Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 01/28/2010 by Trevin Wax.
Recommended. A good, long Russian novel of humor and pathos.
I’m a fan of long Russian novels. Whenever I peruse the literature section of a bookstore, I cannot resist the urge to dive into big books by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or Solzhenitsyn. Over the Christmas holidays, I spent some time with Solzhenitsyn’s book In the First Circle, now available uncensored in English for the first time.
Many times, when you think of a book or movie being "uncensored," you worry about sexually explicit content. But that is not the first reaction you have if you are intimately familiar with the ways of the former Soviet Union. Those who grow up in oppressive societies immediately think of censorship in terms of free speech that criticizes the government.
Solzhenitsyn’s novel is a fascinating look at the people caught in the crosshairs of Soviet imperialism in the 1940s and 50s. He takes the reader into Stalin’s prison camps and introduces us to a memorable cast of characters. There are scoundrels and heroes; poets and mechanics; philosophers and inventors.
Solzhenitsyn has an uncanny ability to "get into the head" of the people he is describing. Drawing from his own experience in Stalin’s camps, he describes the mental thought processes of the prisoners and the people in charge.
Two scenes from this book stand out to me. The first is Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of Joseph Stalin. Solzhenitsyn’s Stalin comes across as the brilliant, yet paranoid man that he was. As you read the Stalin chapters, you cannot help but be drawn to the dictator’s magnetic power, even as you recoil from his warped personality and distorted view of the world.
Another scene features Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the Soviet Union in order to inspect the prisons. (Since this is a work of fiction, one hardly expects Roosevelt to show up!) Solzhenitsyn’s account of her visit is filled with humor and pathos. The prisoners receive special treatment for one day. But everything is a facade. Though she walks away impressed by the level of dignity given to those behind the barbed wire, everything goes back to normal immediately after her departure. Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of American naivete is humorous, yet tinged with sadness.
The book contains moments that spotlight the best and worst of humanity:
* The philosophical and political discussions of the prisoners.
* The tender scenes between husbands and wives, separated for years.
* The struggles and temptations of compromising your convictions or standing your ground.
* The dehumanizing treatment of the prisoners.
In the First Circle is an in-depth look at life in Stalin’s prison camps. Through the window of Solzhenitsyn’s suffering, we catch a glimpse of the inner workings of the human mind and heart. Highly recommended!