Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The First Circle

The First Circle
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
Sharashka near Mavrino, Moscow


PLOT SUMMARY: In The First Circle, a group of prisoners are arrested under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code during Joseph Stalin’s purges. Thе events in the story take place in December 1949. These zeks are technicians, engineers, linguists, academics, scientists and intellectuals that are imprisoned in a state-run research facility, known as a Sharashka, working on several secret projects.
Unlike prisoners in other sectors of the gulag system, they enjoy better treatment and generally more freedom.

     There is no clear protagonist in the novel. Instead, the novel approaches the story from several character perspectives, including the perspective of zeks like Lev Rubin, Dimitri Sologdin, and Gleb Nerzhin and even Joseph Stalin. However, the novel also maintains a third-person narration. Throughout the novel, the characters interact with each other and explore each other’s moral dilemmas as privileged prisoners assisting a totalitarian system. By the conclusion of the story, some of the zeks, including Gleb Nerzhin, protest against the gulag system by refusing to cooperate, resulting in their relocation to deadlier camps that the characters recognize would mostly likely lead to their deaths.


ANALYSIS: Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle is very similar to other texts in the Russian prison memoir genre. Similar to Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, Solzhenitsyn’s novel is also semi-autobiographical since the story is informed by his own experiences living in the Gulag system. The plot of his novel is also disorganized, which is emphasized by the fact that he introduces several
perspectives throughout the story. Solzhenitsyn likewise explores several ethical themes in his novel by demonstrating the perspective of various major
and minor characters which often contradict each other. The First Circle stands out among other texts in the gulag genre by exploring the role of intellectuals in the gulag system and exploring their role in preserving the totalitarian regime while also struggling to retain human dignity. The name First Circle is also a reference to Dante’s Inferno where philosophers and virtuous individuals born before Jesus Christ occupy a small foundation in Hell that allows them to express a small degree of freedom.

     In Solzhenitsyn’s previous work The Gulag Archipelago, he explores the theme of good and evil which he attributes to actions and consequences. Each character has the potential to do good through their thoughts and actions, and in the gulag system some individuals are able to grow spiritually while others descend into morally decadent behavior. At the end, he attributes his growth as a person to his time in the gulag. He explores this theme more thoroughly in The First Circle by demonstrating the different moral dilemmas that each character faces and how they address these issues. For example, many of the characters acknowledge that they are more privileged than other prisoners in the gulag system and some reflect critically on what their duty as more fortunate incarcerated individuals should be. Each character faces the opportunity to cultivate their soul by appealing to the sense of justice that they feel within them and, by the conclusion of story, some manage to appeal to their sense of justice which results in their demise and their transition to being fully human.



“No, dear sir, you are, just as you were previously, in hell. But you have risen to its best and highest circle- the first circle. You ask what a sharashka is? Let’s say the concept of a sharashka was thought up by Dante.” (8)


“No matter how clever and absolute the systems of skepticism or agnosticism or pessimism, you must understand that by their very nature they doom us to a loss of will. They can’t really influence human behavior because people cannot stand still. And that means they can’t renounce systems which affirm something, which summon them to advance in some direction.” (68)


“They were filled with the fearlessness of those who have lost everything, the fearlessness which is not easy to come by but which endures.” (579)


BIOGRAPHY: Born on December 11, 1918, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist and short story writer. He served during World War II as an artilleryman and continued to serve until February 1945. He was arrested when a letter written by him was intercepted by Soviet counter-intelligence. In the letter, Solzhenitsyn wrote unapprovingly of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his conduct during the war. As a result of this letter, he served eight years in several prison camps and eventually spent three years in exile. He was finally allowed to return from exile in 1956 and eventually worked as a mathematics teacher. He began writing following his release from prison (Terras 592).


     One of Solzhenitsyn’s more notable works is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich where he explores the atrocity of the Stalin era and condemns the actions of the state. The novel became one of the few printed works allowed at the time to discuss the legacy of Stalin’s policies as head of the Soviet Union. Following the release of this novel, Solzhenitsyn would go on to become one of the most
famous Russian authors of his generation. He eventually won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. However, he faced backlash for his unapologetic portrayal of oppression during the Stalin era when he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers in 1969 and eventually from his country in 1974 (Terras 593). He was allowed to return to Russia in May 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, where he remained until his death in 2008 at the age of 89 (“Biography”).




“Biography.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center,


Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1991.




Krasnov, Vladislav G. “The Question of Genre: The First Circle as a Menippean Novel.” Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky: A Study in the Polyphonic Novel (1980): 138-142.
In this chapter, Krasnov draws parallels between The First Circle, Dostoevsky’s poetics, Menippean satires, and Socratic seminars. He also argues that The First Circle stands out as a
novel that manages to refrain from using fantasy and eccentricities while also using reality to illustrate absurdity and abnormality.


Kriza, Elisa, and Andrei Rogatchevski. “The Style and Genre of Solzhenitsyn’s Camp-Related Literature.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Cold War Icon, Gulag Author, Russian Nationalist?: A Study of the Western Reception of His Literary Writings, Historical Interpretations, and Political Ideas (2014): 46-55.
In this book, Kriza and Rogatchevski contextualize The First Circle by summarizing the plot and providing an overview of the period in which the book was written in. They analyze the book in the context of Socialist Realist novels being produced in the 1960s and 70s.


Watson, Bradley C.S. “The First Circle and the Last Man: Solzhenitsyn’s Political Science.” Perspectives on Political Science, vol 30, no. 2, 2001, pp. 75-83.
Watson analyzes The First Circle to demonstrate the relationship between modern scientific development and political functions in the context of totalitarianism. He elaborates that the novel demonstrates the need to apply Socratic questioning and Aristotelian philosophy into our discussions on political systems. 

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