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Literature / The First Circle

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The First Circle is a 1968 novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Story of life in a sharashka in the late 1940s. A sharashka is the first circle of the Gulag hell. A prison for highly trained or educated prisoners who are more valuable working for the state in an intellectual capacity then as common labor. In exchange for their efforts the Zeks (prisoners) are given privileges and rewards. Do a good enough job and potentially they can earn their freedom and pardons directly from Josef Stalin. Do a bad enough job, and go deeper into the system. They are not free, yet have a respite from the rest of the prison system. Can be considered the sequel to The Gulag Archipelago as in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's life he left The Gulag to the sharashka due to lies he put on his informational card putting his profession as Nuclear Physicist.

Multiple characters, each with a different backstory, crime against the state and role in the camp. Crimes vary from being German to marking a ballot against Stalin, to questioning political decisions in a letter.

The sharashka's focus is on telecommunications technology, with the goal to produce a phone for Stalin himself that is both high quality and secure. The telecommunications experience means when an important phone call giving evidence of espionage is recorded the sharashka is tuned in to analyze the call. Much angst ensures as the morality of helping the state that imprisoned them imprison more is debated. The subject of the phone call differs between the original and lighter addition. In the first, which Solzhenitsyn believed could not be ever published in the Soviet Union, the phone call is a warning to the West of Soviet atomic weapon espionage. In the lighter version the call is related to medical supplies sought in the west.

The book provides examples of:

  • Curious Qualms of Conscience: Deciding whether you did the right thing while freezing to death.
  • Door Stopper: Is more than 700 pages.
  • Double Agent: Ruska Doronin is approached with an offer to be an informer, and decides to take advantage of it for the benefit of his fellow prisoners by telling everyone he's an informer and using his knowledge to find out who the other informers are.
  • Dramatis Personae: Some versions have one at the start of the book.
  • Ensemble Cast: There is no one main character, and often each chapter will focus on profiling a different character.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The book takes place over a few days (December 24-29), with almost all of it taking place up to the 27th.
  • From Bad to Worse: Almost all the zeks are aware that, no matter how bad their conditions are, they are still better there than in The Gulag. Of course, if they don’t prove themselves worthy, they risk going to a gulag anytime.
  • The Gulag: Technically it is a sharashka, which was way better than the Gulags themselves, something that almost all the characters acknowledge.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Rubin defends Stalin and the Soviet regime passionately to the other, more disillusioned prisoners, and is convinced he'll be exonerated and his incarceration will turn out to be an error eventually.
  • Hellhole Prison: Well, it's a hellhole from our POV. According to them, it's not that bad, especially compared to the real gulag.
  • Honor Before Reason: Some zeks choose not to collaborate with the government, knowing very well that means being sent to a gulag (a real one).
  • In Medias Res: The book opens with Volodin desperately trying to get a message to the Americans about Soviet atomic weapon plans.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title is a reference to The Divine Comedy, specifically how the First Circle of Dante's Hell is actually Limbo—where the inhabitants are comfortable and free to philosophize, but also cannot leave and are perpetually separated from God.
  • Luxury Prison Suite: The sharashkas have much better conditions than the other gulags, so that the prisoners will be in good enough shape to do research the Soviet Union needs.
  • Man in the Iron Mask: Mamurin, a former military officer and Party member kept in isolation from the others for reasons which are never really made clear. His identity is known to the reader but not to all the other prisoners.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Rubin is quite critical of the Soviet Union and often makes satirical digs at it, but believes in its cause enough that he feels he is honor-bound to support it anyway and chooses to help the authorities with the voice recognition system.
  • Oh, Crap!: Volodin, twice; first, when the phone call he’s making gets intercepted and then, when he finds out he has fallen into a trap.
  • Peaceful in Death: In a scene, a character freezes to death in a cell, and when they took him out, he was smiling. (The reader knows that he had come to the conclusion that he had done the right thing).
  • Properly Paranoid: After Innokentii Volodin’s call gets intercepted, he’s fearful that any day the Secret Police will come for him. Of course, he proves himself right in the end.
  • Shout-Out: The title of the book. Some of the chapters’ titles, too.
  • Twisted Christmas: takes place over an Extremely Short Timespan on Christmas and the days around it, but most of the characters can't see their family or enjoy themselves because they are in a prison (plus given the Soviet Union's dislike of Christianity, they wouldn't want anyone celebrating anyway).

Alternative Title(s): In The First Circle