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22 September 2020

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Beauty in the Beast: Why Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle is Still Worth Reading

The Solzhenitsyn's legacy remains relevant in modern Russia and in the world. Well-known American philosopher James F. Pontuso returns to the novel In the First Circle, analyzing in this example features of the Russian character.
JAMES F. PONTUSO//2015-9/36
0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000Inthe_First_Circle.jpg Solzhenitsyn’s Cultural Milieu
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture claims that beauty might save the world. It can be argued that one of the most beautiful creations of the human mind is the Russian novel. What makes Russian novels matchless is their complexity. By comparison, much American 20th century literature and all of its popular culture are straightforward. Most stories in American popular culture have a happy ending. One the other hand, America’s more thoughtful literature points out that the nation’s ideals of prosperity, happiness, and individual realization are unattainable either because America’s practices do not live up to its principles or because the country’s aspiration are in fact chimerical. Perhaps Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea portrays the idea best. No matter how expert and determined, the old man cannot bring home the fish. No matter how skilled at baseball, Joe DiMaggio cannot find contentment in his private life; and no matter how much effort Americans expend in the pursuit of happiness, their lives never quite match their expectations.
While straightforward, American popular culture and literature are far from simplistic: characters and plots are as varied and rich as the landscape of the country. But the underlying assumptions of both are grounded in a particular view of human nature and society. While Americans are aware that different languages, cultures, and customs exist, they believe that most people want the same things and hope for the same future. The “American dream” – which most Americans believe to be a universal longing – is a nice house, a stylish car, a good education for their children, a comfortable life, and a little fun.
Part of the American dream is to look forward. Americans do not look back to the things that divide them, but ahead to things they share in common – the unlimited potential of tomorrow. Alexis de Tocqueville said he came to America to see the future of democracy, but he also saw how idealism and optimism shape America’s civic culture. The future is no place for slights, historical grievances, or insol-uble problems. Immigrants who flooded America’s shores mostly forgot all about their past. They fo-cused on the things they could accomplish, not on things of the past that might hold them back. Ameri-cans want to be free, to have equality of opportunity, to choose their own way of life, to decide their own fate, and to let their individual ability and ambition determine their station and success in life.
What contemporary American author has argued in favor of monarchy or a hereditary-based ine-galitarian social system? What American writer has claimed that human beings have no right to equal opportunities or to the pursuit of happiness?
On the other hand, Russian culture has never coalesced around a single unifying belief. To be Russian can mean many things; although there is a common language and history, there has never been a consensus on what Russia should become. Does Russia venerate tsarism, orthodoxy, the Third Rome, Communism, liberal-democracy, or autocracy? While Americans try to make things simple and compre-hensible, Russians look for complexity in the simplest things. One minor, but nevertheless demonstrative example: in America, nicknames are shorter than given names; in Russia they are often longer.
I raise these matters of cultural belief because one of the common criticisms of Solzhenitsyn is that, because of his dedication to orthodoxy as the proper foundation of Russia’s ethical life, he is a Slavophil and therefore incapable of understanding the freedom and diversity of Western society. There is, of course, variety in the American way, for it unleashes individual ambition and ingenuity. But American diversity is firmly rooted in an agreement about the veracity of natural rights. For Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, the theory of natural rights is merely one of many alternatives by which humans beings can order their lives. Perhaps it is not the Russian, Solzhenitsyn who fails to comprehend the complexity of life, but his American critics bound as they are by the horizon of their culture.
The Sins of Communism
This brings us to the reason why it is still worth reading a book published in the United States more than forty years ago. As Edward E. Ericson’s insightful foreword to Harry T. Willets 2009 English translation points out, the publication of this novel could itself be the stuff of fiction. Solzhenitsyn wrote the book while exiled in Kazakhstan after his release from the Gulag in the early 1950s. He never expected the novel to see the light of day under the strict Soviet censorship regimen of that era. After the world-wide publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – used by Nikita Khrushchev to discredit Stalinist in the ruling Communist hierarchy – Solzhenitsyn attempted to leverage his newly-won fame and publish a revised and “lightened” (87 chapters) version of the novel in literary journal Novy Mir. The censors nixed the publication and began to harass Solzhenitsyn. When the KGB broke into a friend’s apartment and seized a copy of the manuscript, Solzhenitsyn had his literary agent in the West release the book for publication as The First Circle. Willetts new and expert translation of In the First Circle restores the author’s original title and 96-chapter design.
