Solzhenitsyn’s Literary Ascent

The year 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. Because the Soviets were in power in Russia at the time that Solzhenitsyn wrote the novel, it was only partially published and only in the West. Not until 2009 was the book fully restored and has gained prominence in Russia. Although the title alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy (the “first circle” refers to limbo where the pagan intellectuals reside in hell), the novel goes largely unread by Western audiences, never discussed alongside Dante. In the passing decades, Russians have come to embrace the novel and view its author as a descendant of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. However, if In the First Circle is read in the West, at all, it has a flickering life among political thinkers for what it reveals about Soviet ideology.

Even a decade after his death, Solzhenitsyn remains one of the most misinterpreted writers of the twentieth century. As Hilton Kramer noted in 1980, Solzhenitsyn, “although world famous, is virtually unrecognized as a literary artist.” Readers reduce his work to messages. If Americans know of Solzhenitsyn, they regard him through a “political prism,” to use Edward E. Ericson’s words, which “distort[s] his image.” Based on his political views, the Western media denigrated Solzhenitsyn as “a freak, a monarchist, an anti-semite, a crank, a has-been.”[1] When Solzhenitsyn was asked in a 1993 interview to respond to these charges, he lamented that the Western Press did not “read my books. No one has ever given a single quotation from any of my books as a basis for these accusations. But every new journalist reads these opinions from other journalists.” Apparently, the West is as guilty of group-think, in Solzhenitsyn’s estimation, as the “Soviet press was before.”

A corrective to this political lens would be a critique of Solzhenitsyn’s fiction that centers on the aesthetic merits. For instance, if we read In the First Circle in conversation with Dante, we would note how Solzhenitsyn’s setting, the Marfino sharashka, a prison outside of Moscow, resembles the initial realm of inferno. While Dante’s sinners, the likes of Ptolemy, Homer, and Socrates, recline in a verdant field discussing lofty ideas, Solzhenitsyn’s zeks, as the prisoners were called, are assigned tasks in a more hospitable version of prison than the rest of the gulags. As one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters reflect, “The special prison is the highest, the best, the first circle of hell. It’s practically paradise.”[2] In Inferno, the scene is seductive, so much so that readers can almost forget that we are in hell. Only after Dante has journeyed to the darkest regions of the infernal pit does he come to realize how forsaken are even these souls, how meaningless their conversations, which have no further bearing on life and no connection to the “Love that moves the sun and other stars.” It is this abject state and its guises of liberty that Solzhenitsyn explores in his novel.

Like Dante’s poem, which relies on the voices of hundreds of shades in the afterlife to tell of one shared journey, so Solzhenitsyn chooses not a single narrator but thirty-five perspectives, including that of Stalin. Solzhenitsyn exercises polyphony as a way of countering the one-voiced narrative of the Soviet regime. Whereas the Party allows only one view of things, determined by its ignoble head, the self-titled “great man” Stalin, Solzhenitsyn’s novels exhibit dozens of perspectives all in conversation with one another and not in harmonious accord.

The Stalin of In the First Circle exhibits a constricted vision. Readers observe him lounging in his study, paging through his own Biography, an example of his inwardly bent, tautological vision. He mistakes himself as the center of the universe, fated to be Emperor of the Earth, more significant than any other human being on the planet. Yet, he is locked within his room because he fears assassination. The master enslaver is himself enslaved unawares. And, while Stalin stays up at night, attempting to “perform some great scientific feat” by contributing to philology—an obvious joke on Solzhenitsyn’s part, he is unable to engage in dialogue with others: “There was no one he could consult;” “Stalin felt so lonely because he had no one to try out his thoughts on, no one to measure himself against.” In contrast to the rest of In the First Circle, Stalin is monologic, speaking only to himself, about himself, and for himself.

Because of Stalin’s Article 58, which purged the nation of those that he deemed a threat to his power, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and sent to the gulags; he spent four years at Marfino. Like Dante banned from Florence by Boniface VIII, Solzhenitsyn used his suffering to produce art that would defeat the lies of the false rulers. While The Divine Comedy may be read as a political poem—as might we read In the First Circle—it may also be experienced as a love poem, and I would argue the latter reading more suited to both works.

A Russian philosopher who greatly influenced Solzhenitsyn’s thought, Vladimir Solovyov, believed “that Christian love, embodied in the Church, was the supreme political value” (paraphrased here). Politics is only a means toward a greater end. “True progress,” as Solzhenitsyn puts it (in his 1993 Liechtenstein Address), is “the sum total of spiritual progresses of individuals.” Just as Dante tells not the story of his but “our” journey, as it says in the opening line of The Divine Comedy, so Solzhenitsyn invites everyone into his narratives. His tales are never merely the record of one life but represent the lives of millions. Moreover, Solzhenitsyn, again like Dante, writes in such a way that his stories may be read fifty years later and still be “our” story. If we read In the First Circle alongside Dante, we won’t consign the novel to a political treatise or mere journalism, good for one political moment and not for others.

