With his passing a year ago—on August 3, 2008, at the age of eighty-nine—the world was obliged to come to terms once again with Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn. It was time to sum up and take stock of the Russian Nobel laureate, antitotalitarian writer, and courageous if unnerving moral witness. The response was more abundant and on the whole more respectful than one might have anticipated.
Still, there was something disturbingly anachronistic about the American and British commentary. Although most commentators understood that Solzhenitsyn had played a truly decisive role in bringing down an “evil empire” and paid tribute to The Gulag Archipelago as a book that told essential truths about communism, almost all highlighted his 1978 Harvard address and his status as a dissident (a word he never used to describe himself), and they were inordinately concerned with his judgments about the Yeltsin and Putin years. In writing about his recent political views, they relied more on recycled news accounts than on an examination of his own speeches and writings.
And there were more egregious offenders. A lengthy obituary in the New York Times was laden with factual errors and repeated every possible cliché about Solzhenitsyn’s political and religious convictions, and said nothing of substance about his major literary projects over the past twenty years. An otherwise respectful article in The Economist suggested that his fierce criticism of the criminal oligarchy of the Russian 1990s was rooted in personal pique: Solzhenitsyn, against all evidence, was said to have yearned for political power for himself. Professional Solzhenitsyn bashers Cathy Young (in the Boston Globe) and Zinovy Zinik (in the Times Literary Supplement) argued that Solzhenitsyn’s legacy was “tarnished,” that he had become the theoretician of Putin-style authoritarianism and even a quasi-fascist.
The Western commentary that followed Solzhenitsyn’s death captured little of the complexity or nuance of Solzhenitsyn’s political judgment after his return to Russia in May 1994. Tendentious commentators never discussed his detailed proposals for building democratic self-government in Russia from the bottom up, proposals that are at the heart of his political vision, as articulated in Rebuilding Russia (1990), Russia in Collapse (1998), and the luminous speeches and addresses collected in A Minute Per Day (1999).
Most commentators missed that Solzhenitsyn’s support for a broad “social restoration” in Russia after 2001 was not uncritical support for the Putin regime. He openly criticized the party-dominated character of the Russian legislature, the lamentably slow development of local self-government in his homeland, the massive corruption in private and public life. He argued that the government ought to do much more to encourage entrepreneurial capitalism by supporting vigorous independent small- and medium-size businesses.
He worried about the failure of democracy—particularly the “democracy of small spaces”—to take root in his beloved Russia. He was convinced that local self-government of the Swiss or New England variety would be a “welcome solution” and an outlet for the energy of ordinary, decent citizens. As the article he was working on at the time of his death attests (see “Fugitives from the Family,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 11, 2008), he was particularly concerned about the estrangement of contemporary Russians from the millennium-old spiritual patrimony of the nation, a patrimony that had bequeathed to them faith in God, “a free, rich, and vivid language,” and “traditions of home and business life.”
He was not a nationalist in the narrow sense of the term, but he was deeply committed to the preservation of Russian “national consciousness.” While he welcomed the restoration of Russian national pride, or self-respect, during the Putin years—and categorically repudiated imperialism or foreign adventurism—he parted from the Russian government’s increasing refusal to confront the monstrous character of the Soviet past.
Yet even sympathetic commentators tended to miss the high-mindedness of Solzhenitsyn’s concerns, which presupposed a breadth and depth of perspective that one can only characterize as philosophic. For the most part, the writings that have appeared over the past two or two and half decades remain unknown in the United States, and his chef d’oeuvre, The Red Wheel, is far more talked about than read. The crucial volumes dedicated to the revolutionary upheavals of February and March 1917 are still unavailable in English. So it is necessary to turn abroad for deeper treatments and appreciations. In an important new book, Le Phénomène Soljénitsyn, published at the beginning of 2009, the French Russianist Georges Nivat incisively analyzes Solzhenitsyn’s achievement as an innovative writer and penetrating moral thinker who recovered old but enduring verities in the age of ideology.
