Monday, January 04, 2010

In the First Circle discussion: Chapters 53 – 96

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn being searched
Picture source

“The trouble with pinning our hopes on the Americans is that it eases our conscience and weakens our will; we win the right not to struggle, the right to submit, to take the line of least resistance and gradually degenerate. I do not agree with those who claim that over the years our people have begun to see more clearly, that something is maturing in them. Some say that it is impossible to oppress a whole people indefinitely. That’s a lie! It is possible! We can see for ourselves how our people have degenerated, how uncouth they have become, how indifferent they are not only to the fate of the country, not only to the fate of their fellows, but even to their own fate and that of their children. Indifference, the organism’s last self-preservative reaction, has become our defining characteristic. Hence also the popularity of vodka—unprecedented even by Russian standards. This is the terrible indifference of the man who sees his life not cracked, not chipped, but shattered, so fouled up that only alcoholic oblivion makes living still worthwhile. If vodka were prohibited, Revolution would break out immediately.”

--(In the First Circle, page 667)

All quotes from In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn come from the recent uncensored version, translated by Harry T. Willetts,
Harper Perennial, 784 pp., $18.99
ISBN: 0061479012

This section covers the second half of the book. While many storylines are not resolved, the fate of several main characters can be presumed. Solzhenitsyn carefully unrolls the novel, leaving the reader feeling more constricted and claustrophobic with each page. The cumulative and systematic deprivation of freedom, whether at the special prison (sharashka) or the infamous Lubyanka, overwhelms at times. The ease in which prisoners surrender to punishment and humiliation makes the few instances of defiance, symbolic or real, stand out from other characters’ submission.

Once again humor appears in many forms in this section. During the inmates’ Sunday night break, Lev Rubin provides entertainment by putting the historical Prince Igor on trial for treason, viewing The Lay of Igor’s Campaign through a Marxist/Stalinist lens. Rubin provides a brutal satire, both of the work and the Soviet justice system. Many inmates are unable to enjoy the humor since the spoof touches a little too close to home. At times the humor revolves around how the West dealt with the Soviet Union. The tale of “The Buddha’s Smile”, in which an alleged visit to the Butyrki (Butyrka) Prison by Eleanor Roosevelt to inspect the Soviet penal system, lapses into farce as a translator tells Mrs. Roosevelt that the prisoners’ complaints (that they are saying in Russian) are really a “protest against the distressing situation of the blacks in America” (page 429). The Potemkin village-like display of plenty and leniency during her visit provides an illusory efficiency that the system could never realistically provide. For the prisoners selected for this charade, their brief taste of freedom and dignity makes the return to the normal state of affairs in the jail extremely bitter.

Possibly the funniest part is reserved for the closing lines, illuminating the lack of understanding by the West of such a totalitarian regime. A French reporter, held up in traffic, notes seeing several trucks marked “Meat”: “Every now and then, one encounters on the streets of Moscow food delivery trucks, spick-and-span and impeccably hygienic. There can be no doubt that the capital’s food supplies are extremely well organized.” (page 741) The “Meat” trucks actually carry prisoners, the label ironically describing how the contents are viewed. It is the operation of a well organized prison system he is witnessing, symbolizing how the West failed to understand the true nature of Soviet affairs.

Philosophical discussions flow throughout the work, giving Solzhenitsyn a pretext to lay some groundwork for themes he would raise later in formats. He does not spare the West, providing similar cautions that appear in his Harvard University speech. Some of these themes from include warnings that society should not have material aims as its only goal, citizens must be honestly informed, and democracy leans toward mediocrity as the norm.

I mentioned in the previous post that there are many literary references throughout the work. Many of the inmates immerse themselves in books, with some references superficially relevant, like The Count of Monte Cristo for its wrongful imprisonment. Other references cut deeper, such as Thomas More’s Utopia where criminals work as slaves for society. Machiavelli makes several appearances, both directly and indirectly (see Goethe’s Faust in the previous comment for an indirect example), as well as other examples from literature. For some reason, the number of biblical quotes and allusions (see one example below under Gerasimovich) surprised me.

Literature is used for more than just quotes and allusions. Innokenty Volodin’s experience with books sums up much about education in general, not just in the Soviet system: “What he found most difficult of all was to lay down his book and think for himself” since his “whole education had trained him to take certain books on trust and reject others unread.” (page 440) His uncle exposes him to some of the ideas and questions raised by Alexander Herzen. “Herzen asks what are the limits of patriotism. Must love for your native land extend to any and every government it may have? Must you go on abetting it in destroying its own people?” (page 449) Writing, whether for publishing or individuals, has significance in this section as well. We meet Nikolai Galakhov, a popular writer, whom everyone wanted to rub shoulders with. However he finds himself writing specifically with a critic in mind, not for himself or the public. In addition, those that wrote letters to the prisoners unconsciously self-censor themselves—letters are “unwittingly drained of the juices of real life by their writers before the censor ever saw them.” (page 398) In addition, language is so regulated, even in conversation, that many find it impossible to express themselves in the “approved” language.

