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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Restoring" a masterpiece
The "restored" version of IN THE FIRST CIRCLE gives Anglophone readers access for the very first time to one of the three peaks of Solzhenitsyn's literary universe(the other two being the multivolume works THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO and THE RED WHEEL). The importance of this volume has nothing to do, as one reviewer inaccurately suggested, to "hype" on the part of Harper...
Published on October 17, 2009 by Daniel Mahoney

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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Superior novel, very disappointing translation
I've loved this novel for years, but was extremely disappointed with the translation compared to the Thomas Whitney version. The introduction states, "The English translation of the canonical text is Harry T.Willetts...the only person Solzhenitsyn fully trusted to render his fiction in English." but then adds, "The editing of the English text entailed...replacing...
Published on March 19, 2010 by Mark Shanks


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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Restoring" a masterpiece, October 17, 2009
By 
Daniel Mahoney (Worcester, MA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
The "restored" version of IN THE FIRST CIRCLE gives Anglophone readers access for the very first time to one of the three peaks of Solzhenitsyn's literary universe(the other two being the multivolume works THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO and THE RED WHEEL). The importance of this volume has nothing to do, as one reviewer inaccurately suggested, to "hype" on the part of Harper Collins. It is Solzhenitsyn who repeatedly lamented the fact that the world only knew IN THE FIRST CIRCLE, as it now properly called, in an "ersatz, truncated" form. It is he who in his "Author's Note" to this edition speaks of this edition being the only "authentic" one. His "restoration" of the original work, first published in Russian in the West in 1978, goes far beyond dramatically transforming the opening of the work. New chapters such as chapters 44, 47, and 61 deepen our understanding of Solzhenitsyn's own intellectual odyssey from Marxism to skepticism to a more robust affirmation of natural justice, conscience, and self-limitation, the hallmarks of the Solzhenitsynian intellectual and moral universe. Innokenty Volodin becomes a much more substantial figure in the course of the 96 chapter version of IFC. The great philosophical dialogue between the zeks Nerzhin, Sologdin, and Rubin is substantially fleshed out. There is a new and very suggestive chapter on Stalin making for five and not four chapters on the Soviet tyrant. Solzhenitsyn's hatred of Communism and all its works is even more pronounced in this edition, so much so that he freely countenances the legitimacy of treason against what he regards as a radically evil regime. I should add that the late Harry T. Willetts was Solzhenitsyn's preferred translator for a reason: his rich, supple, and remarkably accurate translations stand head and shoulders above the others. Those who are interested in a more detailed study of the literary, political, and philosophical significance of the 96 chapter version of In THE FIRST CIRCLE can turn to my piece on the work ("The Moral Witness of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn") in the October 2009 issue of FIRST THINGS. To a reviewer above let me add that IFC first appeared in French in 1984, not 2007--American publishers have been lamentably slow in recent decades in bringing the work of the greatest writer of the twentieth century to the attention of the reading public.--Daniel J. Mahoney
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Magnificent Achievement, a masterpiece, June 23, 2010
This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
This new translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's In The First Circle which appeared in English last year, presents a "restored text" of the Russian novelist's masterwork. It is a towering achievement -- in fact, I cannot think of another 20th century novel that comes close to it in moral authority and humanism.

Reading some of our most acclaimed novelists today, one cannot but be struck by the smallness of their ambition. When was the last time an American or a British writer produced a great, sprawling work of literature encompassing dozens of characters and tackling truly great themes? (I certainly include my own modest works in this criticism). Perhaps the age of such novels is past. Perhaps there's no market for them. But for Solzhenitsyn, writing was an immensely powerful act of individual resistance to a monstrous regime. This magnificent book upholds the most important human values -- freedom, courage, dignity, truth and compassion in the face of totalitarian power.

Solzhenitsyn wrote the book in the 1950s from internal exile in Kazakhstan after he was released from eight years in Gulag prisons and work camps. It describes four days in the lives of prisoners at a special camp for scientists and engineers on the outskirts of Moscow called Marfino.

The Russian slang word for such a prison research institute is "sharashka." Solzhenitsyn himself spent three years at Marfino from 1947 to 1950 and his stay there had a powerful effect on his political, intellectual and spiritual development.

