Tuesday, August 17, 2010

from The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn's shortest and probably most read book on prison camps is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In it Ivan spends the day working to survive, only. If he was jailed for a crime, he's no criminal now. If he was a political dissident, all that is gone too. Ivan Denisovich does not have anyone to send him packages from outside, the things that would enable him to keep from starving or to enjoy small pleasures. He therefore works, a constant opportunist, trying to find ways to earn a piece of sausage or a pinch of tobacco.

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.

Illya Repin
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.

6 comments:

The Bug said...

You've tickled my memory - I read a book by him, but I can't remember which one. I think it was, of all things, in one of my parents' Readers Digest Condensed books. Hmmm. Boy I remember being just hit upside the head by concepts I'd never even thought of before. I was very young.

I've thought before about how I would survive in a world that didn't need office workers. Not very well, I think. It's good to consider your own self-sufficiency. I think it would make me feel less helpless.

Momma Fargo said...

One of your greatest posts, Ann T.! Got me lost in deep thought and discovery. Love it!

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
I don't think Reader's Digest would have condensed anything except Ivan Denisovich. That is a great book and I have read it over and over again.

You probably know much more about 'doing' than you think. But every once in awhile it's good to get those rusty skills together. I plan (once I have finished making room in my house) to paint, repair, maybe even strip and refinish a couple of pieces of furniture. It's been years!

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Have a great day!

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
I am glad I could add to your day!

Thanks for adding to mine!
Ann T.

stpetric said...

Took me a while to find my way to your blog entry on Solzhenitsyn. Interesting observations! it's a small thing, but I particularly appreciated your note that those in the first circle were not free to roam the earth. I've recognized the reference to the Inferno all this time -- but that implication had never quite bubbled up to conscious awareness! So thanks for that.

Ann T. said...

Dear St. Petric,
I am sorry to be so late in responding! I am glad my observation gave you something--and your comment has certainly given something to me.

Sincerely,
Ann T.