Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Solzhenitsyn; drawing by David Levine

When you ask your favorite Soviet Cultural Attaché why such-and-such a novelist is suppressed in Russia, the beaming answer is that he is not suppressed; he is just not published. He is known only at the typescript-and-galley-proof stage to people in literary circles. This is the situation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Apart from one or two stories and the publication—by Khrushchev’s permission—of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the magazine Novy Mir he is unknown to Soviet readers in book form. It is easy to see why The Cancer Ward and The First Circle will never do now that the Soviet line is being re-Stalinized. The last named is minutely informative about the methods of the Police State and, in one farcical chapter, makes great fun of anti-American propaganda. The deeper reason lies in the coarseness of the political mind and its chronic fear of literature: the politicals confuse literature with journalism and advertising copy. Solzhenitsyn has his journalistic side, but he is aware of its inadequacy and in The First Circle he strives to get beyond sweating at a case in detail, and when he succeeds, he is very impressive. He understands what is wrong with Soviet literature. In this novel an enormously successful writer—perhaps he is what the political prisoners of the book call “the Alexei non-Tolstoi”—is talking after dinner with a diplomat, who says:

Nikolai, does literature really have to repeat military statutes? Or the newspapers? Or the slogans? Mayakovsky, for instance, considered it an honor to use a newspaper clipping as an epigraph for a poem. In other words, he considered it an honor not to rise above the newspaper! But then why have literature at all? After all, the writer is the teacher of the people; surely that is what we’ve all understood? And a great writer—forgive me, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, I’ll lower my voice—a great writer is so to speak a second government. That’s why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers, only its minor ones.

This is true of Russian governments throughout history.

Twenty years ago Koestler gave us his theatrically conceptualized account of Stalinism and the purges in Darkness at Noon; Solzhenitsyn makes the subject more spacious, and, as a real novelist must, places it in the lives of men and women. He shows the lives out of which opinion has grown. Like other Soviet novelists he is very much a nineteenth-century man, and since that period gave the Russian novel its supremacy, he can draw on a tradition that is spacious even if it has nothing new. It is a relief that he is not experimental. His only innovation, the use of documentary, is forty years old! But since Russian life runs wild and is rich in startling characters and events, documentation cannot standardize as it does with us. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a simple, stark piece of reporting of the horror and degradation of the labor camps, but it also makes one understand Russian submissiveness and the pervading concern with guilt. The title phrase, “one day,” is a clue to the immediacy, and the importance given to ennui in the Russian tradition: the Russian novelist does not move by plot but by what brims over in the hours of the day, and in those hours the familiar Russian dream of a future stirs or agonizes. In the future we may, conceivably, free ourselves of fate.

Solzhenitsyn’s next novel. The Cancer Ward, was much more ambitious. The autobiographical element is strong. His own story is that in 1945 as a twenty-six-year-old Captain of Artillery in East Prussia, with a university degree in mathematics and physics, he was sentenced to eight years of forced labor, for making derogatory remarks about Stalin. He was not freed until 1956. In exile in Kazakhstan—where, in his time, Dostoevsky had also been sent—Solzhenitsyn was treated for cancer and recovered. In this picaresque novel—the sick are the picaros of contemporary life—we get a day-by-day account of the life of an overcrowded cancer hospital, an exhaustive account of how cancer distorts and is treated, the life stories of the patients and the doctors, and this is a way of describing what Russian life is really like. Hospital is like prison; it isolates. Every man and woman has his tale on his tongue; having cancer is a way of life. The people are all far from home, owing to the war or exile, and one sees the part played by distance, anarchy, and chance. The hospital is really an obscene collective. Illness and overwork pretty well destroy private relationships; the grim irony is that the unanswerable punishments of Nature free one from the malice of the police and one has a brief liberty before one dies. The comedy is black: a philologist, for example, gets cancer of the larynx. If you are a Party man, like the careerist Rusanov, you are astonished that your power has gone. His bed lies between the beds of two men condemned to exile:


If Pavel Nikolayevich were the same man he had been before he entered hospital, he would have gone and raised the question as a matter of principle—how could they put executive officials among dubious, socially harmful elements? But in the five weeks that the tumor had pulled him about as if he were a fish on a hook, Pavel Nikolayevich had either mellowed or become a simpler man.

