Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

    In the opening chapter of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's novel, In the First Circle, the character Innokenty Volodin is faced with a moral dilemma over whether or not to share secret Soviet information with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. In the end, his decision is made when he asks himself: "If we live in a state of constant fear, can we remain human?" The question is one that Solzhenitsyn asked of the Soviet government right up to the day he was arrested and exiled in 1974. His parting shot to the Soviet powers was the publication in Russia of the essay, "Live Not by Lies."

    A new "restored" edition of In the First Circle was published in late 2009 by Harper Perennial in a translation by Harry T. Willetts. The new edition includes the missing chapters that Solzhenitsyn had excised to get the book past Soviet censors. Religion & Liberty Executive Editor John Couretas recently sat down with Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. to talk about the book and what he has described, in the foreword to the novel, as Solzhenitsyn's "sense of continuity between literary art and the realm of moral values."

    R&L: The expurgated version of 'In the First Circle' was originally published in the West in 1968. How was it received at the time?

    Ericson Jr.: Very well. We didn't know at all that this 87-chapter version was an abbreviated version, and it was received with great acclaim. The book got out in a circuitous way while Solzhenitsyn was still in the Soviet Union. He had no hand in how it was edited. All this is before the conflict over Solzhenitsyn's ideas that came into focus after he was exiled to the West in 1974. Western intellectuals had seen this person as a champion of freedom, but it turned out that he had a somewhat different basis for believing in freedom, a basis that the typical intellectual couldn't relate to. Well, a person of religious understanding would see right away that Solzhenitsyn's basis for human freedom is the human dignity that comes from a person's bearing the image of God in creation. That, of course, is not a vision available to secular people, who dominate the culture in the West. So, having praised him to the skies for some years, all of a sudden the secular critics felt as if, when he came out and talked in what they saw as the retrograde language of a religious believer, he was letting them down. They felt that Solzhenitsyn led them on. Well, he didn't lead anybody on. They had simply misinterpreted him. They applied to him, as they did to everything, their favorite categories of thought, which were political categories. Everything is politics. I heard it all around me in the 60s, when I was already a young college teacher. Everything is politics.

    'In the First Circle: The First Uncensored Edition,' is the first Solzhenitsyn work published in English since his death in August 2008. It now has a total of 96 chapters with the missing material added back in. How has it been received?

    It sells all right, but not the way the incomplete version did in 1968. Certainly far from the way Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has sold here. And I wondered all the way through preparing this uncensored volume for publication, how it would sell, because it is, after all, not an entirely new book and that was going to hold it back. Also, interest in Solzhenitsyn had waned. There's been a bit of an upturn in interest that came with his death. Even so, the obituaries showed great ignorance of Solzhenitsyn. They show that the very people who have the authority to write obituaries for our main outlets of opinion— newspapers and magazines—have clearly not read him since the 1970s. Almost nobody mentioned November 1916, a thousand-page-long novel that came out in 1999. But where In the First Circle has been reviewed, it's gotten some really grand reviews.

    When this book was published here in 1968, did Solzhenitsyn have a collaborator outside Russia?

    No, not really. Persons involved in transmitting it were intellectuals, Manhattan types. They cared about culture, and they did the best they could by him. They were friends of the man who translated it, Thomas Whitney, a good translator, good person, but not somebody who understood Solzhenitsyn from the inside. When Solzhenitsyn and I got to know each other a little bit, he made clear to me that the reason he allowed me to abridge The Gulag Archipelago was, well, that he and I shared a common Christian faith. Outside of that, I was missing all sorts of qualifications, and maybe he even thought I had some disqualifications. I didn't know Russian, had never done an abridgement. He knew from my early scholarly work the way I developed the significance of the Christian faith for life in our times, and this fit with his understandings. So I was on the inside of his vision, just because of who I was and what I believed.

    Are there new Solzhenitsyn works scheduled for publication in the near term?

