reason they re in the camps to begin with.Now, just so we re on the same page, let me confess that there are problems as well with In The First Circle for example, like so many other Russian novelists, Solzhenitsyn tends to be in love with the sound of his own voice, turning what could ve been a truly mindblowing 400 page book into a merely important yet highly digressive thousand page one Despite its limitations, though, it s a highly rewarding book to actually make one s way through and eventually finish, and I applaud Harper for spending the time, energy and money needed to put out this restored version in the first place, when commercially speaking it is obviously only going to appeal to a small niche audience This single book alone filled a huge chunk of that gaping hole in my life when it comes to Russian history and culture, and it comes highly recommended to those who are looking to fill such a similar hole in their own lives. Not an easy read like Solzhenitsyn s A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, but intellectually muchrewarding if you can plow through the hundreds of different characters and intersecting plotlines A wonderfully intimate portrait of Soviet intellectual society from within the elit First Circle of the Soviet Gulag A single five paged chapter about the lonley hallway patrol of Nikita, the red headed prison warden told meabout the human condition than most of what I have experienced in my own lifetime Solzhenitsyn s philosophy, social commentary, and desire to convey the true experience of the camps draws out the writing at times, but a very rewarding book Pretty much built my senior thesis off the fascinating paradox between physical and intellectual freedom in the Soviet Union.me and my Russian lit, what can I say And a great warmust be preceededby a great purge Description Set in Moscow during a three day period in December 1949, The First Circle is the story of the prisoner Gleb Nerzhin, a brilliant mathematician At the age of thirty one, Nerzhin has survived the war years on the German front and the postwar years in a succession of Russian prisons and labor camps His story is interwoven with the stories of a dozen fellow prisoners each an unforgettable human being from the prison janitor to the tormented Marxist intellectual who designed the Dnieper dam of the reigning elite and their conflicted subordinates and of the women, wretched or privileged, bound to these men A landmark of Soviet literature, The First Circle is as powerful today as it was when it was first published, nearly thirty years ago.https www.youtube.com watch v jg kc3 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich The Gulag Archipelago 1918 1956 Unrated for a reason 3 Cancer WardCR The First Circle3 Matryona s House And Other Stories 4 We Never Make Mistakes Two Short Novels As a child of the Cold War who spent many years studying our great potential superpower opponent, I found this book just as powerful now as I might have many years ago The Soviets certainly knew how to efficiently destroy anyone with a sentence to the Gulag The thought of fighting the Nazis from 41 45 only to wind up in the gulag for 10 or 25 years is just horrific to contemplate This story takes place about 4.5 years after the WWII victory Many of the zeks in the camp have been condemned for no reason other than spite or envyhe was particularly timid these days in front of the authorities More than anything he dreaded getting a second term He had seen many prisoners get them during the war years Even the way he was first sentenced was absurd He was imprisoned at the beginning of the war for anti Soviet propaganda, the result of a denunciation cooked up by some neighbors who wanted his apartment and afterward got it It became clear subsequently that he had not engaged in any such propaganda, though he could have, since he listened to the German radio Then it turned out that he didn t listen to the German radio, but he could have listened to it since he had a forbidden radio receiver at home And when it appeared that he didn t have any such radio receiver, it was still true that he could have had one since he was a radio engineer by profession Also, following the denunciation, they found two radio tubes in a box in his apartment.This story remains relevant today This is the inevitable destination of socialism and way too many uneducated in the population believe socialism is the way to go There are reports that China has its own version of the gulag with a very large population Likely to grow as the Chinese implement their scheme to construct a social media rating for everyone in their country Too low a score, off to the gulag Just imagine how pervasive and oppressive the Soviet gulag system would be with the technology of today Five Red Stars Somewhere in the Stone Reader documentary, likely its bonus features, a critic named The First Circle as the last novel of the 19th Century The isolation of Soviet themes was likely exaggerated by the critic but the novel itself doesn t appear to reveal self awareness perhaps such would also be a violation of Article 58 I read this in tandem with my wife and what a glorious experience that was As tragic as this tale of a neutered Hell of sorts remains, it begs so many questions about the nature of penal system in the Soviet Union Cross purposes appeared to proliferate with exposure to air If