In The First Circle Bookclub!


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to

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14 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    One thing that keeps coming up over and over again is how reading this feels like reading some weird dystopian fiction… and then you’re dragged back into “nope, this is pretty much autobiography.”

    The other thing that keeps coming up over and over again is “yeah, I’ve had that coversation… I’ve met that guy… I used to work for that guy…”Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    As I write, I’m about halfway through chapter 16 (A girl! A girl!). I’m struck by how many of the notable quotables you and I both found compelling:

    If we live in a state of constant fear, can we remain human?

    How big the world is and how full of opportunities! But all that’s left for you is this narrow passage.

    From each according to his ability, to each according to what is available.

    Can’t a man feel free even in prison? If there’s no freedom here, where can he expect to find it?

    And a very good sonata [Beethoven’s 17th] is, too! Did you notice how it ends? No noise, not a whisper. It just breaks off abruptly — and that’s that. Just like in real life.

    In the sharashka, with meat on the menu and work that overstrained no one’s muscles, Narzhin, with the length of his sentence in mind, was nonetheless trying to make a habit of minimal movement.

    “The frees have already peeled off to various places of entertainment. Making pigs of themselves.” “But do they choose the right places of entertainment? Do they get more out of life than we do? That’s a moot point.”

    I don’t have to do anything! For anybody! For you or anybody else! Duties duly discharged, as Spiridon says.

    In accordance with the Constitution, free personnel had a great variety of rights, among them the right to work. This right, however, was limited by the eight-hour day and by the fact that their labor created no added value, consisting solely in watching prionsers. Whereas the prisoners, though deprived of all other rights, had an ampler right to work — up to twelve hours a day.

    Well, I’m not saying that war itself is good, only that we can have good memories of it.

    [T]here is no such thing as happiness, that it is either unattainable or illusory. Then, suddenly, a note was passed to me, a page torn out of a miniature notebook — squared paper: “But I’m in love–and I am happy! What do you say to that?” What did you say?” “What can anyone say?”

    [T]hen suppose I have a really satisfying conversation or read an honest page — there I am, on the crest of the wave! I’ve had no real life for many years, but I forget it! I’m weightless, I’m suspended in space, I’m disembodied! I lie there on my top bunk, I look at the ceiling just above me, it’s bare, the plaster’s peeling, but I shudder with the sheer bliss of being! No president or prime minister can go to sleep as content with the Sunday behind him!

    A prisoner five years between the shafts never hurries. He knows that what comes next can only be worse.

    It was preferable, of course, to reach maturity before your thirties — and in your original subject.

    Anton Nikolaevich was sufficiently advanced in years and experience to avoid such excitement — and the soaring exultation and plunges into despair inseparable from it.

    Strictly speaking he was not capable of work but only of management.

    You can build the Empire State Building. Train the Prussian army. Elevate the hierarchy of a totalitarian state higher than the throne of the Most High. But there are still people whose moral superiority defeats you.

    Freedom would be the ruin of human beings. Only the big stick, alas, can teach us the truth.

    A dozen bears can live amicably in the same den because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

    [O]n summer evenings the plaintive singing of husbandless girls in a Moscow suburb troubled the prisoner’s minds.

    That last one is poignant and calls to mind one of Chekhov’s short stories about a new prisoner sent to a work camp in Siberia, who tells his fellow prisoners about how beautiful and clever his girl back home is and how much he’s looking forward to seeing her again when he gets out and they all tell him to shut the hell up.

    But really, I think these quotes, and the overall tone of the book, is an interesting inquiry into the nature of freedom. I guess it’s important to bear in mind that Solzhenitsyn hadn’t yet had a taste of western-style freedom when he wrote this, but the bit about whether the free peoples had chosen the right places of entertainment is remarkably insightful to that.

    After all, the prisoners in the novel are aware that they’ve got it pretty good compared to what else is available. They get decent food. They get adequate amounts of time to sleep. And in many ways, they find ways to feel freer, in the sense of personal autonomy, than their captors. For most of them, it was exercising personal autonomy of criticizing Stalin and his government in some way or another that got them into the sharaska in the first place, and the sharaska didn’t change them at all.