How Solzhenitsyn thought any version of this uncompromising assault on Communism would be ap-proved for publication by Soviet officials is a mystery. In the Soviet Union, the novel makes clear, there were no institutional restraints on power, no rule of law, no moral limits recognized by the Communist Party except its own success, no democratic checks on government, no economic (and little personal) freedom. In the workers’ paradise everyone – except the top echelon of the vanguard of the proletariat – worked almost all the time. In order to maintain its position the Party wasted time, energy, and money guarding the prison population and spying on those still free. Individual initiative was inhibited – indeed discouraged – by an all-pervasive bureaucracy. The ruling Communist hierarchy promoted vicious, self-righteous, scheming thugs to top posts, amoral careerists to the middle, and unthinking loyal but inept drones to the lower ranks.
In the First Circle details the unprecedented brutality that spread downward from the psycho-pathic-paranoid mind of Josef Stalin to infect the whole of Soviet society. It shows how the ideologically based political system established by Vladimir Lenin came to obey Stalin’s inhuman decrees, consigning nearly 20% of its citizens – nearly all innocent of any crime – to horror of the Gulag Archipelago. It re-veals how the “Progressive Doctrine,” was transformed into an excuse for tyranny; preaching that the “vanguard of the proletariat,” the Communist Party, could do no wrong. It lambasts Karl Marx’s philoso-phy for idealizing social transformation and this producing self-righteous cruelty in its adherents. Under Article 58 of the Soviet penal code, people were imprisoned for merely thinking Marxism, the Soviet system, or its leadership might be flawed.
Marx’s sin of omission, Solzhenitsyn argues, was to claim that economics was more fundamental than politics. Once economic equity reigned, Marx insisted, political divisions would disappear. Solzhenitsyn attacks this theory in a passage explaining the duties of the officer who controlled the prison complex where the story is set: From the half-empty office, in which the “means of production” still consisted only of a safe containing prison “cases,” half a dozen chairs, a telephone, and some buzzers, Lieutenant Colonel Klimentiev, without as far as could be seen, clutch or driving belts or gears, exercised physical control over three hundred prisoners’ lives and organized the work of fifty guards. (194) By presenting no scheme for the proper arrangement of political life and by refusing to consider people’s natural ambition, Marx left his adherents prey to the machinations of ambitious rulers. Ignorance of the true springs of human action may not be sufficient cause to blame Marx for the ascent of Stalin, but surely it can be considered a cause. Or is it better to ask whether in providing no political check on ambition, Marx allowed Stalin to emerge?
In the First Circle’s stunning portrait of the mind of a tyrant can be matched in literature only by Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Richard III. Stalin is at once petulant, childish, intellectually dull-witted, politically shrewd, vengeful, fearful, world-weary, and fanatical. It is as if the main character of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground became ruler of one of the greatest empires in history, one whose doctrines inspired the highest hopes of progressive mankind.
Inferno Dialogues
What, a reader of In the First Circle might ask, is beautiful about life at the high point of Stalin’s reign, the worst tyranny in human history? As Ericson’s foreword points out, the key to the answer to that question can be found in the subtle change of the title. The first circle refers to Marfino sharashka, the setting of the novel. Marfino is a Soviet research institute inhabited by political prisoners, many of whom are the country’s top scientists. Because their work is invaluable to the state, inmates at Marfino are treated well compared to the millions of prisoners (zeks) in labor camps who are always near death from overwork and starvation. The sharashka is similar to the first circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, inhabited by the brightest people who live austere lives, but who do not suffer merciless punishments. Dante’s first circle is reserved for great people of the past whose souls are not permitted to enter heaven because they were not baptized, but “whose merit lights their way even in Hell.” Among the residents are history’s greatest poets, scientists, political leaders, and philosophers.
Hence, the deeper meaning to the changed title: If we were actually in Dante’s first circle, what would we hear debated among the great minds present? Would we hear a discussion of the meaning of life and how best to live it? It is this conversation that Solzhenitsyn’s polyphonic novel attempts to recre-ate. The success of Solzhenitsyn’s work in asking the deepest questions of existence is the reason why a 40-year-old book is still worth serious study. Solzhenitsyn’s characters embody alternative answers to life’s mysteries.
The plot revolves around a telephone call to the United States embassy in Moscow from Innokenty Vo-lodin, a sophisticated, privileged young Soviet diplomat. Volodin tries to warn the Americans that Soviet spies are about to steal plans for an atomic bomb. There seems to be nothing in Volodin’s background that would lead him to take this perilous step. His friends call him an Epicurean because he enjoys the sensuous pleasures available to the Soviet elite. But Volodin commits treason because he is disgusted with the direction his country is going. Despite the comforts he enjoys – or perhaps because of them – he begins to worry about what is right.
After his impetuous act, Volodin is unsure himself why he has jeopardized his position and potentially his life. As he grapples with his own motives, the question of good and evil inevitably arises. Should people look out only for themselves, or do they have responsibilities to family, community, country, and humanity? Through Volodin, Solzhenitsyn makes us see the universality of the search for the good. Because we seek what is good for ourselves, we are inevitably led to wonder what is good generally. Because we share the world with other people, some of whom are our friends, family members, and loved ones, we naturally consider our relationship to them. Moral considerations seem to be synonymous with human awareness.