Nivat argues that two peaks—two immense “cathedrals”—dominate the Solzhenitsynian literary universe: The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel. The first is a unique “experiment in literary investigation” that tells the truth about Soviet repression after 1917 even as it profoundly follows the soul’s confrontation with “barbed wire.” The second (coming in at 6000 pages) combines literary innovation with dramatized history worthy of Thucydides. These two works differ in tone and style but nonetheless form a diptych.
There was nothing fated or inevitable about the Russian revolutions of 1917. But through certain choices or the lack thereof, the “red wheel” began to turn with something like cosmic intensity. Its destination was “the gulag archipelago,” the massive system of Soviet repression centered around the forced labor-camp system. In this diptych, Solzhenitsyn establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the gulag flowed logically and in that sense inexorably from Lenin’s self-proclaimed project to “purge Russia of all the harmful insects,” to eliminate the real or imagined enemies of a quasi-mythological socialism.
Nivat also suggests, rightly, that The First Circle forms a third peak, or cathedral, of Solzhenitsyn’s achievement. It is a great “European novel” that speaks to both the West and the East and to the broader meaning and sources of the Soviet tragedy, while never losing sight of the ultimate human questions.
The publication by HarperCollins this October of In the First Circle (the book’s original title) in a restored ninety-six-chapter version, is therefore a publishing event of the first order. Available for the first time in English, the work is splendidly translated by Harry T. Willets and includes a thoughtful and informative foreward by Edward E. Ericson Jr. Solzhenitsyn composed In the First Circle between 1955 and 1958, after spending many years in prison, labor camps, and internal exile, but it underwent an extensive process of “softening” and “hardening” before a “distorted,” or self-censored, version was published in the West in 1968.
The restored version is in some important respects a new work. Nine chapters are completely new and twelve substantially altered. Moreover, more than the earlier translations, Harry T. Willetts’ rendering of the work captures the rhythm and idiom of the original. As a result, we are now in a much better position to judge Solzhenitsyn’s achievement.
Its setting is a privileged scientific-research prison, a sharashka, on the edge of the gulag system—the Marfino sharashka in the Moscow suburbs where Solzhenitsyn spent three years as a prisoner between 1947 and 1950. This is the real and metaphorical “first circle” of hell to which its Dante-inspired title refers. But the work is misread if it is reduced to “gulag fiction,” as if Solzhenitsyn’s only purpose was to expose the infernal operations of the Soviet system of political repression.
This self-described “polyphonic” novel is above all dialogical: As in a Platonic dialogue or a Dostoevskian novel, there is no absolutely controlling or simply authoritative authorial voice. It is characterized by a complex narrative structure that combines the third-person point of view with the subjectivity that belongs to a first-person narrative. Different characters take turns as the focus of a chapter or series of chapters in the book. Solzhenitsyn’s novelistic polyphony respects the variety of perspectives and voices while inviting readers to join in the search for truth. At the same time, one of the main characters, the young Gleb Nerzhin, thirty-one years of age and five years “in the harness” as the action unfolds, is a faithful literary representation of the young Solzhenitsyn and the spokesman for his own deepest convictions at the time.
The principal characters include Nerzhin and the talented Soviet diplomat Innokenty Volodin, as well as Nerzhin’s closest friends and principal interlocutors, Lev Rubin and Dmitri Sologdin, who are based on the real-life figures Lev Kopelev and Dmitri Panin. Rubin, a linguist and steadfast communist, is torn between his humane instincts and his uncompromising commitment to revolutionary principles. Sologdin, an engineer, is a fierce opponent of the communist regime and a self-described Christian individualist (his Christian convictions are much more pronounced in the new version). A host of other characters, from the half-blind janitor Spiridon (whose moral good sense owes nothing to philosophical reflection) to Stalin, provides a brilliant picture of Soviet society from top to bottom.
