The First Circle

infobox Book |
name = The First Circle
title_orig = В круге первом
translator = Thomas P. Whitney

image_caption =
author = Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
cover_artist =
country = Soviet Union
language = Russian
genre = Novel
publisher = Northwestern University Press (En.g edition)
release_date = 1968
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 580 pp
isbn = ISBN 978-0810115903

"The First Circle" (В круге первом, "V kruge pervom") is a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn released in 1968.

The novel details the life of the occupants of a gulag prison camp located in the Moscow suburbs, the Marfino sharashka. Many of the prisoners (zeks) are technicians or academics who have been arrested under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code in Stalin's purges following the Second World War. Unlike inhabitants of other hard labor camps of the Gulag system, the sharashka zeks are adequately fed and enjoy good working conditions.

The title is an allusion to Dante's first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy [ [ "The Divine Comedy" by Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow] ] , wherein the philosophers of Greece live in a walled green garden. They are unable to enter Heaven, but enjoy a small space of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.

Plot summary

The prisoners work on technical projects to assist state security agencies and generally pander to Stalin's increasing paranoia. While most are aware of how much better off they are than "regular" Gulag prisoners, some are also conscious of the overwhelming moral dilemma of working to aid a system that is the cause of so much suffering.

By the end of the book, several zeks, including Gleb Nerzhin, the autobiographical hero, choose to stop cooperating, even though their choice means being sent to much deadlier camps.

The book also briefly depicts several Soviet leaders of the period, including Stalin himself, who is depicted as vain and vengeful, remembering with pleasure the torture of a rival, dreaming of one day becoming emperor of the world, or listening to his subordinate Viktor Abakumov and wondering: " [...] has the day come to shoot him yet?"

The novel addresses numerous philosophical themes, and through multiple narratives is a powerful argument both for a stoic integrity and humanism. Like other Solzhenitsyn works, the book illustrates the difficulty in maintaining dignity within a system designed to strip its inhabitants of it.


*Victor Semyonovich Abakumov: Minister of State Security.
*Grigory Borisovich Adamson: A zek engineer, serving his second term.
*Bobynin: Zek boss of Laboratory Number Seven at Marfino.
*Vladimir Erastovich Chelnov: Professor of Mathematics, a "transient zek," serving his eighteenth year of imprisonment.
*Rostislav (Ruska) Vadimich Doronin: A zek mechanic, 23.
*Ivan Selivanovich Dyrsin: A zek engineer.
*Larisa Nikolayevna Emina: A free employee in the Design Office at Marfino.
*Dinera Galakhov: Daughter of the prosecutor Makarygin, wife of Nikolai Galakhov.
*Nikolai (Kolya) Arkadevich Galakhov: A popular writer.
*Illarion Pavlovich Gerasimovich: A zek physicist specializing in optics, a relative newcomer to Marfino.
*Natalya Pavlovna Gerasimovich: His wife.
*Isaak Moiseyevich Kagan: The zek "director of the battery room."
*Ilya Terentevich Khorobrov: A zek radio engineer, imprisoned for defacing his election ballot.
*Lieutenant Colonel Ilya Terentevich Klimentiev: Head of the Marfino Special Prison.
*Gleb Vikentyevich Nerzhin: A zek mathematician, age 31. An autobiographical character.
*Nadya Nerzhin: Gleb's wife.
*Lev Grigoryevich Rubin: A zek philologist and teacher, 36, a Communist from youth. Rubin is based on Solzhenitsyn's friend Lev Kopelev.
*Dmitri Aleksandrovich Sologdin: A zek designer, 36, a survivor of the northern camps now serving his second term. Sologdin is based on Solzhenitsyn's friend Dimitrii Mikhailovich Panin, who later wrote a book entitled The Notebooks of Sologdin.
*Serafima Vitalyevna (Simochka): A prison guard.
*Innokentii Artemyevich Volodin: A Ministry official whose phone call at the beginning of the book functions as a catalyst for much of the later action in the sharashka.


Solzhenitsyn first wrote this book with 96 chapters. He felt he could never get this version published in the USSR, so he produced a "lightened" version of 87 chapters. In the long version, the diplomat Volodin's phone call (chapter 1) was to the US embassy, warning them of a Soviet attempt to get atomic bomb secrets. Also in the long version Sologdin is an Orthodox Christian. Shortly after "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was published, Solzhenitsyn submitted his "lightened" version for publication in the USSR, but it was never accepted. It was this version that was first published abroad in 1968. The complete 96 chapter version (with some later revisions) was published in Russian by YMCA Press in 1978, and has been published in Russia as part of Solzhenitsyn's complete works. Recently, The New Yorker has published the opening of the original novel in English translation, and it has also appeared in "The Solzhenitsyn Reader". ["The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn", Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Daniel J. Mahoney.]


The Polish director Aleksander Ford made an English-language film based on the novel in 1973. While it hewed closely to Solzhenitsyn's plot, the film was a critical and commercial failure.

The 1991 TV miniseries based on the novel, "First Circle", won Canada's Gemini Award for Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series, awarded to Ron Orieux. Directed by Larry Sheldon, it received nominations for best dramatic miniseries, best actor, best actress, and best writing in the category. [ [ The First Circle (1992) (TV) ] ] It starred Victor Garber as the protagonist, Christopher Plummer, Robert Powell and Dominic Raacke with F. Murray Abraham as Stalin. It was released on DVD.

In January 2006, the RTR TV aired the miniseries directed by Gleb Panfilov. [ [ BBC: "Solzhenitsyn in Russia Film First"] ] Solzhenitsyn helped adapt the novel for the screen and narrated the film. [ [ Toast of the TV in Russian Eyes: It's Solzhenitsyn - New York Times ] ]



"The First Circle", Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (author), Thomas P. Whitney (translator), European Classics, pb.
"The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn", Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Daniel J. Mahoney.
"The Oak And The Calf - Sketches Of Literary Life in The Soviet Union", (memoir) by Alexandr I. Solzhenitsyn.

External links

* [ The Book in Russian, 1st part] - [ 2nd part]
* [ BBC: "Solzhenitsyn in Russia Film First"]
* [ IMDB: The First Circle]
* [ of the Marfino sharashka]
* [ Google Earth view of former Marfino sharashka]

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