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15 November 2018

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In the First Circle

Solzhenitsyn originally thought he might be able to publish In the First Circle in the Soviet Union, and so “lightened” it, removing some of the more “objectionable” material, including nine full chapters. All excisions are restored for the first time in English in this new edition.

Told in Solzhenitsyn’s compelling polyphonic style, the novel recreates the surreal, morally charged world of the sharashka—a secret institute within the Gulag system where scientists were assigned research tasks by those who locked them up in this “first circle of hell.” Yet Solzhenitsyn also conveys the hyper-paranoid world of the Soviet apparatchiki, and offers what may be the most vivid portrait of Stalin anywhere in literature.

The central moral issue of the novel is whether to collaborate with a regime if this might enable the oppression of other innocents, or whether one should instead hold true to one’s principles. The protagonists are tasked with identifying a traitor from only a tape recording, knowing that success in their research will condemn the man; if, however, they choose not to cooperate, they will be shipped off to a brutally severe labor camp.

There is no preachiness here. This is a gripping novel in the best traditions of Russian realism, not one of the Nobel laureate’s strident political statements. Masterfully translated by Harry T. Willets, it is rich with memorable characters, finely crafted episodes and beautiful language. In fact, the use and misuse of language is a central theme in the novel, juxtaposing the truthful, spare language of the inmates with the diarrheal nonsense of the corrupt regime.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2009