The First Circle
Another book Solzhenitsyn wrote about prison camps is entitled The First Circle. The title is meant to recall Dante's first circle of hell--not very far down in hell, and yet no access to heaven or even freedom to roam the earth. The prison here is for intellectuals still of use to an extremely-paranoid Stalin. The prisoners are kept in line by the threat of a worse prison--a far more dangerous gulag in Siberia, for instance. To stay in the First Circle, they must work on Stalin's projects. This particular team is involved in cryptography, that uses math (Euler functions) to help crack codes.
But one or more of the prisoners in this "country club prison" decide they will no longer aid the regime that has imprisoned them. The book is highly autobiographical, so you get a good view of themes Solzhenitsyn will be considering in his massive Gulag Archipelago series.
I always loved a particular quote in this book. This is an exchange between Pyotr and Nerzhin. If Nerzhin was not actively dissident before, has become so now. He is going to lose everything for the sake of principles, and he knows it.
'Pyotr Tromfimovich, do you know how to make shoes?"
"What did you say?"
'I asked; Will you teach me how to make shoes?"
"Pardon? I don't understand."
"Pyotr Trofimovich, you're living in a shell. I, after all, will finish my sentence and go off to the remote taiga, to permananent exile. I don't know how to work with my hands, so how will I live? It's full of bears. Out there we won't need the Euler functions for three more geological eras."
"What are you talking about, Nerzhin! As a cryptographer, if the work is successful, you'll be freed ahead of your sentence, the conviction will be removed from your record, and you will be given an apartment in Moscow."
"They'll remove the conviction from my record!" Nerzhin cried angrily, his eyes narrowing. "Where did you get the idea I want that little gift? 'You've worked well, we'll free you, forgive you. ' No, Pyotr Trofimovich!" And with his forefinger he stabbe at the varnished surface of the littel table. "You're beginning at the wrong end. Let them admit first that it's not right to put people in prison for their way of thinking, and then we will decide whether we will forgive them."
I have learned various things from this quote. One, that it is necessary to have techne/practical knowledge, the ability to make things, as well as intellectual attainments, in order to be truly free to decide. I think I worry about the U.S. sometimes because I fear we are losing especially practical knowledge: skilled trades. Yet, if I return to Ivan Denisovich, I can see that skilled trade is not enough either. Ivan Denisovich's world is small. He can't grasp anything beyond the immediate, or see that his incarceration is only part of a wider world.
To illustrate something of the hazards of camps, I bring you an oil painting from Tsarist Russia, by Illya Repin: They Did Not Expect Him (1884-1888). Repin painted the return of a man from the Tsar's gulag. The picture will expand if you click on it. It is considered one of his best works and is an image I turn to over and over as well.
I don't mean to give a depressing message, but one about self-reliance, self-help, freedom v. despotism, and expanding horizons. I think many authors write about prison camps as a microcosm of the world of daily routine.
We need to look up every once in awhile. We need to look down every so often. And sometimes, we need to look beyond.
Anyway, this is what I thought about today.