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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.

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