Book Review of In the First Circle

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In the First Circle, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In the First Circle

"In the First Circle," by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has had quite a history. It was written while Solzhenitsyn was still living in the Soviet Union. Stalin was gone, but Stalinism was still in existence. Authorities would not allow the book to be published unless a lot of material - nine chapters - had been cut out or changed. Its English translation was published in 1968, a solid decade after the Russian manuscript had been written. Fortunately for us, in the 21st century, a very good translation of the complete and original novel is here.

"In the First Circle" is a drama about Soviet prisoners - scientists and engineers held ultimately due to political disfavor. It is also about a soon-to-be-imprisoned person, found through a tapped phone system, who offered forbidden information to the United States. A cat and mouse game ensues, as people are picked up, plucked like fruit, from the non-imprisoned population as the secret police attempt to capture the caller. All the while, the mysterious caller evades capture by the secret police. A moral challenge is posed to the scientists: help find the caller or refuse to help and be sent to a terrible gulag in Siberia. Here is a story of men who must look into themselves and decide what they are made of. Which side would you take?

I fondly remember my first time reading this novel, during my days in college. Solzhenitsyn was a gifted writer and astute observer of history; he tells this story through the eyes of a mathematician who is still unsure why he has been taken by the system, believing that there must surely be a misunderstanding, that there is a reason for hope. This work should certainly have a place on your bookshelf, as its issues are as pertinent now as ever.

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