    Gleb Vikkkentievich Nerzhin seems to be the big hero, the “optimistic” figure of this sentiment. Nerzhin finds freedom and even ecstasy in intellectual engagement with his fellow well-educated prisoners, in the pages of a book, or other mental growth. I think all of us who regularly haunt the pages of LoOG can relate to that. He longs for his wife, cynically plays with Serafima’s emotions, shirks doing real work, and is just respectful enough of his superiors to stay out of real trouble but disrespectful enough of his superiors to feel autonomous. Nerzhin has seemingly found the point where he can defeat the sharaska rather than being defeated by it.

    Rubin is a bit of the pessimist, though; I find myself wanting to see things from his perspective more. He finds himself having to relate to unreconstructed Nazis while clinging to his identity as a Jew; and he seems to have the task of trying to herd cats in the form of bridge the actions of the various scientists, all of whom are in an unspoken collaboration with the warden to demonstrate continual “progress” in creating a telephone scrambler for Stalin’s use despite no one having any true motivation to actually produce anything: science, the empirical pursuit of truth, subordinated into a system predicated upon the political use of lies and self-deception. The cognitive dissonance of these things over times seems to be cumulating in a weariness on him; I wonder if he will break.

    The biggest loss they feel is that of the society of women. Odd that none of these men seem to have stuck up relationships with one another, whether physical or romantic, as I’m told from other works of fiction and graduates of American prison systems in honest moments; the book was published in 1953 and perhaps some things were too contrary to prevailing culture even for Solzhenitsyn.

    I have to disagree with the notion that Serafima’s only real desire is for a husband — she wants love, to be sure, and she has self-doubt about her beauty and desirability. She fools herself into thinking that Nerzhin offers love, but she is also conscious that he is married and at least a part of her realizes this will not change. It seems to me, though, that she has ambitions for advancement in society, and fear of punishment. She’s conscious that her affair with Nerzhin is against the rules, and part of her enjoys pursing the forbidden fruit. A part of her has identified with the prisoners in asserting her own autonomy against the system her masters within it, and she takes a degree of pleasure from that. So I think she wants autonomy and love, not just to land herself a man.

    To the extent that Nerzhin is Solzhenitsyn’s autobiographical avatar, I wonder how much of those impressions are Solzhenitsyn trying to justify having toyed with a real woman’s love that way himself as a young man. Prisoners do what they need to do in order to survive, but perhaps cruelty to another man, or mentally revising his definition of “freedom” to be something achievable within a prison, was easier for Solzhenitsyn to forgive himself than lying to a woman about love.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Thinking about homosexuality in the camps had me do some quick googling. Homosexuality is one of those things where you never know whether the person you’re flirting with isn’t really attempting to rat you out. Gay folks were allowed positions in the government under Lenin, but Stalin recriminalized homosexuality.

      Lotta stuff in there. You read it and alternate between saying “how in the hell could this happen???” and “yeah, that’s pretty familiar even to me in the US in 2013.”Report

      • Michelle in reply to Jaybird says:

        According to my husband, homosexuality was highly frowned on in the former Soviet Union. Gays were not treated well by the state or by their fellow citizens. Most anyone who was gay remained deep, deep within the closet for safety reasons.

        He left in 1988, so things have likely changed a great deal since then. But given how sexist Russian culture still is, I don’t doubt that there’s still a whole lot of hostility toward gays as well.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    There was another little moment that made me laugh… when he was discussing how the Germans unloaded bricks off the truck, they carried each one as if it were crystal and stacked them just so. When the Russians unloaded bricks off the truck, they just dumped them in a pile. If it broke all of them, then it broke all of them.

    There was also a “the past is another country, also, Russia is another country” moment when he was trying to explain that Serafima wasn’t very attractive. He describes her face, her nose… and then how very skinny she was. I mean, male gaze aside, it was a little jarring to see those standards out there for us to read and then feel pity for Serafima… when, in our country, in our culture, there are people who kill themselves to achieve the trait of petite, slight, skinny.Report

    • aaron david in reply to Jaybird says:

      The German vs. Russian meme that seems to run through bits of these chapters is very intriguing. The fact that German specialists are also in the camp as Zeks implies to me that these are people who where captured as part of regular warfare, but when it was discovered that they had useable skills, they were put in places that were useful to the Stalin. I had heard of Russians taking full factories and industries and moving them from Germany to Russia, and of keeping skilled Germans in what passed for POW camps, and this shows how (seemingly) casual they were about it.
      My father used to tell a story about a German kid who ended up at his grade school after the war (my dad was born in ’42.) Apparently this boy showed up with his mother in the states with a GI step dad, real father having disappeared on the Eastern front. The boy was paired with my father as pops spoke German due to his grandmother. To make a long story short, the boys father shows up about 10 years after the war ended, having been in a Russian camp the whole time, unreported to any potential family.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to aaron david says:

