Once-banned Solzhenitsyn wins 15 million Russian viewers

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The Independent Online

Forty years ago Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet dissident whose books were suppressed and secretly distributed among a brave trusted few in the then USSR. He was part of a counter-culture that seemed nobly doomed and it was inconceivable that he would ever become part of the mainstream, let alone embrace it.

But 2006 has turned out to be the year Solzhenitsyn came full circle. Today his long bearded features stare at Muscovites from publicity posters and a TV adaptation of his troubling novel The First Circle is attracting impressive ratings and rave reviews.

The semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a group of skilled mathematicians and specialists who agree to work on KGB special design projects for Joseph Stalin in 1949 in exchange for not being sent to hard labour camps where their chances of survival were much slimmer.

It focuses on the moral dilemmas that such a trade-off with the authorities presents and is based upon a stint that Solzhenitsyn did in such a centre on the outskirts of Moscow.

In an ironic twist that will not be lost on the Nobel Prize-winning writer, the TV serialisation is being funded by the Russian state - as if to underline his extraordinary journey from persecuted dissident to respected government-backed author.

Though, at 87, he continues to live the life of a frail recluse in an exclusive compound in north-west Moscow, he is no longer on the fringes of society but at the heart of it.

A total of 15 million Russians have tuned in to watch certain episodes of the 10-part serialisation, with 40 per cent of Moscow reported to have been glued to their screens during prime-time viewing recently on the state-owned Rossia Channel. Indeed to the surprise of TV executives, the grim morality tale set in Stalinist Russia turned out to have more pulling power than Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which was broadcast at exactly the same time on a rival channel.

As the theatre critic Vera Maksimova wrote: "The streets are empty. People are sitting and watching The First Circle. Solzhenitsyn is back."

The man variously described as "Russia's greatest living writer" or as "Russia's conscience" did the voice-over for the powerful drama and penned the screenplay.

It is the first time any of his writings have been transferred to the small or indeed the big screen in his native Russia.

When he watched the rough-cut version he is reported to have wept with emotion. His wife Natalia, who also acts as his official spokeswoman, said that he was struck by the film's authenticity and reminded of his own eight-year stint in labour camps across the Soviet Union.

The series' director, Gleb Panfilov, said in a television interview that he had conceived the idea of turning the novel into a film as long ago as 1974, the year Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the USSR, but never thought it would happen in his lifetime.

"I assumed that bringing it to the screen would be possible in 300 years. But it happened earlier," he said.

That it has happened is all the more remarkable considering that when it was first written in the 1950s the first draft had to be concealed in an empty champagne bottle in a hospital ward where Solzhenitsyn was being treated for cancer. The novel was published in the West in 1968, but appeared officially in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) began to bite.

Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994 amid great fanfare after years of living in the United States, but struggled to find his rightful place.

His views - trenchant Russian nationalism, loathing of materialism and vocal support for the Russian Orthodox Church - have at times been controversial.

But with the television film The First Circle he finally appears to have found his niche.

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