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The First Circle

4.17 of 5 stars 4.17  ·  rating details  ·  4,944 ratings  ·  246 reviews
Set in Moscow during a three-day period in December 1949, 'The First Circle' is the story of the prisoner Gleb Nerzhin, a brilliant mathematician.

At the age of thirty-one, Nerzhin has survived the war years on the German front and the postwar years in a succession of Russian prisons and labor camps.

His story is interwoven with the stories of a dozen fellow prisoners - ea
Paperback, 580 pages
Published November 12th 1997 by Northwestern University Press (first published 1968)
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"Phonoscopy is a new science."

From a Moscow phone booth, a Russian intellectual has attempted to inform the US government that Stalin has the technology to manufacture the A-bomb.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells the story of Stalin's repressive laws that fostered forced labor on the educated elite. Their confinement is meant to produce the latest technology to meet and exceed the West's gains after WWII. The sentences were from 10-25 years as needed by the authorities.

The costs...freedom: physical a
Somewhere in the Stone Reader documentary, likely its bonus features, a critic named The First Circle as the last novel of the 19th Century. The isolation of Soviet themes was likely exaggerated by the critic but the novel itself doesn't appear to reveal self-awareness: perhaps such would also be a violation of Article 58. I read this in tandem with my wife and what a glorious experience that was. As tragic as this tale of a neutered Hell of sorts remains, it begs so many questions about the nat ...more
In Dante's The Divine Comedy, the first circle of Hell represents Limbo, where non-Christians reside as they were born before Christ, therefore unbaptized. It's not their fault! But there are no free passes, so sowwy. So they were put in the first circle where they are so close to Heaven, but, derp, not close enough to get in. They have a smidge more freedom than the wieners in the circles below them, but they still can't get Heaven-status because it's all in who you know, and they don't know th ...more
Not an "easy" read like Solzhenitsyn's A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, but intellectually much more rewarding if you can plow through the hundreds of different characters and intersecting plotlines. A wonderfully intimate portrait of Soviet intellectual society from within the elit "First Circle" of the Soviet Gulag. A single five-paged chapter about the lonley hallway patrol of Nikita, the red-headed prison warden told me more about the human condition than most of what I have experienced ...more
Aug 02, 2007 Charles rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Derek Brown
While it is overtly a story of talented engineers and technical types in a "special prison" in the Stalin era Soviet Union, it is an apt allegory of the workplaces in which many of us have, at times, found ourselves.

While typically Solzhenitsyn in style, it is appreciably less "dense" than many of his works. His character development, always very good, is his best ever.

Those in a technical profession will recognize the dilemma and attitudes of the prisoners, as well as the nature of some of the
☽ Moon Rose ☯
"The old seminary church (sharashka) was like an ark, with sides four bricks and a half, floating serenely and aimlessly through the black ocean of human destinies and human errors, leaving behind fading rivulets of light from its portholes...From here, from the ark forging confidently ahead through the darkness, the erratically meandering stream of accursed history was clearly visible---visible in its entirety, as though from an immense light, yet in detail, down to the last little pebble on t
Jason Pettus
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

As an American who didn't do too much academic reading before opening CCLaP, there are of course numerous entire sections of the literary world that I could stand to learn a whole lot more about; take Russian literature for a good example, not just its beginnings with Pushkin and the like but also its hey
It is unfathomable in my mind why Solzhenitsyn is not more widely remarked upon as perhaps the premier novelist of his age. This is a writer against whom a Pynchon could be measured (Cormac McCarthy? Please). A timeperiod is best characterized by its worst excesses--by how men treat men at the lowest level. Solzhenitsyn with his nonfiction juggernauts (volumes I & II of 'Gulag Archipelago') was just towering. There is no one who sounded to the bottom of a culture and a political system deepe ...more
Moscow, Christmas Eve 1949; a man makes a phone call to the American embassy to warn them about the Soviet Atom Bomb project. This call was caught on tape and quickly disconnected by The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). A brilliant mathematician named Gleb Nerzhin, was taken as a sharashka (known as zeks) prisoner and ordered to help track down the mystery caller. The zeks know that they have it better than a “regular” gulag prisoners but they are faced with the moral dilemma; ...more
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A huge, multicharacter novel set in postwar Soviet Russia, 1949, when one would think the Russians would have got a break after winning the war, but there was a war that would not be over for another five decades, the war of the Soviet people to stay alive with a certain amount of human security and dignity. This takes place in three days, but it's a massive thing, yet it needs to be read in one big streak, not to get lost in its cast of thousands. It's too bad he's become so reactionary and 'an ...more
Difficult to know where to begin with this one. If you don’t know who Solzhenitsyn is then I’ll provide a quick explanation. A Russian who fought in WWII, returned, and was promptly put into political prison. For 11 years. This is the guy who brought the word ‘gulag’ into the English lexicon through sneaking his writing out to the West. Hard to imagine, but nobody really knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain before this man popped up.