Guilt was endemic why have them work, espeially around such sensitive areas of expertise My naievety albeit bruised and riddled will likely cling for my life s extent I still ponder motives. In Dante s The Divine Comedy, the first circle of Hell represents Limbo, where non Christians reside as they were born before Christ, therefore unbaptized It s not their fault But there are no free passes, so sowwy So they were put in the first circle where they are so close to Heaven, but, derp, not close enough to get in They have a smidgefreedom than the wieners in the circles below them, but they still can t get Heaven status because it s all in who you know, and they don t know the right people because they went and were born too early, like a bunch of jag offs This is a highly simplified version of Hell Don t go quoting me and stuff In Solzhenitsyn s novel, his characters are prisoners in a special sort of prison, kindsa like Limbo They are all engineers and nerdy sorts who got busted for stuff like talking on the phone and writing letters letters are those things people used to write before e mail, btw about stuff Stalin didn t approve of whose skills benefit Papa Stalin in one way or another.The story takes place in only three days, though you really wouldn t know it to read this book because a it s almost 700 pages and that s not even the uncensored version which was released in 2009 , b Solzhenitsyn includes so much back story of every character that you don t realize aren t the main focus of the story as a whole, and c did I mention it s almost 700 pages It took me a long time to read because Life, but also because for a long while I had trouble getting into the story I normally enjoy everything I have read by Solzhenitsyn, but I couldn t help but compare this to his Cancer Ward, probably because I got them around the same time I thought Cancer Ward was strong all the way through and I cared about the characters I had difficulty empathizing with all the characters in The First Circle, or maybe because I knew the story spanned three actual days, I thoughtshould be happening at a quicker pace I think an early complaint of mine to someone was that it didn t seem like a whole lot was happening, and I worried it would be an entire almost 700 pages of not a whole lot happening.Stuff does happen, but it s a slowly unfolding story It s worth it, if Russian novels about GULAGs are your schtick This one is, like a lot all books written by Solzhenitsyn, autobiographical Has anyone ever written prison stories as powerfully as Solzhenitsyn Now that I am finished, I do wish I had gotten my paws on the uncensored version, because I am a glutton for punishment and now feel like reading the censored version was akin to reading an abridged version of something Did I just cheat I fail at reading Russian literature It all came down to this moment. I work with speech understanding making computers understand what people say Oddly enough, this is the only novel I know which is centered around that technology It s very credible, as one would expect from Solzhenitsyn I m not sure how much of it is based on his own experiences The main character, who s serving time in the Gulag, has technical skills Because of this, he gets assigned to work on a speech recognition project To be exact, it s not speech recognition per se it s what we call speaker ID, identifying a person by the sound of their voice This technology is now quite good, and many of the key ideas were developed at SRI International while I was there, though I wasn t involved in that particular project The SRI techniques have been commercialized in the Nuance speech recognition platform, which I use all the time At the time of The First Circle, however, the field was at a very early stage of development.The team in Solzehenitsyn s book are given a specific task to solve A compromising phone call has been recorded, and the authorities have narrowed it down to a handful of suspects They need to determine who it was not easy, since the person in question was trying to disguise his voice The engineers work flat out to try and crack the problem Needless to say, they don t feel too good about it, but what are they supposed to do If they refuse, they ll be back in hell Well, they re in hell now, but, as the title suggests, this is the most comfortable part of Stalin s Inferno Here, they aren t swimming in boiling blood, or,likely, stuck in the ice lower down So they do their best, but in the end they re forced to admit defeat They can eliminate most of the suspects, but they still have two names left, and the machines can t determine which one the recorded voice belongs to But their bosses are happy they simply arrest both guys After all, this is Stalin s Russia It must be the grimmest and most profound shaggy dog story ever written. It is unfathomable in my mind why Alexandyr Solzhenitsyn is notwidely remarked upon as perhaps the premier novelist of his age This is a writer against whom a Thomas Pynchon could be measured and even he might fall shortAs for Cormac McC what Chuck Pahluki what Please.But nevermind The main point I wish to make in this review is this any society, culture, or timeperiod is most accurately described by the recounting of its worst outrages Just as with a single man you assess him best by discovering what he hates so it is too, with governments It is their black marks which