Book of a Lifetime: The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

From The Independent archive: Andrew Roberts on Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece ‘The First Circle’

Friday 22 October 2021 21:30
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<p>Stalin is the villain of Solzhenitsyn’s book </p>

Stalin is the villain of Solzhenitsyn’s book

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).

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