Perhaps the most significant change is that the new chapters clarify the intellectual metanoia of the diplomat Volodin, whose dramatic phone call sets the entire plot in motion. In the first version, he calls a doctor friend to warn him that the authorities would see sharing a lifesaving medical discovery with doctors from the West as an act of treason.
In the new version, Volodin calls the American embassy to warn about an act of nuclear espionage about to occur in New York (this part of the plot is based on the case of the Soviet spy Georgy Koval). It is Christmastime in the West, the year is 1949, and the naval attaché who takes the call at the understaffed embassy speaks poor Russian and is suspicious of the information. The young diplomat’s heroic act is seemingly for naught. In both versions, his call is recorded by the secret police, and the scientist prisoners in the Marfino sharashka are given the task of using the new science of phonoscopy, or voice identification, to track down the caller.
As Georges Nivat shows in an authoritative 1980 essay on Solzhenitsyn’s “Different Circles,” the new opening decisively transforms the meaning and import of Volodin’s act. He is moved by “active hatred of the communist regime.” He self-consciously “betrays” the regime he represents. Solzhenitsyn thus raises the question of whether one is obliged to honor the commands of a truly perverse regime. Nivat is not wrong to compare this problematic to “the medieval disputations on the legitimacy of tyrannicide” or, one might add, to Aristotle’s famous question in The Politics about whether the good man is the same as the good citizen.
The new version thus begins by raising a question of political philosophy that became all the more pressing under conditions of totalitarianism. (It should be added that the patriot Solzhenitsyn always refused to identify the Leninist-Stalinist regime with the cause of Russia or to succumb to the charms of “Great Soviet patriotism.”)
Among the principal characters in the novel, Volodin and Nerzhin stand out because their fidelity to conscience ultimately leads them to imprisonment in the gulag labor camps. Nerzhin refuses to participate in a project that will buy him time in the sharashka because it will ensnare innocent people and will detract him from the “passion” that has come to grip him, passion for the contemplation of the truth and the cultivation of his soul.
Nerzhin is recognizably the same character in the two versions of In the First Circle. Volodin is an even more interesting and weighty character in the new version. In both versions, he moves from being a privileged, carefree, and cosmopolitan member of the Soviet elite to being troubled by a growing aversion to the regime he had hitherto served without qualms. A crucial flashback in “But We Are Given Only One Conscience, Too,” one of the most important chapters, reveals the inner transformation that led to his estrangement from his wife, the daughter of the public prosecutor in Moscow, and his decision to make the life-altering phone call.
Too nervous to attend a party at the home of his in-laws a mere twenty-four hours after the call, he reflects on the first six years of his marriage where “no inhibitions, no obstacles” were allowed to “come between wish and fulfillment.” Eager “to sample every new, exotic fruit,” he and his wife have as their motto an Epicurean one (at least in the vulgar sense): “We are given only one life!”
In his sixth year of marriage, he had reached a dead end. The life of endless novelty and material pleasure began to “disgust” him. His soul was ripe for self-examination. One day he “had the amusing idea of reading what his ‘master’ had in fact taught.” Searching through his late mother’s cabinets he found not only a book of Epicurus’ sayings but also her letters and diaries.
He had always admired, even idolized, his father, a revolutionary naval officer who had been killed in 1921 repressing an independent peasant rebellion in Tambov province. He discovered that his “bourgeois” mother had thought deeply and widely about matters—“Truth, Beauty, Goodness, the Ethical Imperative”—that had no place in the “progressive” Soviet world that had shaped his soul. “Something he had lacked”—a moral anchor, a principled point of view—was “stealing into his heart.”
His discovery of the moral law (in his mother’s words, “Injustice is stronger than you . . . but let it not be done through you”) led him to rethink the claims made for the Bolshevik revolution. His work as a “diplomat”—the secret meetings, the code names, the passing on of instructions and money—began to seem sordid, distasteful, repellant.
