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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.


Loads and Loads of 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:

  • Ensemble Cast: There is no one main character.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): In The First Circle