Human beings can, of course, attempt to ignore questions of meaning and purpose, as Marx sug-gests they should: Give up your abstractions and you will give up your questions. . . . Do not think, do not question me, for as soon as you think and question, your abstraction from the existence of nature and man makes no sense. Or are you such an ego¬ist that you assert everything as nothing and yet want yourself to exist (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).
But human beings are vulnerable and dependent on others for love and support. It is difficult for them to live just in the moment as Marx proposes. No matter how pleasant their circumstances, there comes a point when people wonder about their fate. Solzhenitsyn portrays Klara Makarygina, the young daughter of a high-ranking Soviet prosecutor, who becomes disgruntled with the privilege of the Party apparatchik and begins to champion the oppressed, political prisoners imprisoned by the sharashka. Through his fictional creation of Klara, Solzhenitsyn predicts that children of the Party elite will become dissatisfied with their lives – devoted to little more than material comfort – and will feel the injustice of the system created by their parents. He predicts they will become a leading force in opposition to it – and indeed many did.
Although Volodin’s call is made from a pay phone, the conversation is recorded by the omnipresent “organs” of state security, and authorities decide that the Marfino zeks must develop a voice-recognition device to identify the traitor.
The real first circle dialogue takes place in the sharashka, where the highly educated zeks, freed from backbreaking labor, fear of arrest, and the distractions of everyday life, try to fathom the their own fate, as well as that of their friends, families, country, and mankind. The sharashka is the only place where free philosophic discussion can take place in the Soviet Union. In Marfino we meet the novel’s most interesting people: Lev Rubin, an idealistic and committed Communist; Dmitri Sologdin, an equally dedicated Christian; Spiridon Yegorov, a mechanically adroit peasant for whom dedication to family defines the moral universe; and Gleb Nerzhin, a skeptical “student of Socrates” and a self-portrait of Solzhenitsyn in his thirties.
In the First Circle seriously considers all of the major alternatives to the question: What is the meaning of life and how should we live it? We learn from the debates among the zeks that although the longing to grasp the purpose of existence may be a common human desire, the answer to the question of what gives life significance is far from straightforward or simple. Is the foundation of the good commit-ment to family, romantic love, personal pleasure, social justice, revolutionary reform, scientific discovery, meritocracy, devotion to God, or, perhaps, like Nerzhin skepticism towards them all?
The lack of a certainty concerning the deepest questions of being seems to be rooted in the way humans understand the world. We perceive things that are present, but we understand them by fitting them into categories or forms. We see a moving object distantly, but we do not know whether it is a dog running through the woods or tree branches blowing in the wind. Only when we place the phenomena into the proper category do we comprehend it. We add something to the perception when we understand it. Morals are not dogs or trees, although our response to an unjust slight is often more intense than it is to a physical experience. Morals are always in the realm of the metaphysical in that we add an evaluation to our experience. Because human beings seek reasons to justify what they do, moral judgments are an ever present part of life. But the human condition does not give clear and easy answers as to what the good is and what should be done, hence the diversity and complexity of moral principles.
We are, as the existentialists say, thrown into an existence not of our making with no clear and certain guideline of where to go and how to get there. The anxiety of the not knowing what is to be done drives people into all kinds of answers about what the best way of life is. We are tempted either to cyni-cism – giving up hope of discovering what is good – or, more ominously, to fanaticism – committing ourselves to principles that claim to answer all of life’s questions. Solzhenitsyn elegantly captures the allure of ideology in the character of Lev Rubin. Despite all evidence to the contrary, including his own undeserved arrest and imprisonment, Rubin is totally and insensibly devoted to the Communist cause. Rubin knows that many of the leading party officials who Stalin accused of treason and executed were innocent, but he refuses to abandon faith that the Leader had somehow been right. Rubin refuses to acknowledge what he experiences; instead he accepts what he chooses to believe. For him every crime committed in the present is justified by the glorious future of peace, prosperity, and universal brother-hood that it will bring about.
Of course, Rubin is partly correct, personal happiness is partly dependent on the political envi-ronment. A fulfilling life is nearly impossible in a society without law or justice, as In the First Circle shows clearly. Hence, politics will always be an arena where human beings attempt to bring their ideas about the good into practice. Sometimes political leaders are successful in making things better. After all, Dante places Saladin and Caesar in the first circle among the poets and philosophers.