In some of the most important words of the book, Solzhenitsyn writes: “The great truth for Innokenty used to be that we are only given one life. Now, with the new feeling that had ripened in him, he became aware of another law: that we are given only one conscience, too. A life laid down cannot be reclaimed, nor can a ruined conscience.”
Here, with the full force of his art, Solzhenitsyn chronicles the “existential” recovery of those elemental moral experiences that give evidence of the moral law and that give the lie to every ideological denial of the soul’s connection to goodness and truth and its responsibility before them.
In the next chapter, “The Uncle at Tver,” which immediately follows Volodin’s repudiation of epicureanism, the restored version gives more insight into Volodin’s remarkable spiritual and political transformation. Eager to know more about his mother and to connect to her past, Volodin visits her sole remaining relative, Uncle Avenir.
A handyman supported by his wife, who works as a hospital nurse, Avenir is a free man who maintains his moral integrity by, as much as possible, opting out of a system that wars against the human conscience. His home, little more than a patched-together hovel, is filled with camouflaged old newspapers that tell the truth about the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and thus expose the lies about the past to which the Soviet people are daily subjected.
Avenir repeats the question of the nineteenth-century Russian thinker Herzen about the limits of patriotism, of loyalty to a regime intent on “destroying its own people.” He sees the Second World War as a tragedy in which the Soviet people struggled heroically for the homeland only to be ground down by “the man with the big moustache.” He is convinced that the Soviet regime could never obtain the atomic bomb by itself but that it will resort to espionage and thievery to do so, and that the people of the Soviet Union would then lose all hope for freedom.
The meeting with Avenir stiffens Volodin’s resolve and cures him of any remaining ideological illusions. He is determined to make up for the sins of the father by doing what he can to prevent an odious regime from attaining the atomic bomb. The Epicureans of old eschewed politics and attempted to cultivate their private “gardens,” but he now sees that to do so in the context of an ideological regime that relentlessly wars on the bodies and souls of human beings is to become complicit in evil, to risk permanent spiritual corruption.
Volodin thus follows the dictates of conscience and takes a stand for his country and humanity and against the totalitarian regime he is officially committed to uphold. But after doing so he is desperately afraid of being exposed and is even more worried that his call was for naught. He knows he was right to try to prevent “the Transformer of the World, the Forger of Happiness, from stealing the bomb,” but he is not sure that the West deserves to be saved or is capable of acting on the warning. And will ordinary Soviets, herded together and subject to the most mendacious propaganda, appreciate what was at stake in his “treasonous” act?
Several chapters near the end of the work chronicle Volodin’s arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment. These chapters mirror Solzhenitsyn’s own experience after his arrest in February 1945. If Nerzhin is Solzhenitsyn’s authorial alter ego, Volodin’s intellectual and spiritual transformation parallels his intellectual and spiritual “ascent” as described in The Gulag Archipelago and elsewhere in his work. The newly modified conclusion of one of the last chapters, “Second Wind,” takes on added importance in this regard.
Volodin now recognizes that “he would have done no other. He could not have remained indifferent.” Uncle Avenir’s spirited wisdom is contrasted with Epicurus’ “stupid” thought that “our feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are the highest criteria of good and evil.” The ancient philosopher’s refined, apolitical hedonism, his carefully calibrated weighing of pleasures and pain, can provide no principled ground for refusing the tyrant’s claim that his pleasure is good. “Stalin, for instance, enjoyed killing people—so that, for him, was ‘good’?” Those “who are imprisoned for the truth get no satisfaction from it—so is that evil?”
Epicureanism represents a dead end, a spiritual obtuseness of the first order to the imprisoned Volodin. “The great materialist’s wisdom” now “seemed like the prattle of a child.” “Good and evil were now distinct entities, visibly separated by that light gray door, those olive green walls, and that first night in prison.” This was the decisive metanoia, the discovery of a moral universe, of the real divide between good and evil. Volodin eloquently articulates the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s mature moral vision.