Rusanov is quietly drawn as a Iudushka or hypocrite—see Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family—a tedious, self-complacent, and exacting bureaucrat, he thinks he has the right to be the first to read the Party newspaper when it is brought to the ward; he is a glutton for all the boring articles about economics and politics. At first illness terrifies him, but as he recovers, his arrogance returns. Still, he has been a little mellowed until a new fear arises from the news that a new Presidium has been elected and that an investigation of the delinquencies of Stalinism will take place. He is calmed by his awful go-getting daughter who has written a few poems and has just intrigued her way into the Union of Soviet Writers. She tells her father that he need not worry: it’s only a question of knowing the ropes and she has learned the tricks. He need not worry too much about that shameful intrigue by which he arranged to get someone sent to a labor camp in order to get his apartment.

The cancer ward is, of course, also a symbol of Russia under Stalinism. The patients talk of their lives and their beliefs, and above all of the conflict between those who believe in power and those who rebelliously think of private happiness. Most accept the Communist society; it is daily life. But the experience of one or two has shown them what has been lost: the moral ideal of socialism. (The loss is like the loss of the American dream.) The cancer ward is a sort of confessional. So far the limits of the novel are familiar; but halfway through there is a scene which shows Solzhenitsyn making new ground. He gives us the portrait of a happy family, the simple, ingenuous Kadims who, expecting nothing from a life of harsh exile, had found an absurd happiness with their dogs and cats: it recalls the idyllic pages of Oblomov. Solzhenitsyn is opening a window in an art that has so far been obsessive and claustrophobic. In his latest novel, The First Circle, he is quietly in command of powers that were scattered and now, like the great novelists, can control a beautifully orchestrated theme.

The idea is taken from Dante. The first circle of Hell in Dante is the fate of the pre-Christian philosophers who are doomed to live there for eternity, and it is represented by the Mavrino Institute for scientific research on the outskirts of Moscow. The year is 1949, Stalin is aging and becoming more ruthless. The Institute is staffed by scientists, engineers, and academicians who have been taken out of the labor camps to do technical work under conditions only slightly less awful than the brutal conditions of the camps, for though they are allowed to eat meat, they are still cut off almost completely from their families. Most have been prisoners for ten years; at the end of it, their term will probably be extended to twenty-five. They know they are there for eternity. With them under the efficient police system work a number of free workers from outside who go home at night and who act, together with some of the prisoners themselves, as informers. Eternal damnation could not be more certain. If their particular usefulness comes to an end, the prisoners will be returned to the savage camps and die at last in the prison hospital. It is exactly like the system applied to foreign workers by the Nazis during the war: feed them little, exhaust their brains, and let them die.

But eternal damnation is a kind of freedom, just as having cancer is. The prisoners of Mavrino have adapted themselves to their fate. Among them is the brilliantly drawn Rubin, a Jew and Party member, a great philologist who was an organizer of sabotage in Germany during the war; then there are Nerzhin, a mathematician who has been a soldier; Pryanchikov, an engineer; Spiridon, a peasant and glass blower who has been taken on by mistake; Doronin, a young double agent; Sologdin, a designer, a recalcitrant in for a twenty-five-year stretch. Their task is sinister: to design an apparatus, for codifying speech patterns and tracing telephone calls—a machine that Stalin has specially asked for. It will lead to a huge increase in arrests and the novel indeed opens with a scene in which Innokenty Volodin, a diplomat, foolishly uses the telephone to warn a friend not to give a certain medicine to a foreign professor. By the end of the novel the completed apparatus traps him. Certain of the prisoners including Nerzhin, the most important figure in the book, are now redundant and will be sent back to the labor camp for the rest of their lives. He is thirty-one. It is typical of Solzhenitsyn that women play only a small part in the book. They are lost, touching, lonely figures and in only two or three chapters do they have any part. Incidentally, one characteristically Victorian aspect of the book is its scant interest in the perverting of sexual life in prison. Love is sorrow and sex is “outside” and is regarded as rather disgraceful. The idea owes something to Russian puritanism which is silent about sex, unless it is occasional orgy.


