As a Russian history and literature major, in 1972 I wrote my college thesis on works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One of these was The First Circle written during the years 1955-1958, in a version redacted by the author himself in 1964to enable publication in his homeland, and translated by Thomas Whitney. In this century we have the “first uncensored” version of this great work of literature, in a new translation by Harry Willetts.
It is the current “controversy” regarding the Trump Administration’s dispatch of federal forces, trained “anti-riot” personnel wearing “camo” and reportedly driving rental cars and displaying no identification, to Portland, Oregon, where such forces reportedly have seemingly randomly kidnapped protesters, without advising of the charges, and the Administration’s announced intention to do the same in Chicago and Albuquerque, that has inspired this brief blog post.
Solzhenitsyn based his characters upon real persons he knew during his eight years in a Soviet gulag, and particularly the years 1947-1950 during which Solzhenitsyn served in a prison research institute called a “sharashka,” distinguished from a labor camp by such matters as occasional meals with meat or butter and fingers not frozen. In the novel, “zek” (the term for political prisoners) Gleb Nerzhin, arrested at “the front” in the northwest in Belorussia and given a 10-year prison term, is working at a sharashka researching voice identification science for Stalin. Solzhenitsyn’s worlds, like those created by Dostoevksy and Tolstoy, are governed by a “moral compass.” Thus, in The First Circle, certain of the characters are “morally superior:” “One can build the Empire State Building, discipline the Prussian Army, elevate the state hierarchy above the throne of the Almighty, but one cannot get past the unaccountable spiritual superiority of certain people.” In clear terms Solzhenitsyn describes Stalin as “the man who could put anyone in half the world in prison” and “exile whole nationalities” and Solzhenitsyn’s voice boldly asserts that it is “not right to put people in prison for the way they think.”
At the close of In the First Circle, an allusion to the “special place in hell” that Dante conceived for “wise men of ancient times” given his perception of unseemliness in packing “enlightened men … in with all sorts of sinners and condemned to physical torture,” Solzhenitsyn writes of a foreign correspondent seeing in Moscow a plethora of “gay orange and blue vans” with the word for “meat” emblazoned on the sides of the van in several languages. Though in fact such “gay vans” transported zeks and other prisoners in and out of the Lyubyanka Building in Moscow (currently the FSB headquarters and affiliated prison), the cleverly deceived correspondent reported that, based on how often one sees such vans in Moscow, carrying foodstuffs and appearing hygienically impeccable, one can only conclude that “the provisioning of the capital is excellent.” As I was advised by a tour guide in a companion Moscow side trip with my years ago “People to People” visit with Russian attorneys at University of St. Petersburg, per humor of the Moscow citizenry, Lyubyanka Prison was the tallest building in the country since from Lyubyanka one can “see all the way to Siberia.”