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They are dead. You are alive. Do your duty.
The world must know all about it!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn capsulized life in a Russian forced-labor camp. Solzhenitsyn then went on to write The First Circle, detailing life in a GULAG "special prison" on the outskirts of Moscow. The title comes from Dante's vision of the inhabitants just inside the gates of hell:
That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;

And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself.
With these lines from the Inferno - Canto IV Dante tells us that the unbaptized and the virtuous without faith inhabit the first and outermost ring of hell. Their punishment is light - but still, they're in hell. The GULAG hell was one Solzhenitsyn was intimately acquainted with - he first entered the GULAG system in 1945. His crime? Writing a letter to a friend critical of Stalin. In the novel, it is 1949 and the prisoners, mostly technicians and engineers, are working on scientific projects for Josef Stalin; most notably a phone for voice scrambling-descrambling.

The novel was first published in 1968 and stands as a remarkable achievement, both for its political journalism and its literary qualities. And all of this accomplished while Solzhenitsyn had to keep his manuscripts hidden from the secret police. Even though he would win a Nobel Prize in 1970, he could not publish in his own country.

Despite his Nobel Prize for literature, Solzhenitsyn seems best known as a political writer - but this is an incomplete judgement, for his writing will stand long after the politics have been forgotten. In The First Circle, perhaps more than any other of his works, Solzhenitsyn has best synthesized the voices of the two Russian writers he is often compared to - Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

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