Within Solzhenitsyn’s scheme, we see the curious nervous eagerness of life in prison, listen to the life stories, watch the effect of prison on character—on the guards and officials in charge. The prisoners are known as zeks:

…One of those age old prison arguments was in progress, When is it best to be imprisoned? The way the question was put presupposed that no one was ever destined to avoid prison. Prisoners were inclined to exaggerate the number of other prisoners. When, in fact, there were only 12 to 15 million human beings in captivity, the zeks believed there were 20 or even 30 million. They believed that hardly any males were still free. “When is it best to be imprisoned?” simply meant was it better in one’s youth or in one’s declining years. Some zeks, usually the young ones, cheerfully insisted that it was better to be imprisoned in one’s youth. Then one had a chance to learn what it meant to live, what really mattered and what was crap; then at the age of 35, having knocked off a ten year term, a man could build his life on intelligent foundations. A man who’d been imprisoned in old age could only suffer because he hadn’t lived right, because his life had been a chain of mistakes, and because those mistakes could no longer be corrected. Others—usually the older men—would maintain no less optimistically that being imprisoned in old age is, on the contrary, like going on a modest pension or into a monastery, that one had already drawn everything from life in his best years. (In a prisoner’s vocabulary “everything” narrowed down to the possession of a female body, good clothes, good food and liquor.) They went on to prove that in camp you couldn’t take much hide off an old man, whereas they could wear down and cripple a young man, so that afterwards he “wouldn’t even want to get a woman.”

Prison, like war, becomes an accepted way of life. Rubin, the logical Jewish Communist, accepts it, because “the ways of Socialist truth are sometimes tortuous.” He has a violent row with Sologdin, the unrepentant designer, that goes to the heart of the novel. The row is about ends and means. An excellent distinction is made: Rubin’s situation “seemed to him tragic in the Aristotelian sense.” He had been

dealt a blow by the hands of those he loved the most (the Party). He had been imprisoned by unfeeling bureaucrats because he loved the common cause to an improper degree. As a result of that tragic contradiction, in order to defend his dignity and that of his comrades, Rubin found himself compelled to stand up daily against the prison officers and guards whose actions according to his view of the world were determined by a totally true, correct and progressive law.

The other zeks are against him and persecute him in consequence. The quarrels are wrecking the health of this clever, emotional man. Sologdin is his worst persecutor.

Sologdin knew very well that Rubin was not an informer and would never be one. But at the moment the temptation was great to lump him with the security officers…

Sologdin says,

“Since all of us have been imprisoned justly and you’re the only exception, that means our jailers are in the right. Every year you write a petition asking for a pardon….”

“You lie! Not asking for a pardon, but for a review of my case.”

“What’s the difference?”

“A very big difference indeed.”

As a Party member, though in disgrace, Rubin makes his Jesuitical point.

“They turn you down and you keep on begging,” Sologdin retorts. And, Sologdin says, he would never demean himself by begging. (And in fact, he doesn’t: Sologdin is a student of human weakness. He shrewdly waits till he has a brilliant idea about the encoding device and boldly plays one prison official off against another in a feat of blackmail, which is the only thing officials are frightened of.)

And now we see Solzhenitsyn’s mastery as a novelist: he is able to see the consoling contradictions of human nature and how they fertilize character. Rubin is not only the subtle and passionate Jewish Marxist and “sea-lawyer”; he is also the born Jewish comedian: he entertains the prisoners with a farcical historical parody of their own trials, filled with faked evidence from poetry, prison slang, and innuendoes. And there is even more to this richly sympathetic man. His successes make him miserable and he becomes the practical Jewish mystic who is working on a plan for ritualizing Communist life by introducing Civic Temples.