The time is Christmas 1949, just after the celebrations of Stalin's 70th birthday, shortly before he launched a new round of attacks on "Jewish cosmopolitans," a development which is foreshadowed in the novel.

The prisoners, or zeks, in the sharashka have it easier than in other Soviet camps -- they have enough to eat, warm, dry clothes, comfortable beds and access to work materials. Compared to the rest of the Gulag, they are, as it were, in the first circle of hell. But it is still hell. They are deprived of their freedom and contact with the outside world, which continues about its business just the other side of the razor wire. These prisoners can go years without receiving a letter from loved ones. If they are lucky, they are allowed one hour-long visit with their wives once a year, with a prison official present at all times. In the course of the book, we sit in on one of these heartbreaking meetings. And their crimes? More often than not, trumped up charges concocted by the state and arbitrarily applied.

The history of the book is interesting. In the early 1960s, there was a slight thaw in Soviet publishing which allowed Solzhenitsyn to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which became a worldwide sensation. The author had already completed In The First Circle and decided to try to get it approved by the Soviet censors. To do so, he toned it down, eliminating several chapters, shortening others and softening the book's general anti-Soviet tone. It was still rejected.

In 1968, when it was clear the regime would never allow his work to see the light of day, Solzhenitsyn agreed to allow this toned-down version to be published in the West. Even in its truncated form, it was hailed as a masterpiece. But that version, which I read as a student years ago, does not come close to the current, restored manuscript which finally appeared a year after the author's death.

After he reached the United States, Solzhenitsyn became a controversial figure, alienating many with his denunciation of what he saw as the West's weak moral fiber and his championing of some of the more reactionary aspects of Russian nationalism and Russian orthodoxy. He did not like and never really understood the West. However, the quirky political views he developed in his old age should not blind us to the fact that Solzhenitsyn was entirely correct in his critique of the Soviet Union. He saw the full truth earlier than almost anyone and he had the courage to reveal it in all its horrific details.

The book begins with a young diplomat, Innokenty Volodin, who phones the U.S. embassy from a pay phone in Moscow to report that in a few days a Soviet agent in the United States will be given crucial information about the atomic bomb. Innokenty has thought long and hard before making the call. He knows the risks, but asks himself, "If we live in a state of constant fear, can we remain human?"

The clueless American at the other end of the line doesn't grasp the importance of the conversation and suggests that Volodin call the Canadian embassy where they understand Russian better. Of course, the organs of the state have recorded the conversation and a hunt begins to identify the caller. Enter the prisoner-scientists of the sharashka, some of whom are working on voice identification technology. They are given the job of identifying the traitor.

They eventually narrow it down to two individuals, Volodin and one other, both of whom are arrested. After all, one of them is guilty of this crime -- and the other? He must be guilty of something -- for under Soviet jurisprudence, no-one is entirely innocent.

Innokenty is arrested and taken to the Lubyanka. Solzhenitsyn gives us, in exquisite detail based on personal experience, a chilling description of what actually happened to people who were taken to that infamous prison and how they were broken and dehumanized even before their interrogation began.

Solzhenitsyn's narrative technique is notable. Like Tolstoy in War and Peace he follows a pattern of having one character take central stage for a few chapters, before giving way to a second and then a third and fourth and fifth. In this way, he is eventually able to present a panoramic view of the whole of Soviet society. Occasional flashbacks enable the reader to get a taste of life in Moscow and in a Russian village, establishing a counterpoint to the main action within the prison.

We get inside the heads of the various prisoners, each with his own experiences and worldview. We meet Rubin, a devout communist, still convinced of the correctness of a system that has done nothing but persecute and incarcerate him. Rubin is intelligent and kind, a loyal friend -- but morally blind. In one chapter, he organizes a satirical show trial for the historical figure, Prince Igor. He knows how cruel and unjust the system is, yet he persists in his loyalty to the revolution.

The other main protagonist and counterpoint to Rubin is Gleb Nerzhin, the author's alter ego, a veteran of the camps groping for way to remain human and moral and find meaning in the world.

As the book proceeds, we gain a full picture of prison life. We learn about stoolies, about how the inmates divert themselves; we listen to their discussions about history, Russia and the system that is destroying them. We also meet some of their doomed wives, fighting to hang on in the absence of their loved ones, trying to stay faithful while scratching out a living in a system that regards their husbands as "enemies of the people."