That out of the way, The First Circle (Into… in Russi
Less a novel and more a complete education... Set in a 'special prison' in Moscow during the height of Stalin's paranoia, this is ostensibly a story about a group of incarcerated engineers working to create various surveillance technology during the Cold War. The plot, as such, while interesting, isn't really the best thing about the book. It's more of a stage upon which to explore the different personalities of the men in the prison, why they happen to find themselves in this, the most lenient ...more
Sarah Furger
A brilliant novel that leaves the readers heart trembling in fear and sadness for each character. Solzhenitsyn transports the reader into the world of the Gulag so fully that when the novel is done, one will hug one's family, eat something out of the fridge just because it's there, and cherish the freedom given them. Not only does Solzhenitsyn describe the Gulags, sharashkas (special prisons), and life in the Soviet Union more eloquently than is possible in non-fiction, he also thoroughly examin ...more
Joseph Sverker
I actually very rarely talk about masterpieces even though there is a certain inflation in these words these days. I am quite certain though that this is a masterpiece because of its existential depth, it's daringness of topic and it's sheer width of interesting and complex characters. How S. is able to hold all this in his mind is just incredible. The whole book is fantastic and there are some parts that stay with me stronger than other. The beginning is absolutely gripping and also Innokenty's ...more
Reading this so soon after Brave New World and Ella Minnow Pea, it was hard to convince myself that this wasn't another dystopian view of the future that wasn't likely to happen. But this DID happen - people in twentieth century Russia WERE thrown in prison for no reason, and often they were kept there for 10-year sentence upon 10-year sentence without hope of appeal. Phone calls WERE monitored, analyzed, and reported. People WERE brainwashed to think of the collective rather than the individual ...more
Perry Whitford
Aug 02, 2015 Perry Whitford rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Any misguided Russians who dream about the 'glory' of the USSR.
When it comes to writing prison novels there is surely no substitute for experience, and of course Solzhenitsyn knew about them, "gulags" and "sharashkas" both, being one of the hundreds of thousands incarcerated into jails and labour camps due to Stalin's cruelty and paranoia.

Solzhenitsyn has written exhaustively about his eleven years spent at one or the other, with this book focusing on his time in the latter, which was where the intelligentsia were sent to work on state sponsored projects a
Susan from MD
I finally finished The First Circle and I found it to be a truly remarkable book. The story plays out over a few days in December 1949 in Moscow. Although I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I had not read one of the tomes by Solzhenitsyn (e.g., The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 or Cancer Ward). I knew this was set largely in a prison, so was prepared to read about a lot of physical pain, starvation, and so on. What I got was different ... and so much more.

The prisoners in the book wer
Impossibly good. Given that the plot of this huge book stretches only through three days or so, and not a huge amount actually happens in this time (it's not a thriller) it's still totally captivating.
Solzhenitsyn's strength is his characters. Despite having dozens of different points of view which alternate chapter to chapter, it's not difficult to keep them straight. The really remarkable thing is that you like all of them, despite their myriad of perspectives, philosophies, and dogmas. Or, if
This has to be one of the five best books written in the 20th century.

Solzhenitsyn is able to bring to life with unbelievable clarity and insight (unlike the review I am writing) a few days in a late 1940s Russian gulag located outside of Moscow which is a special prison for engineers. He follows multiple storylines involving the lives of the prisoners, their families, the prison guards and officials, and even the government (Joseph Stalin manages to make a too brief appearance). He also descri
Susan Hirtz
This is the finest literary work among all the books A.S. wrote, in my opinion.

