In The First Circle Bookclub!

(Our kickoff post is here, and our discussion posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, deported to West Germany, and had his Soviet citizenship stripped. Apparently, the KGB found a manuscript of his for The Gulag Archipelago. I’m sure that there was some discussion of “what is to be done?” and “send him to the Gulag!” was probably on the table. “Put a bullet in his head!” was probably on the table as well. Cooler heads prevailed and they decided “what does he want more than anything else? Then let us give it to him” and he got Freedom, Terrible Freedom.

He lived in Europe for a bit before moving to the US. Harvard gave him an honorary degree and Solzhenitsyn gave one barn-burner of a commencement address. It was all the rage among Conservative circles for a while. If you haven’t read it, you really should check out “A World Split Apart“. In this, he tackles such things as Civil Courage (and its decline), the limits of the letter of the law, the fecklessness of the media, Socialism, Humanism, and Spirituality.

It’s pretty old-school.

It wasn’t until 1990 that his citizenship to Russia was re-instated and it wasn’t until 1994 that he actually moved back home. In August 2008, just outside of Moscow, at the age of 89, Solzhenitsyn passed away.

Anyway, after the cut, we’ll have our list of chapters for the uncensored version (and the chapter names from the censored version, if different, in parenthesis after.  It looks like Chapters 81, The Scientific Elite and 90, On the Back Stairway were not included in the expurgated version). It also looks like the Red Version has a chapter called “No, Not You” (Red Version Chapter 81) starring Simochka that was intended to replace the expurgation of chapters 92 and 93. Interesting!

You, yes you! What did you think? What scenes, phrases, thoughts stuck out for you?

81.The Scientific Elite (this chapter wasn’t included in the expurgated version)
82.Indoctrination in Optimism (Chapter 75, in the Red Version)
83.The King of Stool Pigeons
84.As for Shooting…
85.Prince Kurbsky (Epicurus’ Pupil)
86.No Fisher of Men (That’s Not My Field)
87.At the Fount of Science (At the Fountainhead of Science)
88.The Leading Ideology
89.Little Quail
90.On the Back Stairway (this chapter wasn’t included in the expurgated version)
91.Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here
92.Keep Forever (huh, looks like this is an added chapter…)
93.Second Wind (huh, looks like this is an added chapter too…)
94.Always Caught Off Guard (The Morning of the Execution of the Streltzi)
95.Farewell, Sharashka
96.Meat (Chapter 87, in the Red Version)

The discussion about what there was in Old Russia and what exists no longer was very interesting. Conservatives, reformers, statesment, priests, preachers, bogus holy men in rich households, heretics, schismatics, writers, philosophers, historians, sociologists, economists, revolutionaries, conspirators, bomb throwers, rebels, artisans wearing headbands, tillers of the soil with beards down to their waists, peasants in troikas, daredevil Cossack horsemen, and hoboes roaming free… All of them: Gone. The only ones left are “The Scientific Elite”.

Of course this is overstatement (we wouldn’t be reading the book), but to those who had one foot in the Revolution and one foot in Modernity?

Dyrsin’s conviction story was amazing… He had been jailed early in the war for for “anti-Soviet agitation”… It became clear that he had engaged in no such agitation–ah but he *MIGHT* have done so, since he listened to German radio. He had in fact never listened to German radio–but he *MIGHT* have done so, since he had an illegal German radio in the house. In fact, he had no such radio–but he *MIGHT* very well have had on, since he was a radio engineer, and information received lef to the discovery of a box containing two valves in his apartment.

My first thought? “Well, it’s good that we have a presumption of innocence…” My second thought: “Intent to distribute”.

And then I read the letters.

Siromakha’s panic as to being found out as a Stoolie felt goooood. One of the books that has piqued my interest in the last few years is Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin WallIn The First Circle Bookclub!. It basically tells the story of people who had to live in East Germany knowing that somewhere around 1-2% of everybody is Stasi and people who were that 1-2%. There must have been mindsets for those who informed on their fellow men to their “superiors”. It seems too easy to say that it’s a vile combination of True Belief and Dog Eat Dog. Surely there’s some other handful of motivations…

“The Case Of The Broken Lathe” made me wonder if anybody had even tried to turn the thing on. Perhaps it would work… but people were too busy discussing what happened that it would be cracked and the crack as evidence of wrecking (as opposed to, say, time) to actually see if the lathe would do what lathes do.

