Four Days in Stalin's Inferno
WITH THIS BOOK Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn confirms his earlier promise as the one Russian novelist likely to become not merely a partisan chronicler of Soviet agonies but the enduring Dante of Stalin's latter-day political Inferno. Five years ago his first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, raised to the realm of art a shocking, semi-autobiographical account of one man's struggle to survive in a Siberian detention camp. Now, in The First Circle, he has transformed the chronicle of four days in the lives of men and women associated with the Mavrino Institute, a Moscow scientific installation, into a thumbnail portrait of a whole society drowning in fear and hypocrisy.
The first circle in Dante's Inferno was reserved for the virtuous ancient philosophers. As pagans they could not be placed in Purgatory or Paradise. But they nonetheless merited the softest spot in Hell. In Russia, especially after the political purges of the 1930s, an underworld of tens of millions of prisoners, known as "zeks," grew up. According to Solzhenitsyn the "first circle" of this Soviet hell was the Mavrino Institute itself. Known as a sharashka (a word derived from a Soviet expression for an operation based on deceit), the Mavrino Institute is a peculiarly Stalinesque creation. The state needed scientific research but had jailed many of its best scientific minds. Accordingly, at various scientific sharashkas, a handful of brilliant men, still political prisoners, are permitted lenient treatment in return for valuable research.
In Grand Hotel style the author switches in and out of the private memories and experiences of nearly 50 characters. Mavrino's "zek" scientists, most of them acoustical and radio engineers imprisoned by whim, are its central figures. But with an overwhelmingly matter-of-fact eye and the iron restraint of a man who has himself learned in prison to measure his words with care, Solzhenitsyn also invades the troubled thoughts of various people who are peripheral to the scientific groups. These include the "free" workers employed to help (and spy upon) the scientists, the prison security police who are drawn to their work by fat pay and fast promotion, the prisoners' wives living in a kind of marital limbo, unwilling to forget their husbands but unable to avoid harassment by their neighbors and the secret police if they openly acknowledge them. (The kindest counsel a "zek" can give his wife is "Get a divorce.")
Solzhenitsyn's greatest creative courage is reserved for a masterful portrait of the Mephistopheles "who sets it all in motion, Joseph Stalin himself. At a sickly 70 (in 1949) the Soviet dictator is presented as a little old man with "a mouth permeated with the smell of Turkish leaf tobacco, and fat fingers which left their traces on books." Locked in the wintry Kremlin he broods on socialist history and security precautions.
Given its subject and our partisan age, Sohhenitsyn's provocative novel was bound to stir a publishing sensation whatever its literary quality. Indeed, amateur Kremlinologists and propaganda specialists will probably pore over The First Circle to check out and chortle over all manner of arresting details, among them reference to a putative Stalinist plot to blow up Tito's yacht. But I suspect that The First Circle, helped by the masterful translation of Thomas B. Whitney, will be read and reread long after the East-West propaganda war has been forgotten. For its real concern is the brotherhood of prisoners, the small contrivances of men to endure in adversity, not as heroes but as human beings. The principal literary agent for these concerns is the prisoner Gleb Nerzhin. Like Solzhenitsyn himself, Nerzhin is a mathematician, an exartillery officer, a long-term political prisoner. Also like the author, one suspects, he is an inveterate note-taker in whom prison life has engendered both a compulsive commitment to expose the brutal world he inhabits and the rare conviction that growing up is a lifetime process. Prison, he feels, is a powerful school for those inclined to study the world for what it is and man for what the world has made him. Finally faced with his own choice - whether or not to give up his note-taking and accommodate the authorities further by embarking on a new research project - Nerzhin decides to return instead to the silent struggle for bare survival in a Siberian detention camp. It is a measure of Solzhenitsyn's skill that he makes the choice, and the quixotic decision, seem neither simplistic nor theatrical but necessary.