Its theme is of human freedom: where it resides in the human spirit, how to preserve it, and the role of creativity in survival have made this book an integral part of my own philosophy of life.

It has many levels but hit me hardest in a deeply spiritual place. It caused me to stop and think about my reason for living, beyond emotion, past relationships, except for the ultimate one, that with self. That is where choi
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This one is not easy to review. But. Whatever you're going through in life, at least you're not a political prisoner in Soviet Russia, right? A big unwieldy book with loads of characters, and to be honest, I didn't even try to keep them all straight, although some of the more developed and more central ones I of course LOVED. Nerzhin, Innokenty, Rubin, Sologdin, Spiridon--I am sure they were based on real people and on A-Sol himself and their philosophizing, arguing, joking, and reliance on one ...more
"And a great war
must be preceeded
by a great purge"
Description: Set in Moscow during a three-day period in December 1949, The First Circle is the story of the prisoner Gleb Nerzhin, a brilliant mathematician. At the age of thirty-one, Nerzhin has survived the war years on the German front and the postwar years in a succession of Russian prisons and labor camps. His story is interwoven with the stories of a dozen fellow prisoners - each an unforgettable human being - from the prison janitor to
When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, the totalitarian state that imprisoned him, exiled him and turned him into one of its fiercest critics was already twenty years gone. The Soviet Union—in particular, the despotic regime of Joseph Stalin with its sham trials and violent purges, its forced collectivizations and frozen gulags—was a thing of the past, a dark spot from another century. As I began Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle recently, I wondered if the novel would prove to be a historic ...more
This was the first book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn I read. I was first sceptical about the book expecting not more than a lot of nagging from a persecuted dissident. However, the book turned out to be quite fascinating due to its captivating plot and vivid descriptions. Solzhenitsyn portrayed a variety of characters who had different backgrounds and political views. I was excited to note that the topics of their political discourse 50 years ago (and indeed 100 years ago, as also described in the ...more
"The First Circle" or "In the First Circle" whichever you prefer I suppose, is a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn first released in 1968. A fuller version of the book was published in English in 2009. The novel tells the story of the occupants of a "sharashka" (a research and development facility made of inmates) located in the Moscow suburbs.

Ok, I'll tell you my thoughts as I was reading this book. I don't know much about communism or socialism, in fact I can never remember which is which and wh
This is a truly amazing book. Solzhenitsyn tells the stories of a variety of people in Stalinist Russia: several zeks, people who work in the prison, a zek's wife, even Stalin has a few chapters. Each story focuses on the development of the person and discusses their innermost thoughts and beliefs as well as their internal struggles. This could be seen as a time capsule of this time period. Solzhenitsyn records social mores, philosophical questions, literary debates, bureaucratic limitations, pr ...more
Not a great book to try to read a few pages at a time, spread out over several months. Too many characters to keep track of. Instead, sit down and read hundreds of pages at a time. It's easy to do, as it is quite captivating. I'll try to concentrate more when I sit down for The Gulag Archipelago.

Having got over on more bout of enthusiasm, Nerzhin --- whether definitively or not --- understood the people in a new way, a way he had not read about anywhere: the people is not everyone who spea
First, do find the 2009 edition if you want to read all 96 chapters. The 1991 version I read, while a good translation, only had 87 or so chapters--apparently the former USSR abridged earlier editions. (The story turned on the release of nuclear or atomic secrets, which I believe was revised for public release as medical secrets.)

If you are thinking of reading this book, do so. This book is a monumental achievement, and it is well worth the effort of reading/studying. Having said that, this book
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Mrs. Gallagher's ...: Book Review 1 14 Jan 18, 2013 08:46PM  
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Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet and Russian novelist, dramatist, and historian. Through his writings he helped to make the world aware of the Gulag, the Soviet Union's forced labor camp system – particularly The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, two of his best-known works.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. He was exiled from
More about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn...
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 Cancer Ward The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books I-II August 1914

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“My wish for you... is that your skeptic-eclectic brain be flooded with the light of truth.” 80 likes
“Satiety depends not at all on how much we eat, but on how we eat. It's the same with happiness, the very same...happiness doesn't depend on how many external blessings we have snatched from life. It depends only on our attitude toward them. There's a saying about it in the Taoist ethic: 'Whoever is capable of contentment will always be satisfied.” 31 likes
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