If the longing for political reform is taken to an extreme, however, it can readily tempt an ambi-tious ruler to tyranny. Tyrants are not motivated solely by the prospect of personal gain. They want to establish a political order that resolves life’s existential uncertainty. They want, as does Solzhenitsyn’s Stalin, to give guidance to their followers and certainty to their own lives. They hope that when the social system is utterly transformed, personal doubt will disappear. So long as the mystery surrounding human life persists, the totalitarian temptation will be attractive because it seeks to stamp out mystery.
But what should direct our actions? What is the foundation of morality? Solzhenitsyn’s novel does not give a clear answer because clear answers are not part of the human condition. Human beings would loose their freedom and dignity if life came with directions. There is always ambiguity in moral choice, yet choose we must. To choose correctly, we need some guidance. Solzhenitsyn provides some to his readers through his characters and in the effects of their choices.
The deepest reflections in the novel occur in a debate between Nerzhin, the defender of reason, and Sologdin, the devotee of revelation. Both make their case with clarity and force. Sologdin insists that religion restrains people’s baser instincts while inspiriting their higher ones. Nerzhin speculates that God’s commands are as mysterious to us as the nature of the deity; we have only our judgment and dis-cernment to guide us. He alleges that religions inevitably become entangled in doctrinal controversies that resist rational explanation and worries that people engrossed with religious fervor can become self-righteous zealots. But Sologdin responds that humans cannot live on skepticism alone. We must believe in something or we will fall prey to anomie – skepticism will become cynicism. He predicts that Nerzhin will some day accept belief in the divine, for unaided reason is incapable of discovering a ground for the good.
Volodin’s decision to oppose an evil government shows that we cannot avoid considerations of good and evil – the very fact that we have choice makes moral considerations inevitable. Epicureanism principles are contradicted by the most ordinary choices of everyday life – how we treat our families, friends, and fellow human beings.
In his personal life, Rubin seems to be aware of the ethical character of personal relationships. He is a decent man. It is he that Nerzhin trusts to keep his clandestine manuscript on the Russian Revolution safe from the authorities. But Rubin ignores the natural human experience of trust, loyalty, and friendship in his broader political principles. Because he attempts to ground his choices in the progressive movement of history, he obliges himself to furthering the goals of an inhuman regime.
Reluctantly, Sologdin too agrees to help the Communists. He invents a voice recognition device that can be used to spy on fellow citizens. Sologdin is proud of his scientific prowess and pleased that his sentence will be commuted and his citizenship restored. His strongest motive for assisting the authorities, however, is to help his long suffering wife, made an outcast by his status as an “enemy of the people.” Sologdin measures his moral principles in light of the needs of his family.
The peasant Spiridon is also committed to his family. He is fully rooted in love of his own. If given a choice, he would not voluntarily do evil. But he would support any government that allows his family to thrive – so much so that he is indifferent to the nature of the regime or the morality of its ac-tions.
Nerzhin is the noblest character in the novel. Rather than aid an evil regime even in minor ways, he chooses to leave the security of the first circle and to return to the abyss of the Gulag. In order to sup-port his moral stance, he cuts himself off from his friends and loved ones. He breaks his wife’s heart by forcing her to divorce him. Nerzhin pursues the kind autonomy and self-sufficiency that his philosophic mentor Socrates exhibited at his trial. Perhaps we should recall that Socrates’ nobility was gained by abandoning a wife and three sons to fate.
Sologdin’s prediction seems to have come true. Nerzhin’s alter ego Solzhenitsyn realized in the camps that some higher metaphysical power governed his life. While never relinquishing reason as the ground of his judgments, he became one of the greatest proponents of the religious perspective of his age. It is one of the great ironies of history that his noble opposition to evil did not require that he abandon his family. From all the evidence available to us, he seems to have been a good father to his three sons.
Beauty and the Beast
In the First Circle does not have a happy ending. Nerzhin is sent to the labor camps. Although, the secret police never find proof that Volodin placed the call, he does not escape. Stalin’s terror machinery arrests everyone who might have given information to the Americans, including Volodin.
Whether beauty can truly be humanity’s deliverance is certainly questionable, but there is little doubt that Solzhenitsyn’s novel is a thing of beauty. In the First Circle is not pretty. Its brilliance lay instead in its multifaceted analysis of human longings. Solzhenitsyn gives us the full range of human aspiration and depravity. He makes the deepest philosophic issues come alive in his portraits of actual people. He shows us how tenuous the line between good and evil, but how critical it is that we decide rightly between the two. Like those in Dante’s first circle, readers of In the First Circle may even experience a kind of joy – for they discover that what is highest and best in humanity cannot be ex-tinguished even in the midst of hell.
James F. Pontuso is Charles Patterson Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College, Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, 23943-0862, He is author of Assault on Ideolo-gy: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Political Thought (2004). A version of this essay appeared as a review of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle (Harper, 2009) Society, 48 (January/February 2010): 88-92.
The article was written for Revue Stredni Evropa, N 140, August 2015.
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