        One thing that is not pointed out enough is that the gulags were slave labor. That’s it. They nabbed people on the flimsiest of pretexts, plopped them down, then told them to start working 12 hours a day. Sure, they wrapped it up in all kinds of fancy language… but the guys who were working on the various devices in the camp that we’re reading about? Slave labor.Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    From my vague memories of the red version, the spy story of black chapters 1 and 2 is really jarring. (In the red version, according to Wkki, not only is chapter 2 missing, the phone call in chapter 1 isn;t about the atomic bomb.) It’ll be fascinating to see how it fits into the rest of the book.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      (I keep both versions nearby just in case of something like this!)

      In the red version, he’s calling a professor (not an embassy). Instead of an undersecretary of whatever, he talks to the professor’s wife. Instead of the nuclear bomb information, the professor is going to be giving some medicines to some Parisians.Report

  5. Michelle says:

    My impressions, so far, in no particular order.

    1. I wondered several times how familiar Solzhenitsyn was with 1984 and other of Orwell’s works. The following quote reminds me of Orwell’s approach to language in 1984:

    Language is not only the medium of literature but also the most basic aspect of the human condition, traditionally understood as the sine qua non that distinguishes human beings from animals. It is profoundly symbolic that the inhuman state described in these pages is bent on suppressing, distorting, and perverting all aspects of language.

    For Orwell–and it seems true for Solzhenitsyn as well–when you altered language, you altered the way in which people were able to think about things, particularly abstractions.

    Another other passage that struck me as profoundly 1984 was this one:

    Thought the wrong thoughts Pytor Tromfimovich. The Japanese have a law that a man can be put on trial for his unspoken thoughts.

    That is, a person can be put on trial for thought crimes.

    Finally, Gleb’s efforts to record his philosophy of history on paper are reminiscent of Winston’s attempts to keep a hidden diary. Both activities were strictly prohibited and, by insisting on writing things down, both men ran the risk of severe punishment:

    They didn’t allow the smallest scrap of paper with writing on it to be taken out of the sharashka. And if anything was found when they frisked him in transit prison, he was bound to get a few extra years.

    2. So much of the opening chapters is so very Russian, at least in my experience of Russian emigre culture. Most Russians I’ve met seem to share an affinity for the beneficial effects of suffering, so passages like the following rang true:

    Both find their minds opened by suffering.

    Etymologically the Russian word for happiness has unmistakable connotations of “transcience” and “insubstantiality.”

    It is well known that poets are born of unhappiness and spiritual torment, and Mamurin’s torments were more agonizing than those of any other prisoner.

    The happiness of continual victory, the happiness of desire triumphantly gratified, the happiness of total satisfaction. . . is suffering! It is the death of the soul; it is a sort of permanent moral dyspepsia.

    Shorter Russian version–pain and suffering are good; anything else is suspect.

    3. I was also struck by he extent to which lies pervaded the Soviet system at all levels, meaning that nobody believed anything anyone said, particularly any government source. From what I’ve read and from what The Russian has told me, this rings true. Nobody trusted official sources of information because experience disproved propaganda. To me, our own culture has pretty much reached the same point, where people cannot or will not trust information disseminated by the government, large corporations, or other major institutions. It’s been proven wrong too many times.

    4. The book reinforces everything I’ve read or heard about spy culture in the Soviet Union, where everyone was watching everyone else, not just the KGB but also acquaintances and neighbors, undermining trust at all levels. The Russian has told me that finding someone you could trust and around whom you could be open was like finding gold. These friends became the equivalent of family and bonds between them were almost unbreakable. The Russian still has close contacts to the friends he made in Russia. He and his closest friend, who he met at 17, still talk on the phone several times a week. In the USSR, anyone who didn’t fit that category was met with skepticism–you never wanted to reveal anything that might be used against you and so you learned to put up a wall between yourself and all but the closest of intimates.

    5. Overall, even though the book does qualify, in Jay’s terms, as “weird, dystopian fiction,” it’s eminently readable, much more so than The Master and Maguerite, which I’ve tried more than once to read and failed to make it past the first 100 pages.Report