The beginning of In the First Circle is a parable for the relationship between Solzhenitsyn and his Western audience. It opens with a riveting scene in which one hero, Innokenty Volodin, calls the American Embassy to warn them about his Soviet commanders’ plans to assemble an Atomic Bomb. The distance between the two parties, coupled with the language barrier, causes a miscommunication. In response to the frenetic speech of Volodin, the attaché calmly responds, “I don’t quite understand.” One hears this as Americans’ response to Solzhenitsyn’s attempts to caution us. “Listen! Listen!” Volodin cries “in despair.”Instead of heeding his words, the attaché questions him: “Who are you, anyway? How do I know you’re speaking the truth?” This is the question for all prophets—on whose authority do you speak? As evidence for his claims, Volodin exclaims, “Do you know what a risk I’m taking?” Likewise, Solzhenitsyn risked his very life to tell the true story of what was happening in Soviet Russia. His risk got him arrested, as Volodin’s phone call does for him.

The novel ends with another warning to the West, or rather an indictment. A Moscow correspondent from the West “on his way to a hockey match” observes a meat truck passing by him and jots down in a notebook, “Every now and then, one encounters on the streets of Moscow food delivery trucks, spick-and-span and impeccably hygenic. There can be no doubt that the capital’s food supplies are extremely well organized.” What the correspondent does not realize is that the “gaily painted orange-and-blue truck” is a prisoner transport truck, carrying zeks to a lower level of hell.

Solzhenitsyn is a descendant of Dante, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, writers who believed in literature’s power to transform culture. Ericson writes, “Instead of camouflaging the didactic impulse, [Solzhenitsyn] accepts the age-old definition of literature as delightful instruction.” His novel cannot be reduced to its kerygma or moral, for the meaning would wilt away without its form. If we are to understand, we must listen. If we are to know the truth, we must trust the authority of the speaker, who risks everything to tell us what is happening. We must practice habits of imagination, like those of Solzhenitsyn, which grant us a prophet’s knowledge of our own time.

[1] Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile (Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 280.

[2] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, In the First Circle, translated by Harry Willets, Foreword by Edward E. Ericson, Jr., (Harper Perrenial, 2009), p.  740.

Reader Discussion

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on December 14, 2018 at 10:41:46 am

This analysis is so on point. The literary merits of In The First Circle have long been neglected. The work is especially important in the world today where the younger generations seem to be emerging from universities fully indoctrinated with politics but with little understanding of either history or literature. I appreciate coming to understand better Solzhenitsyn's connections to Dante's work beyond the title itself.

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Margaret Aten
on December 16, 2018 at 11:07:08 am

I appreciate Professor Wilson's insightful literary/religious parallels between Dante and Solzhenitsyn, numerous likenesses which Solzhenitsyn surely saw and intended that we also draw in choosing the title of the best of his autobiographical novels. Professor Wilson's imaginative essay raises the question, was Solzhenitsyn the Great Russian of the 20th century because he was a great writer as well as a man of colossal moral courage, profound Christian faith and extraordinary political insight? That literary question will cause me, now, to re-read "The First Circle," which I read initially 30 years ago in the shorter version which was popular in the US during the Reagan era.

From memory I would certainly compare Solzhenitsyn's literary power to that of Milton, Goethe and the author of the Book of Job in one important regard: the capacity to put a face and fictional flesh on the abstract skeletal bones of evil, Solzhenitsyn's in creating in "The First Circle" a chilling, morose fictional character out of the monstrous historical figure of Joseph Stalin, the other great writers in giving face, voice and character to the inscrutable Satan.

My question as to Solzhenitsyn's literary greatness also raises the matter of his strength as story-teller. Does it match his unquestioned role as Russia's great truth-teller of the 20th century, a moral status achieved by his non-fictional "The Gulag Archipelago?" In that regard I would point to “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” with its brutally vivid depiction of mindless, interminable injustice and its compelling portrayal of the courage beyond hope that is to be found in man's capacity for stoic endurance. And I would return to "The First Circle" and point also to "Cancer Ward" for the crystal clarity of their fictional dissection of socialist society and their portraits of the (otherwise unimaginable) crimes of socialist totalitarianism and of socialism's bottomless pit of religious, moral and ethical defects.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 17, 2018 at 18:42:24 pm

I like Senator Sasse but I do not believe that the left respects important values of most on the right. The biggest issue currently is immigration. To say that the left can be reasoned with on a border wall is foolish. They are not served by having a barrier at the wall. What abut big government, climate change and foreign policy. All of these areas are of concern for those on the right. I hope you are not going Flake on us.

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Donna Clark
on December 18, 2018 at 09:04:31 am

Observations about Sasse and Flake, soi-disant "writers" both in literary freefall, in one comment on a commentary entitled "Solzhenitsyn's Literary Ascent" and the commenter is part of the story!

Downright Gonzo journalism. Hunter Thompson would approve.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on October 07, 2020 at 04:05:16 am

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