    Soon, possibly even in late 2010, we'll see from ISI Books a memoir-like work of his 20 years in the West, 18 of which were in the United States. It's called The Little Grain Managed to Land Between Two Millstones. The two great millstones are the Soviet Union and the West, and they grind as they turn. The little grain, which here is Solzhenitsyn's image for himself, is not a grain of wheat; it's a grain of sand. It's something that grates, that irritates; he rubs people in both places the wrong way. Back in the 1970s, the Soviet leaders said, as it were, let's send Solzhenitsyn to the West. He's a prickly fellow. Let him be a burr under someone else's saddle. They knew their man.

    And fiction?

    Yes, when Solzhenitsyn went back home to Russia in 1994, he had the leisure, finally, to pull together materials he'd had sitting around, of short-story length––stories, for instance, set in World War II that didn't make it into other books like The Red Wheel. The material itself is really quite good, and he put some of this material into experimental stories called "binary tales," which should be forthcoming soon. One part of a binary tale tells a story—stops. The other part tells a story— stops. And you should be able to see how the two parts are related. There are other things of his, speeches and the like. I just got a copy of a book that wasn't by him, though the introduction is, called "Voices from the Gulag." Not a very imaginative title, but the volume consists of memoirs by other people about their experiences in the Gulag. He'd sent out a broad message, in a variety of forms, asking people to send him anything that their family had that was written in the Gulag, and he established a memorial center in Moscow. These are works that come out of that. So there's going to be more action in the West with volumes of his coming out.

    What is Solzhenitsyn's future in his homeland?

    In literary terms, the big action will be where it ought to be, and that's in Russia, where he is now studied, as he could not be before. Remember, we're less than two decades into the time when people can say things freely. We don't have too many people yet who went through the university and studied Solzhenitsyn thoroughly as preparation for writing about him. But such attentiveness is really growing. Very soon, Russians will lead the way in commentary on Solzhenitsyn. Mrs. (Natalia) Solzhenitsyn is concerned about that, to the point of having asked me if I would collect and edit and introduce western essays on Solzhenitsyn about his worldview, of the sort that a few westerners write. And so I did that, and that book will soon be out, but it will be out only in Russian. All these essays have now been translated into Russian, as my introductory essay has been, and will be published by a Russian publishing house. It's compiled for the rising generation of Solzhenitsyn critics and any general readers who share that interest.

    Will they see him any more clearly than did the Western literary mandarins here in the 1970s?

    Well, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn says, just as in the West, literary critics don't usually write the sort of essays that examine foundational moral ideas underlying the literary works. In the new Russia, there's no experience in that direction. They need to get a sense of even how one goes about constructing such essays. Also, Mrs. Solzhenitsyn is in the process right now of abridging The Gulag Archipelago for Russian schoolchildren, to be included in the Russian required curriculum. My abridgment will help her a little bit as a model, but hers is going to have to be shorter. It's also going to have a Russian focus beyond what my abridgment had. You can't really take the "Russianness" out of the book, but I was emphasizing its universal themes and appeal. Already, in the required curriculum, Russia has "Matryona's Home," his best short story, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

    Solzhenitsyn is a writer for whom the term "moral imagination" seems to have been coined.

    I wrote an article comparing Solzhenitsyn and Russell Kirk, and the term moral imagination is prominent in it. I talk about the two of them together, because they were, for me, the two great illuminators of all sorts of things cultural, and I could see their connection. Kirk speaks about Solzhenitsyn in very much the terms that I do. I didn't need Russell to tell me about Solzhenitsyn, but I did need him to tell me about the moral imagination and how it illuminates the moral vision of life and literature. I used the term moral universe independently to focus my studies of Solzhenitsyn. What a confirmation or reinforcement it was, then, to circle back and see that Kirk used the term moral imagination to say much the same sort of thing about Solzhenitsyn. Indeed, I may have adopted as my own some points I had learned along the way from Kirk. Solzhenitsyn himself says in his magisterial Gulag Archipelago, "The line dividing good and evil cuts through every human heart." To get Solzhenitsyn right means to see him as a moral writer, and the moral vision comes out of a religious context. So to get him really right means to understand the religious context, which for him is Russian Orthodoxy.

