Alexander Solzhenitsyn – In the First Circle
Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is about a nationwide prison camp system, the gulag, with millions of prisoners that persisted for decades. His most famous story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is the story of one solitary prisoner over a single day. In the First Circle sits in the between. It is about a small group of zeks, or political prisoners, in a relatively cushy camp outside Moscow.
In the First Circle‘s title is an allusion to Inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which reserves the first circle of hell for good people who predated Christ or otherwise didn’t fit into the Christian worldview. Its residents are spared the tortures of the inner circles, but they are in hell nonetheless. The zeks are well aware that they have comforts that prisoners in Kolyma or Lublanka could only dream of. They are still miserable. Regular references to banned literature such as Dumas comingles with dreary Soviet prison routines in a way that perfectly illustrates this tension between privilege and imprisonment.
The First Circle is fiction, but heavily autobiographical. Solzhenitsyn was a gulag survivor, and the protagonist is modeled after himself. The most heartbreaking scenes are during the family visits between separated prisoners and their wives and children. They are just a few miles apart, close enough to have monthly visits. Yet the distance between them is so great the zeks might as well be in Siberia. One couple even contemplates divorce because a zek’s pariah status stains his wife’s social standing and career opportunities.
There isn’t much in the way of plot, but that isn’t the point of the book. It focuses more on the distance, and longing, the mingled joy and sorrow of small comforts, and the pointless rules and cruelties that have become these men’s lives. Solzhenitsyn also gives chapters to the zeks’ wives and children, and Stalin himself even puts in an unflattering appearance, which was unprecedented when this book was published.