thoughts on books: the first circle

The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (published in 1968) is a truly remarkable book. The story plays out over a few days in December 1949 in Moscow. Although I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I had not read one of the tomes by Solzhenitsyn (e.g., The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 or Cancer Ward), so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew this was set largely in a prison, so was prepared to read about a lot of physical pain, starvation, and so on. What I got was different … and so much more.

The prisoners in the book were in a special prison for scientists and engineers. If most of the Soviet prisons were Dante’s lower circles of Hell, this prison was the first circle – lacking the horrors of other prisons. The food, while not particularly good, was adequate. The physical conditions, while restrictive and regimented, were somewhat bearable. The truly heartbreaking aspect was the toll on the men’s spirits and the destruction of lives and families. It really is horrifying to think that so many people endured this kind of abuse and suffering at the hands of Stalin and his regime. The pettiness and meanness of the rules was insane. For example, family visits were already limited to once per year – married couples could only see each other for 30 minute per YEAR – but they added the rule that the couple could not kiss or hold hands!

The poor wives were persecuted by their neighbors and families. One woman had neighbors breaking into her house and damaging or stealing things but she had no recourse … and the neighbors knew it, so they kept tormenting her. Rather than the stories we often hear about people in countries pulling together to recover after a war, this story sets people against each other. They were encouraged to inform on each other, to treat certain groups badly. Because the state controlled most aspects of life (i.e., jobs, housing, schools, etc.), people were rewarded for this awful behavior or at least avoided becoming targets themselves. I cannot imagine the choice – assist the regime in their oppressive practices or face punishment for yourself or your family.

The men in this prison were given 5-10 year terms when there was no evidence and up to 25 years when they have broken a rule or law. Then, most of the men had additional “terms” to extend their sentence because the government wanted their free labor to work on developing various technologies. Just knowing a little history, one expects that those who actively opposed a leader like Stalin would be killed or sent to Siberia. In this case, some of the men in the prison were soldiers in the Soviet military in WWII who were taken prisoner in Germany. Their crime? Coming back to the USSR after the war. The logic? Since conditions were so bad in the Soviet Union, the Stalin regime assumed that those who didn’t take advantage of being out of the country – those who came back from to their families and homes were actually spies – enemies of the State!

Others prisoners were arrested for possessing certain books or making public (or private) statements. The prison was comprised of brilliant engineers and scientists – and there are a total of about 100 books (beyond the materials needed for their work). Those who had been in the prison for a while realized that they are unlikely to get out and they realized that the regime was using their unique knowledge and skills to build better tools to use against people – ways to identify voices on the telephone, cameras to watch people, ways to sort through the data, and other methods of control. They deal with the realization that their talents had made them targets in different ways and tried to understand what might be coming next. 

It sounds like a movie plot. While the book is fiction and these are characters, this is not just a story or a figment of someone’s imagination. The suffering in other Soviet prisons was worse … much worse … but this “first circle of Hell” should not be discounted. It’s like falling down a rabbit hole and trying to understand a bizarre new world. Life changed in the blink of an eye and the impact on everyone’s mental health was enormous. I give this book a 5/5. It was not a fast read, but it was worth the effort and it will stay with me for a long time.

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