The allusion to Dante’s first circle of hell continues, particularly in looking at which characters still have hope. Inevitably they are the people that stand up, in whatever manner they can, to those in charge. The tie-in becomes explicit with the arrest of Volodin. The chapter of his arrest and where he enters the Lubyanka prison, is titled “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here”. That such a sentiment can be conflated with the sign over the prison door that reads “Reception of Prisoners” explicitly marks the allusion and defines a different level of hell awaiting him. The last three chapters of the book cover the transportation of a handful of prisoners out of the sharashka and their condemnation to harsher stops in the gulag system. Yet standing up to the demands of a perverse system has granted something that cannot be taken away them: “They were gripped by the fearlessness of people who have lost absolutely everything—such fearlessness is difficult to attain, but once attained, it endures.” (page 740)

Some additional brief comments on the characters:

Gleb Nerzhin
Nerzhin’s die is already cast (see the previous post), but what happens to him and how he is treated is the interesting part. After time spent in prison camps, “All that was left to him, Nerzhin decided, was to be himself.” After reading about “The People” and his infatuation with “going to the people”, fashionable in the nineteenth century, he realized “Neither birth nor the labor of your hands nor the privileges of education admit you to membership of the People. Only your soul can do that. And each of us fashions his soul himself, year in and year out.” (page 496) Those that accuse Nerzhin of being a skeptic (“[Y]ou really must stop being such a skeptic. It’s just a facile excuse for refusing to fight.”—page 725) don’t see that he has moved well beyond skepticism, focusing on justice and dignity.

Lev Rubin
The truth about the communist system stares Rubin in the face yet he refuses to see it. While able to lampoon the system (such as the ‘trial’ of Prince Igor mentioned above), he remains blind to the true nature of those who control it. He feels that “soulless bureaucrats had jailed him for loving the common case with indecent ardor.” (page 526) While constantly screwed by the system, he insists on possibly rising above it all in order to make the system better. Yet time after time he is disappointed, culminating in abuse of his voice recognition project.

While some of the tie-ins between story threads are standard, a few twists make their confluence interesting. Rubin, upset by an argument with Sologdin, vows to strike back at him by making the voice recognition project successful. The effect of the argument, in other words, helps trap Volodin.

Dmitri Sologdin
The easiest way to describe Sologdin is that he disagrees with Rubin on every possible topic. Their arguments are legendary and all-encompassing, although neither sways the other to change beliefs. Sologdin does cause doubt to creep in to Rubin’s worldview, however. While downplayed in the text (although I may be wrong to what degree), his religious beliefs play an important part of his worldview.

Sologdin has some of the more damning lines against the Soviet system and against what Rubin holds dear. In response to Rubin’s insistence that the bureaucracy in the Soviet system is temporary, with those in power handing control over to the people: “They won’t go away till they’re slung out by the scruffs of their necks! Your state wasn’t created because of the ‘moneybags’—meaning ‘capitalist’—encirclement. It was created to cement by cruelty an unnatural way of life!” (page 514) Sologdin’s analysis underlines the overall view of book—people (portrayed sympathetically whether good and bad) are caught up in a monstrous system. The evil the system perpetrates isn’t because people are bad—the system itself is perverse. Those that refuse to contribute to the system are punished. The underlying question many characters have to address centers on where reform should start--the system itself or the people within the system?

Sologdin destroys two years of his work within the sharashka but negotiates to recreate it in order to earn remission of his sentence. Sologdin is such an important counterweight to Rubin (in a manner different from Nerzhin) that I wish Solzhenitsyn showed more of him in the novel.

Illarion Gerasimovich
The visit by Illarion’s wife in the first half of the book continues to haunt him. He feels he cannot serve the final three years of his sentence and keep everything he values. Yet when offered a sentence remission if he succeeds at different projects offered to him, Gerasimovich refuses. He realizes the projects would provide evidence for officials (spun in whatever manner they found useful) in order to imprison people. In balking at the offer, Gerasimovich shouts “It isn’t what I was trained to do! Putting people in prison isn’t my trade! I am no fisher of men!” (page 633)

Innokenty Volodin
Volodin emerges as a central character in this section after his brief (but important) appearances in the first half. As a diplomat, Volodin travels around the world mouthing the party line for the Soviet government. He lives a privileged life, calling himself a follower of Epicurus. Volodin follows the maxim “We are given only one life”, taking from life all that it has to offer (as does his wife). A nagging sense of something missing from his life dogged him until a couple of decisive moments helped put things in perspective. The first moment centered on his desire to actually read Epicurus. While he found the philosophy of Epicurus at odds with the usual adjective (‘epicurean’), the revelation lay in the letters and diaries of his mother he found while looking for her book on the philosopher. Reading her hidden history highlighted to him that everything the Communists said about the pre-Revolution era was a lie. The lies he had to mouth as well as the secret dealings related to his job now feel distasteful and repellant.

