I read The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn when I was 15, and although I have never read it again, it had a more profound effect on me than any other book in my life. Although I blub uncontrollably during black-and-white Second World War movies, The First Circle is the only book that has ever moved me to tears. It taught me the evils of totalitarianism of all kinds, and the sheer waste of human talent involved in all political systems that deny liberty, for whatever reason.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward are far better known, but for me The First Circle is Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece. In this story of the occupants of a Gulag prison just outside Moscow after the Second World War, the title is of course an allusion to Dante's Inferno. The prisoners are not particularly ill-treated, but are working on state projects designed to elongate the life of the Communist system that they know to be utterly morally and intellectually bankrupt.
Like all good Russian novels, it's long - with 96 chapters – and has a dramatis personae of hundreds, from Stalin himself down to the lowliest zek (prisoner). One of the mathematician zeks, Gleb Vikentyevich Nerzhin, clearly based on Solzhenitsyn himself, voluntarily chooses a future that I will not give away.
Stoical heroism, moral choices, piercing irony, the defence of dignity: The First Circle has everything, and prompts us to ask what we would do in similar circumstances.
I rather fear that re-reading the novel might somehow weaken its effect on me. Would I find it less powerful, might the cynical carapace that has grown over me over the past three decades mean that I no longer took the same moral lessons from it? What if researching, reading and writing about dictatorships has inured me to the book's simple but utterly overwhelming message?
I wouldn't like to discover that I have become a fundamentally different person in that way, so the book sits looking at me on the shelf, or is it glowering, like the author himself in his latter years?
The First Circle's principal villain is of course Stalin. A paradox for me is that in my forthcoming book, The Storm of War, which is a new history of the Second World War, Stalin emerges as one of the – if not exactly heroes, then at least one of those who saw the war through to its successful conclusion. My book does not hide his many follies and deep cruelties, but neither does it minimise the leadership he showed the USSR during the Great Patriotic War.
He was a monster, of course, but was epicentral in the struggle against the only worse monster than him in the entire blood-engorged history of the 20th century.
Andrew Roberts's 'The Storm of War' is published next week by Allen LaneReuse content