The density of Solzhenitsyn’s texture owes everything to the ingenious interlocking of incidents that are really short stories. This is the form in which he excels. His philosophical and political debates are always in this lively and purposive story form. He never fails to move forward. And the stories build up the central idea. The later tendentious Tolstoy is an obvious influence, more marked than Dostoevsky’s in The House of the Dead. Our eye is on the most tragic character: Nerzhin and his concern with what a man must do with his life. It is through his sorrow that we see that, bad as the lot of the prisoners is, the lot of their wives whom they can scarcely ever see or write to is a worse imprisonment in the open. They dare not easily admit that their husbands are political prisoners, for they will be shunned. Guilt by association is like plague; one is unclean. Nerzhin is a genuine stoic—in contrast to the endangered diplomat Volodin who is a genuine epicurean. Both men know they are doomed. In his early days as a Communist Nerzhin had noticed that educated or “liberal” prisoners always let him down in a crisis; he turned idealistically to “the People” in the labor camps and found they were worse.

It turned out that the People had no homespun superiority…. They were no more firm of spirit as they faced the stone walls of a ten-year term. They were no more far-sighted than he during the difficult moments of transports and body searches. They were blinder and more trusting about informers. They were more prone to believe the crude deception of the bosses….

With great tact Nerzhin nevertheless cultivates the peasant Spiridon who feels tragically the separation from his family, because in family he saw the only meaning to life. He can never argue or think much but hits the nail on the head, peasant-fashion, with a proverb. His eventual reply to the question “How can anyone on earth really tell who is right and who is wrong? Who can be sure?” is devastating:

“The wolfhound is right and the cannibal is wrong.”

(Solzhenitsyn has read Hemingway and this scene reminds one of the only good thing in For Whom the Bell Tolls—the long talk with the Spanish peasant at the bridge in the Guadarrama.) Spiridon’s view of life (Nerzhin sees) has an important and rare characteristic: it is his own. Nerzhin reflects:

What was lacking in most of them [the People] was that personal point of view which becomes more precious than life itself.

There was only one thing left for Nerzhin to do—to be himself…the People is not everyone who speaks our language, nor yet the elect marked by the fiery stamp of genius. Not by birth, not by the work of one’s hands, not by the wings of education, is one elected into the people.

But by one’s inner self.

Everyone forges his inner self year after year. One must try to temper, to cut, to polish one’s soul so as to become a human being.

And thereby become a tiny particle of one’s own people.

Nerzhin’s integrity detaches him from the others; on matters of regulation and principle he risks everything with the officials and guards and insists on straight or cold ironic confrontations. They fear his powers of irony. Naturally—and he knows it—he will be sent back to the labor camp. He has understood the awful words “For ever” as few of the others have; they mean “You have exhausted your power to hurt me.”

A passionate and agonized book like Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead owes much to the Romantic belief in the supreme value of suffering which is said to be fundamental among Slavs. Prison has the monastic lure. Many of Solzhenitsyn’s characters are haunted by this acceptance, but here is nothing mystical or romantic in him. He is quite clear that the Mavrino is not the Chateau d’If or Gorky’s Siberia, that something has gone morally wrong and that courage in a changed attitude to the self is the important thing. He is, as I have said, more Tolstoyan than Dostoevskian.

The novel is not a sprawling, flat panorama, in spite of its range of scenes inside and outside prison. It has a serene command of space and time. It has an architectural unity, and once the uneasy opening chapters are over, it is unshakeable. This beginning does contain, in my opinion, one weakness: the novelist has, with a daring which I find merely journalistic, introduced a live portrait of the aging Stalin alone in his rooms. I simply do not believe the following words:

But reviewing in his mind the not-so-complex history of the world, Stalin knew that with time people would forgive everything bad, even forget it, even remember it as something good. Entire peoples were like Lady Anne, the widow in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Their wrath was short-lived, their will not steadfast, their memory weak—they would always be glad to surrender themselves to the victor.

I do not know Russian, but Thomas P. Whitney’s translation seems able, and flows well. It has a sensibility to changes of manner in the expressly literary styles of the re-told stories in the book; but there are passages of slack writing which I suspect to be a failure to catch the spring and the rhythm of Russian naturalness. In his first book Solzhenitsyn sounded vigorous and a man for the hard colloquial image in which Russian literature is rich.

This Issue

December 19, 1968