More importantly, his mother’s comments on character and conscience shook him to his core. She wrote “What is the most precious thing in the world? I see now that it is the knowledge that you have no part in injustice. Injustice is stronger than you, it always was and always will be, but let it not be done through you.” (pages 438-439) The change inside him radiated out to all his beliefs: “The great truth for Innokenty used to be that we are given only one life. Now, with the new feeling that had ripened in him, he became aware of another law: that we are given only one conscience, too. A life laid down cannot be reclaimed, nor can a ruined conscience.” (page 441) The second decisive moment came in visiting his uncle (his mother’s brother) at Tver, spending a few days with him and his wife. Ironically, the uncle embodies many of the Epicurus’ maxims, living simply among family and friends, happy in his self-reliance. The questions raised by Herzen through his uncle add to the change Volodin feels happening within him, leading him to perform the act of betrayal that opens the novel.

While believing he did the right thing in phoning the American embassy, Volodin goes through several stages after making the call. His initial terror fearing arrest lapses into apathy, not caring what happens to him. Once arrested, he experiences the bureaucratic system at its best…or worst: “He had never imagined that it would all be so crude, so stupid—and so ineluctable. The people waiting for him in the Lubyanka, low-ranking, obtuse people were uninterested in him as an individual and in the act that had brought him there but had a zealous concern for trivialities that took him by surprise and left him helpless.” (page 687) He doesn’t have far to go for the following stage: “The free man’s habit of thinking over his actions before performing them was atrophying fast, now that others were thinking so effectively for him.” (page 689) He further experienced the “logically calculated sequence” of arrest which would leave him “dizzy, robbed him of his ability to think straight and the will to resist.” (page 692) In reading through the ordeal of Volodin’s arrest, two nagging thoughts kept surfacing. The first was that the officials arrested the guilty man, yet the process and system still strike the reader as inhumane. The second, which will not be answered in the book (although the reader knows, years after the fact), is the question of whether or not Volodin’s call helps. While Volodin speculates on that question, it does not consume him even though it could. He realizes that before his arrest he was never truly free. The thoughts of his uncle help sustain him through the ordeal of arrest, helping him realize he could not have remained indifferent.

The final thing I want to mention, since I don’t see any reference to it in any review, is a historical inconsistency in the novel. Solzhenitsyn takes great care to document the days, December 24 through 27, 1949, that the action of the book takes place. He specifically mentions George Koval, the spy that assisted in providing the Soviets with classified information on atomic weapons, at least twice. Much discussion and argument in the second half of the book revolves around the Soviet Union developing and obtaining an atomic bomb and what it will mean to the world. And yet…the Soviet Union had already exploded Joe One earlier in 1949. Despite this possible inconsistency, I still highly recommend the work. Solzhenitsyn’s novel addresses the true nature of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime and the costs of remaining true to a just conscience in such a system.

Update (11 Oct 2012): For a real-life example of the Potemkin village production by a Communist regime, see the excerpt from Theodore Dalrymple's The Wilder Shores of Marx.


Jetski_rogue said...

One possible resolution of the chronological conflict:

Perhaps when the news of Joe 1 was announced, Volodin thought it was a propaganda lie. In the scene where he visits his uncle, he says he's heard the USSR is close to having a bomb, and the uncle says he doesn't believe it.

Chrees said...

I think you're right, which is why I qualified it as possible. Since anything from the government would have been discounted, even the prisoners who relied on Rubin's newspaper reading habit would not have believed it. Rubin would have, which might explain the confusion in his "who's stealing technology from who" lines.

Volodin is harder to explain...he's in a position to know and it isn't quite clear what he thinks. His line in the opening chapter--"In a few days' time the Soviet agent Koval will be given important technological information about the production of the atomic bomb, at a radio shop—"--is ambiguous enough to cover obtaining the bomb for the first time or improving what they have.

I didn't want to place too much emphasis on the possible conflict, other than to note that characters talk about obtaining the bomb when they already had. Thanks for helping work through some possibilities.

Restless Librarian said...

I want to ask you something: I remember reading somewhere that one of the characters in Solzhenitsyn`s books, suggests a specific system for reading books. Was this from the First Circle ? and -if you know- and what was that reading system?

Dwight said...

If you'll give me a couple of days, I will look back through the book to see if anything stands out. Literature plays an extremely important role in the book, but I don't recall a specific system laid out by any of the characters. Anyway, I will look back through the book and let you know what I find.

Dwight said...

RL, glancing again through the book I didn't see anything I would call a system for reading. Like I said in the other comment, there is a lot on literature and reading, though, and looking back through the book makes me realize again how much I liked it!

Restless Librarian said...

Thank you.
I tried to read that book 2 years ago. surprisingly a socialist friend of mine recommended it to me. The only copy i could find was VOL 2 from a 70s translation (English is not my mother-tongue), which was starting from page 600 (where the officer starts reading Epicurus) and I was amazed how strong both the story and narration was. 10 days later another friend took it and it never came back.

After reading your article I'll definitely give it another try

Dwight said...

Thanks. I really enjoyed it and definitely recommend the new, intact version. If you find something like a system of reading that I missed, let me know!