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The First Circle

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  6,306 Ratings  ·  328 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 September 1968)
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Bindhu unedited English version has 741 pages and 96 chapters.

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Jun 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
It is unfathomable in my mind why Alexandyr Solzhenitsyn is not more widely remarked upon as perhaps the premier novelist of his age. This is a writer against whom a Thomas Pynchon could be measured and even he might fall short. [As for Cormac McC-what? Chuck Pahluki-what? Please..!] But nevermind. The main point I wish to make in this review is this: any society, culture, or timeperiod is most accurately described by the recounting of its worst outrages. Just as with a single man--you assess hi ...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
Feb 18, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature
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
Sep 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: mother-rus
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
Jason Pettus
Oct 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
(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
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
Dec 05, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Biblio Curious
Review after my 1st reading:

Reading this in conjunction with Cancer Ward made it all the more emotional for me. It's like Cancer Ward is the conclusion to In the First Circle. In some ways, what is not spoken In the First Circle is completed in Cancer Ward. It's very interesting how Solzhenitsyn made these 2 books so compatible with each other. One is the cold, hard prison legal system and the other is what's left of humanity because of a cold, hard legal system. This becomes even more noticeabl
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
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
Feb 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Ibrahim Niftiyev
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The book is the picture of the dark clouds in the sky named humankind. This book is the romanticism of torture, harshness of utopia and cruelty against all and everybody who meant to be just equal citizens. This book is about the Soviet regime. The regime which ignored souls and individualism. The Regime which tried to get everything from everybody. Solzhenitsyn is simply genius in terms of delivering these ideas of the darkness of the red empire. He is the voice of the groups outnumbered by mas ...more
May 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: russian
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
Dec 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read this novel when a student of Russian language and literature back in the day. At the time I realized that Solzhenitsyn was one of the masters of Russian literature, on equal footing with Tolstoy et al.
Solzhenitsyn's great strength (one of them, at any rate) is his portrayal of people striving to maintain their integrity and dignity under a soul-destroying and punitive totalitarian system.
A New York Times review from 1968 describes The First Circle as "an astounding piece of political jou
Oct 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 01, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sarah Furger
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Susan Hirtz
Jul 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia, fiction
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Olesya Razuvayevskaya
For a long time, I have not read anything even closely as brilliant. The book is intellectually immense - the concentration of interesting thoughts per line was transcendental. Through the dialogues of his characters, Solzhenitsyn looks at many philosophical questions still relevant today at very unusual, non-trivial, angles. The second thing that amazes is the absence of speculative alternations common for historical fiction as a literary genre. Being not only a novelist, but a very gifted hist ...more
Susan from MD
Oct 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
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
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
JoséMaría BlancoWhite
Me quedan cada vez menos dudas de que Solzhenitsyn ha sido el mejor escritor que ha dado el siglo XX. ¿Cual es clave? ¿Qué es lo que lo sitúa, en mi opinión, por encima de los demás? Da igual que escriba un historia corta que un relato de cientos de páginas, como este 'Primer Círculo'. La enjundia de sus historias, de las vidas de sus personajes, la densidad de humanidad que se destila de sus diálogos más propios de obras teatrales que de novelas, hacen que el lector no desperdicie ni una página ...more
Perry Whitford
Jan 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
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
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
All I can say is "what a rewarding experience!" "In The First Circle" is such a powerful novel full of characters across the spectrum. Some smart, some dumb, some of higher authority and some brought low but all human on the inside in one way or another. In fact, there're so many characters it's hard to keep track of all of them and how they all differ, requiring more than one read. Solzhenitsyn masterfully portrays all of these characters from the lowly Spiridon to the all-powerful leader of Ru ...more
Michael Schadinger
Oct 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing

Is Aleksandr the last of the great Russian novelists? If not, please educate me. This is an amazing novel. Without exaggeration, it's on the level with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. As usual with long books, it took me a while become immersed. Soon enough, however, I "was in the grip of a masterpiece," as the back cover promised. There is a three chapter portrait of Stalin that is some of the finest and funniest satire I've ever encountered. Set in 1949, when there are already 15 million Russians in p
Oct 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle

The novel's title refers to an island of respite in the archipelago of Stalinist Russia's gulag. It's a sharashka, a special kind of prison where you work at a desk and there is bread on the table; it's a camp for intellectuals, for minds that have been classified as useful to the state. There's even butter here, "for professors ... one and a half ounces and for engineers three-quarters of an ounce." The sharashka's not only a respite from the inhumanity of the cam
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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
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“My wish for you... is that your skeptic-eclectic brain be flooded with the light of truth.” 99 likes
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