In the First Circle
(1968), a novel by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, takes place in a post-World War II Moscow sharashka: a ghetto for a gulag prisoner population comprising academics, scientists, and other citizens suspected by Joseph Stalin’s regime to have engaged in counter-revolutionary organizing. Solzhenitsyn himself lived in a sharashka following Stalin’s infamous “purges”; the novel is therefore believed to be largely autobiographical. The title, In the First Circle
, alludes to the first circle of Hell, or limbo, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy
. Dante’s limbo is depicted as an inescapable green garden filled with Greek intellectuals and other virtuous people who were nevertheless unfortunately born before Christ could redeem them. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn depicts the sharashkas as “limbo” in that they were both extremely alienating and a blessing. They were far less cruel than the typical gulags in Siberia, which were closer in nature to the former Nazi concentration camps. The novel faced a high risk of censorship during Solzhenitsyn’s first publishing attempt, in 1958; only after deleting a significant portion of the manuscript did he finally publish it.
The novel follows gulag prisoner Lev Rubin who is selected as part of an elite group to help spy for the Stalin regime by identifying state traitors. Lev is assigned to listen to thousands of phone conversations to try to identify who is speaking and whether the conversation is in any way encoded. In return, the spies get the relative comfort of the sharashka, where they are housed adequately and given enough food. At the same time, the Russian government manages information such that the spies are largely unaware that they are spies, and have no idea that Stalin is attempting a massive cover-up. Lev is clever enough to know that he is aiding Russian corruption, and he understands that he is an interchangeable cog in the engine of deception. Therefore, he continues working, knowing that the only alternative is to be sent to a Siberian gulag.
Lev identifies five suspects for a potentially crucial phone conversation that has been assigned to him. The Russian government arrests all five suspects, then convicts one, a Russian state agent named Innokentii Volodin, who recognizing the extent of the Stalin regime’s corruption, sought to alert the United States via its embassy in Russia. Unbeknown to him, Stalin’s internal affairs agency recorded the call. Volodin despairs during his first night in the sharashka, as he processes the futility of his predicament. He is lucky to meet some other prisoners whose only mistakes were to follow their consciences. Volodin quickly becomes popular for his compelling remarks on the moral imperative to rebel.
While Volodin and Lev continue life in the sharashka, Stalin’s regime becomes increasingly corrupt, malicious, and unstable. Growing suspicious that a conspiracy in his own regime is being implemented to take his life, Stalin has many of his officers killed out of sheer paranoia. Volodin and his two best friends in the sharashka, the cryptologist Dmitri Sologdin and mathematician Gleb Nerzhin, deciding that enough is enough, plan to revolt by refusing to use their minds to further the state’s interests. Around this time, the Russians discover that Sologdin has been developing an advanced cryptography machine meant for communicating with governments allied with the United States. The Russian government forces him, under threat of death, to build the machine for them. The rest of the rebelling prisoners, including Volodin, are removed from the sharshanka and sent to gulags, where they are punished brutally. In the First Circle
has no happy ending, instead illuminating how the Stalinist government made it virtually impossible for its desperate prisoners to organize or act morally by stripping them of their basic dignities.