And then the book's focus widens even more. We meet the KGB officer in charge of security, the camp commandant, the Minister of State Security and in five chilling chapters we are privy to the thoughts of Stalin himself. These are some of the most masterful passages of the book. Solzhenitsyn resists the temptation to ridicule or satirize. He takes the monster completely seriously, without a trace of irony. There is dark comedy in these scenes as the head of State Security, Viktor Abakumov, sweating with fear, is summoned to the monster's lair at 3 am, not knowing whether to sit or stand, not knowing if he will survive the meeting or be taken out to be shot. This is an immensely powerful man, presiding over all the cruel power of the organs of security -- yet he himself is little more than a slave when confronted by the Supreme Leader. Stalin tells him not to worry: "When you deserve it, that's when we'll shoot you," he says.

The Stalin that emerges from these pages is totally convincing as a literary creation -- and totally evil.

There are other passages of comedy in this book that lighten the load of the reader. In one chapter, none other than Eleanor Roosevelt visits one of the Gulag camps. Before she arrives, the place is cleaned up, pristine sheets are placed of the beds, the library is stocked with books and the prisoners are dressed in decent clothes, even blue silk underwear, and fed a wonderful meal. The First Lady departs full of admiration for the Soviet penal system. Of course, as soon as she leaves, the underwear is ripped off, the sheets disappear and it's back to normal.

Even at this early stage of his career, Solzhenitsyn clearly viewed the Soviet Union as powerful and ruthless and the West as weak and gullible.

In another scene, an official gives a hilarious lecture on dialectical materialism. Solzhenitsyn perfectly captures the verbal gymnastics, complete with pompous slogans and phrases, all of which mean nothing, of the 90-minute lecture. In another, a doctoral candidate has problems finishing her thesis. She is not allowed to quote foreign sources or give credit to capitalist authorities. She also has to make sure she is not citing any Russian who has fallen afoul of the system. She finds herself constantly rewriting to delete the names of people who have been arrested or disgraced since she completed the previous draft.

Despite these moments of comedy, this is a sad book. So many lives destroyed, so much suffering - it's hard to come to terms with it all. The book's hero, Nerzhin, is obviously based on the author himself. We see him finally come to terms with the truth about his own country and its ideology and begin a journey toward spiritual freedom. Nerzhin refuses to work on the voice identification technology, knowing he will be expelled from the sharashka and transferred back into the Gulag proper. But before he goes, Nerzhin has one last conversation with a fellow prisoner in which he foretells the fall of the Soviet Union: "Perhaps ... the new age ... with its globalized information... I'm saying that maybe in the new age a new means will be discovered for the Word to shatter concrete."

To think this was written in the 1950s is incredible.

Solzhenitsyn's narrative technique allows him to demonstrate that the entire Soviet Union is a place from which humanity has almost been eradicated. The prisoners of the sharashka may be in their own version of hell -- but in fact the country has been turned into a kind of penal colony.

Solzhenitsyn and millions of others had their lives shattered by Stalin and his henchmen, who gave themselves the right and the power to enslave and indiscriminately pass sentence on an entire nation. But thanks to this book, we can be sure that history's verdict on Stalin and on the Soviet Union will be largely written by Solzhenitsyn.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Original "First Circle" is the Masterpiece, October 16, 2009
By 
Peter Smallhill (Pasadena, California) - See all my reviews
This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
This publisher's marketing machine (as in an Oct., 2009 Wall Street Journal article by the author of this book's foreward) claims "In the First Circle" is now "finally available in the West". Not exactly. The same text as "In the First Circle" was published in France in 2007 as "Le Premier Cercle".

More importantly, the publishers claim that the previous English version of "The First Circle" was "bowdlerized", not "authentic" and by implication, polluted by Solzhenitsyn's revisions when he attempted to get the book published in the Soviet Union. This is very misleading.

Solzhenitsyn prepared two versions of this novel while writing in Russia in the 1960s. The version now called "In the First Circle", just published in English, was 9 short chapters longer and had a different opening plot line from "The First Circle", which he edited to 87 chapters and unsuccessfully attempted to publish in the Soviet Union.

In that editing, Solzhenitsyn, genius that he was, crafted a far more powerful opening. That's the major difference between the two versions of the novel.

"In the First Circle" (the newly published version) has a young Soviet diplomat, Innokenty Volodin, call the US Embassy in Moscow to warn about a Soviet spy operation in New York related to nuclear military secrets. As such, Innokenty is a 1 in 100 million superman hero (or traitorous villain) who cannot represent ordinary people that lack the ability or the opportunity for such an act.

In "The First Circle" (already available in English), the same Innokenty also makes a covert call, but to a Russian scientist who as a medical doctor, had earlier treated Innokenty's mother, to warn him against sending some promised scientific samples to colleagues in France, because that act would be considered traitorous and get the scientist arrested.

Even that simple warning call was enough to cause the hunting and arrest of Innokenty himself. With this simple opening story, Solzhenitsyn shows how an ordinary man who acts out of basic humanity gets entrapped by the vicious Soviet political environment. This gets us, readers, deeply engaged because we can easily identify with Innokenty's feelings and his action. And because we sympathize with an ordinary person who becomes entangled through such a normal act, it's deeply credible and far more powerful than the extreme scenario of "In the First Circle".

Therefore, "The First Circle" is the true masterpiece version of this novel.

This is an unforgettable story about "conditions where only courage, strength of character, and loyalty to friends made a man and could decide the fate of a comrade." ("The First Circle", Ch. 61.)

Take a look at "The First Circle", the original, and decide for yourself. Regrettably, this masterpiece is out of print in English, but copies of the great translation by Michael Guybon are available inexpensively at used book websites such as Abebooks.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Superior novel, very disappointing translation, March 19, 2010
By 
This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
I've loved this novel for years, but was extremely disappointed with the translation compared to the Thomas Whitney version. The introduction states, "The English translation of the canonical text is Harry T.Willetts...the only person Solzhenitsyn fully trusted to render his fiction in English." but then adds, "The editing of the English text entailed...replacing Briticisms with American diction and idiom." The result detracts greatly from the impression. An example: Chapter 2, greeting the newly arrived zeks. The Whitney version:

"And how is the food in the transit camps these days?"
"At the Chelyabinsk camp--"
"Chelyabinsk new or Chelyabinsk old?"
"Your question indicates a connoisseur. At the new one--"

And the Willetts, in Chapter 3:

"What's the food like in transit prisons nowadays?"
"Well, in Chelyabinsk--"
"The old prison or the new one?"
"I can see you're an expert. The new one--"

Much worse, some of the details are lost. The chapter titled "Penalty Marks" (Chapter 30 in the Whitney, Chapter 33 in the Willetts), the chapter ending is markedly different. Whitney:

A scarlet flame spread over Larisa's cheeks, ears, and neck. She did not move from the edge of his desk and looked him boldly in the eyes.
Sologdin was indignent. "And now I'm going to put down three marks at once! I'll be a long time paying them off! First for your impudent, moist eyes, and the fact that I like them. Second, because your blouse isn't closed and you're leaning forward and I see your breasts. And third because I want to kiss your neck."
"Well, then, kiss it," she said, fascinated.
"You've gone mad! Get out of the room! Leave me!"

Willetts:

Haven't you noticed when I make those marks?"
"I have", she said faintly.
The door key, with its aluminum tag, lay on her tracing paper.
A big warm green woolen ball stood breathing hard before Sologdin.
Awaiting his orders.
Sologdin squinted and gave the command.
"Go and lock the door! Quick!"

Granted, Solzhenitsyn **may** have made this specific change, but why would the author of The Gulag Archipelago bother to twitch up a minor love scene in this novel? There are other, similar minor changes that we know Solzhenitsyn made, but the biggest is the motivation of the diplomat Volodin for contacting the American embassy. THAT changes the tone of the entire novel, making it less sinister and more cliched. I don't understand, but I'll just say I really prefer the "original", inspite of the added length of this rewrite.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful to get the entire story!, January 1, 2011
This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
After "The First Circle" being incomplete yet still one of my favorite books I am completely statisfied to now get the whole uncut "In The First Circle". Solzhenitsyn has informed my political views & values of freedom for the past 20 years, but his humanity far exceeds that, he was truly a great writer who should be read by every man & woman 18 years or older. We could avoid repeating the tragedies of the past by reading and learning from both his fiction and nonfiction. Alexsander's voice resounds for freedom, dignity, compassion, and endurance of the human soul which does not have to give in to tyrrany if one sees the eternal that exists past the here & now.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Russian Masterpiece, November 3, 2012
This is the last of the Solzhenitsyn tomes I am reading (read all the rest), and like all the other ones, he had the knack of infusing soul, pathos and some lightheartedness in his work. He had that rare ability to educate, inspire, and keep you wanting to read and know more. He was never the stylish master of some of the other Russian greats, but his assessment of human nature is as solid as Dostoyevski or any other icon of literature.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Blessing of A Book: The Uncensored Edition, December 14, 2009
By 
George I. Greene (Chappaqua, New York) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
There are some authors that seem unapproachable. We have their books on our book shelves, but we are afraid to crack the binding. Solzhenitsyn has that reputation. This book should dispel it.

It is hard to imagine today an author who would write a book which he knew most likely would never be published. In the First Circle must have been such a work, written between 1955 and 1958, still during the time of the Gulag.

But, this book should not only be read because of Solzhenitsyn's courage. Solzhenitsyn has written a great novel that holds the interest of the reader as he retells the history of the Soviet Union and the Gulag though his plot: A Soviet diplomat calls the American Embassy that the Soviet Union plans to steal atomic secrets. A part of Scientific Work Prison is enlisted to identify through a voice print him so that he may be arrested as a traitor.

Around this plot, Solzhenitsyn dedicates himself to write a novel where the characters ring true. Rarely is there a false note. His characters, both inside and outside the camp, are not cardboard spouting ideology. We feel how they feel caught in the system as they seek answers, both great and small, on how to respond to Stalin's regime.

Last but not least, this novel has all the seeds of Solzhenitsyn's great work on the Gulag.

Great read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect Exploration of the tragedy of the triumph of evil., November 3, 2011
This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
The best so far of Solzhenitsyn's study of good and evil. The characters represent different world views from Christian to Marxist. This edition (2009) is the complete uncensored version so if you read the previous censored version it did not contain the most powerful chapters.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good and evil oscillate within the human heart, June 17, 2011
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This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
I am an avid reader of Dostoyevsky; I have read Dostoyevsky's novels more than twice each. Literature in modern culture is almost non-existent. Solzhenitsyn has brought it back through the power of character development, scene description, and an effective way of describing life in a way most people can connect with in a deeply personal way. This novel puts philosophy at the deepest level with skin and experience. The espionage plot is a minor factor. The novel describes the intensity, humor, and horror of life under oppression, and then redemption. I'm grateful I live in a world were creativity is not drown out by political oppression, and art is destroyed by laziness, or is it?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In the First Circle by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, April 17, 2010
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This review is from: In the First Circle (Paperback)
In the First Circle is Solzhenitsyn's quasi-autobiographical novel about life and politics within a sector of the Soviet Union's Gulag prison system- the sharashkas. These were camps with slightly better living conditions than the devastating labor camps, and were primarily concerned with beefing up the USSR's energy, surveillance, and weapon technologies. Here it is filled with a large cast of characters, people who are perhaps not quite as downtrodden as Ivan Denisovich (and in not quite as insufferable living conditions), but who nonetheless have a quotidian apathy about them that makes for a subdued environment. The plot itself is a little thin- deputies are on the lookout for a man who is calling in their atomic secrets into an American embassy- and mostly features scenes where people interact, coalesce, and share their ideologies about Communism, life, love, and the certainty of a bleak future.

This is a book that I did not enjoy nor find particularly readable, but which I nonetheless could respect. Solzhenitsyn writes of relationships, among friends and lovers alike, with a startling honesty; he also differentiates his characters through their histories and ideologies rather than through their defining characteristics with great skill. It was also very interesting to get such a broad swathe of perspectives here, from workers of various abilities to their spouses of various fidelities to their guards of various ulterior motives. Also of note is the much-lauded section where Solzhenitsyn gets right into Stalin's beleaguered mind and makes him a portrait of impressive focus. Not quite the thriller it's cracked up to be, In the First Circle is nonetheless recommended reading for anyone interested in the Gulag system and the genuine perspectives of its prisoners.
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In the First Circle
In the First Circle by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (Paperback - October 13, 2009)
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