After reading Solzhenitsyn

In The First CircleLate last year I read In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which is set over three days in a prison camp in Stalin’s Russia. It brought on a poem of sorts:

what I know
when I read Solzhenitsyn
is that my life
is easy peasy
with reliable light and heat
and food
and company of my choosing.

I can resent
the disability of a painful knee,
fear losing my mind (the ability
to pay attention,)
the pleasure of knowing,
of finding out,

and count on
being able to stay,
as well as
the freedom to think
and say.

Note to self:
have the grace
to be grateful.

Unlike The Gulag Archipelago, which I read many years ago, and which is set in Siberia, the prison in In The First Circle is located in the Moscow suburbs. Many of the prisoners are technicians or academics. They are adequately fed and enjoy good working conditions; however if they find disfavour with the authorities, they can be instantly shipped to Siberia. And they know that their work is not as useful or relevant as it could be but dictated by the aspirations of their gaolers. “Production plans were not carried out by those who designed them—any more than those who gave orders to attack actually charged into battle themselves.” The prisoners live with this knowledge along with the always-present possibility that their sentence will be arbitrarily extended.

The title refers to Dante’s first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy,where the philosophers of Greece, and other non-Christians, live in a walled green garden. They cannot go to Heaven, as they were born before Christ, but they have a small area of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.

Spied on, spying on each other, subject to the whims, jealousies, fears of their gaolers and gaolers’ overseers, missing their families, of course the prisoners get to talking about the meaning of work and life and all. I was chilled by the the society Solzhenitsyn portrays and by noticing that it did not seem as distant and “over there”-ish as it would have a decade or two ago.

“Unfortunately for us mortals and fortunately for the powers that be, it is in the nature of man that as long as he is alive there is always something that can be taken away from him.” (Hey, Mr Solzhenitsyn, women are mortals too, but in the 1960s in Russia, when you were writing this, I guess no-one was spelling that out.)