are the most telling We come to know a people best, by learning how they treat their own Every nation has its museums and treasures, its palaces but these do not describe national character Instead, look to the prisons if you wish to see the inner disposition of a culture revealed This famous insight comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky.Solzhenitsyn, with his nonfiction juggernautsvols I II of Gulag Archipelagois of course, simply towering in this realm Scathing There is no one who ever sounded to the bottom of a penal system deeper than did this author But his talent was obviously not limited to documentary reporting What this novel,First Circlereveals to the first time reader will be a major surprise, too For, not only did Solzhenitsyn write the most gripping true to life indictments to emerge from his culture not only was he one of the most gifted historians since WWII but with works like this, he dominates the sphere of Slavic fiction It is one of the most penetrating modern novels yet written Sustained power, force, and discipline are all on display, throughout Sure, you might say that Solzhenitsyn is an old hand at prison memoirs, going all the way back to,One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. But believe me that was just him warming up First Circle is a massive, in depth, intellectual watershed Solzhenitsyn takes everything he gathered up inGulag Archipelagoand condenses it into literary form.Ostensibly a story of falsely incarcerated Russkie intellectuals all struggling against the inexorable prison regime striving to hang on to their souls while at the same time, unwilling to admit that they even possess soulsthe plot itself is indescribable It is a novel of imprisonment and solitude, after all and one might criticize that nothing ever happens in it But that s an impoverished view of such a work as this The topics and themes treated here, are boundless Hope, despair, misery, ambition, abandonment Everything that tortures man s spirit is to be found here Solzhenitsyn deals with the cosmic and the microscopic of individual human lives Smooth, polished, confident, expert prose deliverythe man is completely in command of his narrative Razor sharp in its vision and imagination This book is not in my top ten works of all time , world literature for nothing And that s really saying something To sum up my feelings on the matter as far as I m concerned, the name of Solzhenitsyn should be the pre eminent name in Slavic culture if not the very foremost name Certainly in modern times, he stands alone Doyesteovsky for the 1800s and Solzhenitsyn for the 1900s and that s all you should need. Review after my 1st reading Reading this in conjunction with Cancer Ward made it all theemotional for me It s like Cancer Ward is the conclusion to In the First Circle In some ways, what is not spoken In the First Circle is completed in Cancer Ward It s very interesting how Solzhenitsyn made these 2 books so compatible with each other One is the cold, hard prison legal system and the other is what s left of humanity because of a cold, hard legal system This becomes evennoticeable in the 2nd half of these 2 books and by the time the climax or conclusion comes around, the endings of these books are inseparable I chose to read them together because Solzhenitsyn wrote them or began them at the same time They were published in the same year or very close together If you d like a powerhouse experience, read them together but start one before the other so you can get your bearings on the huge cast of characters If you re a little familiar with Russian novels, or are familiar with dusty old books, it ll be easy to keep the world characters of these 2 books separate Then begin the other book and get to know that world I began Cancer Ward first, then In the First Circle.With all that said, In the First Circle just by itself is an amazing read and one I plan to re read many times in the future Solzhenitsyn blends all aspects of humanity into a single narrative, what he can t contain in this book, naturally spills over into Cancer Ward and it s brilliant how he kept his themes together while letting them expand into each other The main theme of In the First Circle I think is community within a human made prison Cancer Wards is community and looking within yourself while in naturally imposed prison.Read one or both of these books, together or separate, they can each stand alone and reading either one before the other is alright too.My Original Review Dear Mr Solzhenitsyn,Those were the best 38 pages I ve ever read in my life Truly So with great sadness, I ll return this book, unread, to the library I m astounded that in 38 pages, I ve been moved so deeply and so permanently I ll never forget those words and I ll revisit this book at the end of the year, after I ve readRussian Lit and Western Classics I m not breaking up with you, I just need to see other books first I m so not ready for this masterpiece It needs to be savoured and I can only read it the 1st time once I sincerely look forward to re reading this book for many years in the future Can there be such a thing as a book marriage Or some kind of long term bookish re reading I ll invest in this very same translation at the end of the year The Whitney translation, it ll be the purchase of the decade Edit I bought the Uncensored Version, translated by Willetts.