Ruska vs. Citizen Major was a great scene. The Citizen Major had obviously been used to dealing with older men who didn’t want to rock the boat. He had forgotten what it is like to deal with a young revolutionary.

The mugs outside did not have immortal souls. Zeks earned them the hard way, serving their never-ending sentences.

Turning the idea of “fisher of men” from its Christian roots into what the Soviet system perverted it into? Absolute genius.

The science of discovering the vocal tune was a lovely little piece of writing. I’m reminded of how Mel Blanc did the voices for both Tweety and Sylvester and how amazing it was that this was the same guy… until you squint and listen and, when you hear the “vocal tune”, you hear Mel Blanc underneath all of it… and then that led to a conversation with Oskolupov where Oskolupov got them to admit that they’d narrowed the criminal down to two guys… and good, we’ll arrest both of them then. And when the inevitable “but one of them is innocent!” cry came up, the “innocent of *WHAT*?” rejoinder was not even a surprise like it would have been in the first dozen chapters.

I found the lecture on science and sociology to be simultaneously horrifying and hilarious.

Gleb and Simochka’s “breakup”, if you want to call it that, was one of those really sad states of affairs… you have people thrown in jail for, effectively, nothing. Taken from their wives. Put under the watchful eye of young unmarried women (because, we all know that these guys are mostly harmless), and they’re stuck talking to each other day after day after day for years at a time. Who wouldn’t fall in love with someone under those circumstances? Several someones! It’s like the worst parts of high school and college and work all wrapped up into one.

Intellectuals are like tadpoles: big heads and nothing else.

Corrupting the people only took 30 years. Restoring them to health will take–how long? 300 Years?

That question is one that makes me wonder as well. I’m told by good friends that nobody in Russia smiles. (It’s one of the hinderances to their hospitality industry, actually.) The general attitude is that only idiots and Americans smile. How much of that is due to Soviet rule?

Innokenty’s arrest and processing chilled me to the bone.

And then… the goodbyes among the prisoners as they leave The First Circle, the nicest part of Hell.

Wow. What a great book.


So, next week, we’ll have our last post discussing the whole book in full. Our denouement, if you will.

But, in the short term, we’ve got these chapters to deal with. What did you think?

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

8 thoughts on “In The First Circle Bookclub!

  1. There was a theory at the time that Solzhenitsyn was sent to the West because once his champions here realized that he distrusted modernity, democracy, and liberalism of any sort, he’d be an embarrassment, and that was much smatter than making him a martyr. I doubt it because the Soviets weren’t that clever or insightful.

    Having finished it, I almost want to re-read it again right away, this time taking notes so I’ll remember who all the characters are.

      Quote  Link


  2. A fantastically strong finish.

    With Oskolupov, it was more “Innocent? What does that even mean?” Remember also that there were four or five others who were picked up near the phone booth where Innokenty made his fateful phone call. I don’t recall which official thought it, but it was something about how they would have to be charged with something because they couldn’t just be released after being picked up (the state is never wrong, after all).

    And now a silly question: How much of this was real? I mean, the book is based off Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences in the penal system devised by The Honest Hard Working Man’s Best Friend, but how much of it is an actual reflection of life in Stalin’s Russia? How could a nation even function while yoked with such a system? (Or maybe this question is best left for next week’s post…)

      Quote  Link


    • Well, this is one of those things that I am stuck saying “I don’t know”.

      Is what was said in the Gulag Archipelago true? If the Gulag Archipelago is true, then know that what happened in Russia was *EVEN WORSE*.

      This book was a story about a couple of really good days, remember.

      That was the basic conceit of “A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich”. It told the story of a really good day for Ivan, in which everything went his way. And you’re stuck saying “THAT WAS A *GOOD* DAY???”

      I’d recommend (for everybody, actually) reading The Gulag Archipelago. You can get it for about 20 bucks. It’s non-fiction, it’s harrowing, it’s depressing… and then you’ll find Solzhenitsyn’s sly humor and you’ll bark out a laugh for a second.

      I don’t think that Solzhenitsyn was overstating anything that he described. I think that it was understated, if anything.

        Quote  Link


    • ” How could a nation even function while yoked with such a system? (Or maybe this question is best left for next week’s post…)”

      The answer was that it didn’t work more often than it did.

        Quote  Link


  3. I’ve been polite and waited before saying this, but that portrait!

    I’ve been wanting to knit an alien-head soft sculpture; I’ll use that for my basic shaping.

    Thank you.

      Quote  Link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *