Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The First Circle” (1968)


The First Circle concerns worker-prisoners in the Soviet Gulag who are critically needed intelligence workers – mostly scientists and researchers. These intellectuals are, relatively speaking, the lucky ones. They live and work in an urban complex, and face little in the way of physical privation, regularly fed and decently clothed. They are the residents of the first circle of hell, with Solzhenitsyn explicitly comparing the Soviet dystopia to Dante’s Inferno. The novel haunts us with the awareness that far, far worse was taking place elsewhere. As a prisoner headed for the Gulag observes, with terrifying accuracy, at the end of the novel: ‘We are going into hell now. We are returning to hell. The sharashka is the highest, the best, the first circle of hell. It was almost paradise.'” [. . .]    –Saul Austerlitz, The Second Pass, August 4, 2009