Nerzhin exemplifies another aspect of that moral vision, the skeptical resistance to ideologies in service of a search for truth. The dissident communist Lev Rubin, who has been unjustly imprisoned but still wholeheartedly identifies with the cause of revolutionary socialism, urges him to “look at things in historical perspective,” by which he means the “inevitability” that allegedly conforms “to the inherent laws of history.”
For his part, Nerzhin is a self-described skeptic whose skepticism is directed first and foremost at ideological fanaticism. This is even more apparent in the restored version of In the First Circle . He wonders how he could have once “worshiped” Lenin, whose dogmatism and fanaticism are unworthy of a decent and reflective human being. But skepticism is not enough, intellectually or morally. It is useful as a way of “silencing fanaticism” but it cannot give a man a reliable footing to stand on.
But as the important restored chapter “Top-Secret Conversation” makes clear, Nerzhin had already moved significantly beyond skepticism to a much more substantial affirmation of justice, conscience, and self-limitation. Rubin warns him about the foolhardiness of “getting in the way” of the movement of history and derides him as “ Pithecanthropus erectus,” an ape-man out of touch with the requirements of history.
Nerzhin refuses to accept this terminology or to become imprisoned by ideological abstractions. He will have nothing to do with “blasted fanatics” who refuse to give human beings space to live and breathe. He roots his opposition to fanaticism in “moral self-limitation” and mocks the Marxist idea that justice is nothing but a “class-conditioned idea.” In a beautiful cri de coeur he proclaims that “justice is the cornerstone, the foundation of the universe! . . . We are born with a sense of justice in our souls; we can’t and don’t want to live without it!”
In the late chapter “On the Back Stairway,” Nerzhin, who is about to be shipped off to the gulag, has a clandestine conversation with Illarion Gerasimovich, an engineer serving his second term of incarceration. Gerasimovich has unbounded confidence in the power of a technical or scientific elite to govern the world. He places his hope in a revolution that will bring the true men of science to power.
Nerzhin has no time for “the rational society”—the enemy of all reason and decency—and knows that there is no technical political solution that can bypass the need for human beings to live well with their freedom. He emphatically repudiates the modern ideology of progress, since it conflates moral and technical progress and turns a blind eye to the human capacity for evil, a capacity made worse by “beautiful” modern ideas. There is no “backward and forward in human history,” Nerzhin tells Gerasimovich. Rather, history is “like an octopus, with neither back nor front.”
Nerzhin remains committed to a life of reflection about human nature and the order of things, wedded to a conception of human dignity that does justice to the moral nature of man. He is now able to affirm certain truths that further open his eyes. The philosophical affirmation of natural justice, the experience of the soul that the good is not unsupported, is a precondition of Solzhenitsyn’s recovery of faith which is described with great luminosity in the central section of The Gulag Archipelago: “The Soul and Barbed Wire.” Solzhenitsyn’s mature thought is best described as a philosophical Christianity that never loses sight of the philosophical metanoia, as described in both Volodin and Nerzhin’s transformations in the full version of In the First Circle.
In the restored version of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, readers confront a subtle thinker and gifted writer who sees in philosophical friendship and dialogue, in the rich interplay of voices and worldviews, an essential element of the soul’s ascent to truth. In the First Circle solidly establishes the continuity of Solzhenitsyn’s thought with the deepest and most humane currents of classical and Christian thought.
For fifty years or more, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s life and art bore witness to his confident belief, so eloquently expressed in his Nobel Prize lecture, that art could “defeat the Lie,” that “one word of truth” could finally “outweigh the whole world.” With the publication of the restored version of In the First Circle, we have an opportunity to rise to Solzhenitsyn’s challenge and again to take him seriously as an artist and thinker of the first rank.
Daniel J. Mahoney, chair of the department of political science at Assumption College, is author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology (2001) and coeditor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?