    But in his religious context, he avoids polemics and sectarianism. Again, the universal view.

    That's right. There's plenty of exclusivism in Russian Orthodoxy, historically, as there is in various religious quarters of the West. Certainly that was so with the fundamentalist Protestantism that I grew up in. Solzhenitsyn always avoids such exclusivism in his writings.

    Do you see Solzhenitsyn writing in the same literary spirit informed by a deep sense of sympathy, or even brotherhood, for Russian humanity that, say, comes out of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?

    Very much so. All three of these writers belong to the Russian realistic tradition. Solzhenitsyn is a realist to the point that very little in his novels is based on entirely imagined episodes and characters. He writes almost always with real events and true human prototypes in mind. Sometimes these characters are a composition of several prototypes. That's what we see in Alyoshka the Baptist in Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn draws freely on the people he lived with in prison, and he typically sets his stories in prison. He allows himself to take a little poetic license with his characters, but he doesn't invent characters out of nothing—or nothing but his imagination. We can also make useful distinctions between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. There's a pretty old book by George Steiner called Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The operational word is or. Steiner says, essentially, that you can like both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but you can love only one. You are either a Tolstoyan or Dostoevskian in the deepest part of your imagination. And in those terms, most critics of Solzhenitsyn say he is a Tolstoyan. I am sure they are wrong, and I'm not the only one who thinks they are wrong. The line dividing good and evil that cuts through every human heart is what Dostoevsky writes about. It's Dostoevsky that Solzhenitsyn quotes when he is writing his literary theory in his Nobel Lecture. It's Tolstoy he cites when he describes a false philosophy of history. He argues against Tolstoy. He recognizes Tolstoy as a great master and recognizes that he borrows things from him. So I don't want to have some sharp antithesis between him and Tolstoy, but I am just confident that the deeper alliance of spirit is with Dostoevsky, and in fact, people who write about the moral character of Solzhenitsyn, the moral vision of Solzhenitsyn, emphasis the Dostoevskian connection. Secular admirers of Solzhenitsyn tend to emphasize the Tolstoy connection.

    Outside of the literary community, what about popular appeal?

    Some years back, I heard somebody say, "The time will come when Russians will name streets and parks and schools after Solzhenitsyn." When I was in Moscow for a Solzhenitsyn conference in December 2008, Stephan Solzhenitsyn drove me, as we were on our way to the cemetery where his father was buried, down Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Street, a wide street in the heart of Moscow that had been changed to his name. It used to be called The Great Communists Street, or something like that—a plural term for Soviet higher-ups. How's that for a great change? It is a sort of short street because it costs so much to change a street name—signs, business stationery, and all that—but it's a significant street. And I thought, there it is, prophecy fulfilled. There's also a school in France named for him. France, of all places, because of something he wrote about that part of France. And the last thing I'll mention is that a Russian television network filmed, in 2006, new versions of a handful of the great classics of Russian literature. Dostoevsky got two—The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy got War and Peace. Pasternak got Dr. Zhivago. Bulgakov got The Master and Margarita. There was only one from a living writer, and it was Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle. This was considered by the people at the network to be already of such classic status that it could be included with those other books as a sample of the best that Russia has produced.

    Sounds like Solzhenitsyn is being added to the literary canon in Russia.

    That's right. I usually try to avoid that word, but that's a perfect way to describe it, and with my approval. He's part of the literary canon right now, already. And I would say that there's hope for his future standing because the controversies of the 70s have really died down; Solzhenitsyn has outlived the controversy about him, just as he has outlived the state that vilified him as its enemy. There is a future for Solzhenitsyn in Russia, no question about it.

    Most Read