The sun has reached it midday zenith, and I’m still staring at the blank page on my desk. I had promised myself that I would begin writing about Akeksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In The First Circle a key part of a book project that I’m calling, “The Renewal of the Conservative Imagination.” But pen won’t go to paper, and not surprisingly, I suppose. Solzhenitsyn writes big, as it were, and it’s hard sometimes to know where to start.
Moreover, there is Solzhenitsyn’s life story. Swept up in the reassertion of Stalinist repression toward the end of World War II, he spent eight years in the Soviet Gulag, a reality he would chronicle and fix in the world’s imagination. And not just fix, but also interpret. For according to Solzhenitsyn, the vast prison system of the Soviet Union reflected the essence of communism, not an aberration.
But many have written about Solzhenitsyn’s political legacy. What interests me is somewhat different. It’s his moral and religious vision.
In The First Circle was the first novel Solzhenitsyn wrote (and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote), and I think it’s fair to say that it reflects most fully what he thought he learned in Gulag. It’s a Russian novel a sprawling narrative of ninety-six chapters and countless characters that the reader must juggle in his head as the many threads of action unfold across hundreds of pages.
The expansiveness of the novel is reinforced by the events that spark the narrative. A Soviet diplomat has decided to betray his country, calling the United States embassy to reveal that a Soviet spy has stolen American nuclear secrets. The rest of the novel revolves around this fateful phone call, with a great deal of the action taking place in a special prison devoted to scientific work. There various technical problems are solved that allow for the traitor to be identified and arrested.
So, we have a big Russian novel keyed to great events the conflict of East and West during the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and ultimately the chilling possibility of a world-destroying nuclear holocaust. And yet, with the stage set, the novel does not go outward toward a world-historical perspective, but instead goes inward, not just into the evil world of the Soviet prison system, but into the deeply personal ways in which moral truths infiltrate a world of lies.
The novel turns on secrets inside secrets rather than big public events or pronouncements. Most of the characters live inside a secret prison and in that prison they must keep secret their efforts to discern and live in accord with the truth. These efforts the true meaning of which hidden even from those who undertake them define the center of the novel. It’s the diplomat’s fragile grip on moral truth, the prisoner Gleb Nerzhin’s awakening, Sologdin’s efforts to forge a moral armor do not control the way the narrative unfolds, at least if one thinks in terms of events. Who gets arrested and when and how remains under the control of the secret police. Rather, these inner moral awakenings are at the center in a deeper way, tipping the scales of human destiny.
In his Nobel Prize lecture Solzhenitsyn wrote, “One word of truth outweighs the world.” By my reading, In The First Circle was written to bear witness to that conviction. It’s as if Solzhenitzsyn were saying, “Look, see the tiniest, more fragile irruptions of moral truth into human life. See just a few men hidden away, buried by worldly power, who have allowed themselves to be romanced by moral truth. They outweigh the world.”
I can just see readers scratching their heads. What’s this have to do with renewing the conservative imagination? Well, I’ve got to finish the darn book to be able to put it well, but I can say this.
Social conservatives (like me, for example) are often afflicted by despair, a feeling that the tides of history are going out, and the power of moral truths are waning. In the twilight we wring our hands, and perhaps we decide to make our peace with the present age.
It’s useful, therefore, to read Solzhenitsyn, who lived in a society far, far more demoralized, a place where moral despair seemed the only rational disposition. He reminds us in such a powerful way of the deathless potency of moral truth.
I remember when I finished In The First Circle . Some words of Jesus came to my mind: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). And they do.