Intro. [Recording date: September 6, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: This is a bonus edition of EconTalk, Part II of our Book Club reading In the First Circle, the first uncensored edition by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, with U. of Vermont Professor of Russian Language, Literature, and Culture Kevin McKenna.... In our first episode we talked about Solzhenitsyn's life and the political and social climate he lived through. Today we're going to turn to the book itself. I want to let listeners know you can talk about the book with your fellow readers and listeners on Facebook and on the EconTalk Subreddit we've created. We will have links to those opportunities posted on the page for this bonus edition. I also want to say there will probably be some SPOILERS in our conversation today. You might want to wait till you finish the book before listening. And having said that, for me, the plot twists are not that important to enjoying the book, in my view. But, you may feel otherwise. So be forewarned.
Russ Roberts: Kevin, let's start with the main characters in the book. And, you've singled out three. In the first episode, we talked about what you called the polyphonic nature of the book: There are many, many characters woven together, but there are main characters who take up more time and who Solzhenitsyn wants us to understand more deeply. Who are they?
Kevin McKenna: Sure. Well, the first so-called main character, I think the one that most identifies with Solzhenitsyn himself, would be Gleb Nerzhin. Gleb, as we know, has been arrested, serving in World War II. Eventually he ends up in this sharashka, or, that is, research camp, on the edge of Moscow. And, over the course of the novel, Gleb is searching--as was the case for Solzhenitsyn himself at this particular age--Gleb is searching for a number of answers to the meaning of life. We know he's engaged in a kind of spirit of Taoist philosophy, and skepticism, early on. And he turns to two other characters who we could call, refer to, as central characters. One would be, of course, his philosophical Communist friend, Rubin--Lev Rubin. Ironically, Rubin is a strong devoted Communist believer. This is ironic because the fictional Lev Rubin was one of Solzhenitsyn's or his character, that is Rubin's character, is based on one of Solzhenitsyn's closest friends, while he was in the Gulag camp. And the third character, Sologdin, has a quite different philosophy from that of Rubin. While Rubin is a dedicated, devoted Communist, Sologdin--I'll pronounce that slowly--has a very different philosophy of life; and he, Sologdin, tries, throughout the early part of the novel to influence Gleb's understanding and approach to life. Sologdin is essentially the master of himself. He does not give in to any philosophy; he does not give in to--certainly--Communism. He, Sologdin believes that he, himself, that the talented man or person themselves in life should dictate and control their own futures, their own fates. And as we're going to come to understand fairly early on in the novel, Sologdin is going to make a bargain with the system whereby he, as one of the engineers, the prison-engineer zeks in the camp--he is going to go ahead and to cooperate, because he has, Sologdin has discovered the secret to what has been making their whole phonologic research so difficult. And, in doing so, Sologdin is going to be able to leave the camp as a prisoner: He'll be able to return to Moscow, to live in freedom; he'll be given untold wealth, etc., etc., etc. Now, I don't want to get carried away: This goes into one of the major themes of the novel. But I would say that those three central characters--Nerzhin, Rubin, and Sologdin--certainly occupy the first half of the novel, with their various philosophical and ethical discussions. I would probably add, the character of Spiridon. He's the peasant. He's nearly blind--I believe he's blind in one eye and half-blind in the other eye. He is older than the other three. And he, in Solzhenitsyn's creation, essentially represents the wisdom, the home-spun wisdom, of the Russian peasant. And, in fact, while throughout the novel Gleb Nerzhin alternates between turning to Rubin and turning to Sologdin for answers to the questions that he, Nerzhin, has about life, ultimately he's going to turn to Spiridon. And this come a little bit later in the novel; and perhaps you and I can discuss that at a later point.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think it's actually my favorite scene in the book. But, there are many, so it's hard to--
Russ Roberts: And let's just also talk about the overall plot. The book opens very differently from its original edition, which I think was about a doctor dealing with a medical issue. Instead, this uncensored edition opens with a Russian, a high-ranking Russian bureaucrat trying to leak information to an American or Canadian counterpart in order to alert them to Soviet atomic bomb efforts. And that's the first 5 pages of the novel. And, for a while, it kind of disappears for a while. We're not quite sure how or if that's going to come back into the plot. But, of course, there's a phone call; and we don't know for a while whether it's recorded or not. But that phone call becomes a centerpiece to the last, oh, maybe third of the novel. And, why do you think he chose this--let's not talk about why he censored the plot. That's pretty clear; I can understand that. But, why is this the plot that he wanted to write about?
Kevin McKenna: Mmm-hmmm. Essentially, Solzhenitsyn was not satisfied with the success of Volodin--this is the name of state security officer, kind of a young diplomat in his early 30s. Solzhenitsyn was not, in his censored version, which is the version that appears in 1968, Solzhenitsyn was not satisfied with his success in both the character of Volodin himself as well the success of the plotline. In his censored version, Solzhenitsyn's censored version, as you noted, we have a fictional event where Volodin places a telephone call to a friend of the family, a doctor. And this all deals with, essentially, a fictional event. One of the problems with the first printed version--which would actually be the initial version of the censored novel--one of the problems with that is that there are 8 chapters that Solzhenitsyn had had to delete. And a lot of those chapters, particularly in the central part of the novel In the First Circle, as opposed to The First Circle--those chapters were deleted. And they create and embellish and focus on Volodin's character, as well as the central plot line. Solzhenitsyn goes to this factual event. He, as a Russian, he as a writer, is very keen on fact. And what may seem to us in the 2009 translation, In the First Circle, what may seem to us as an extraordinary difficult-to-believe event--that is, a Russian diplomat calling the American Embassy in Moscow to warn the American Embassy of a plot of a Soviet in New York City to receive the secret plans for the atomic bomb from the Americans--while that sounds ludicrous, it is entirely factually-based on the Kovalev[sp?] incident that takes place, indeed, in 1949 in New York City. As a reader of the novel, I would say Solzhenitsyn's treatment of the factual event is infinitely better than what I see to be his unsuccessful treatment of the fictional calling of a Russian doctor.
Russ Roberts: What I found surprising about that decision--and, you know, as an America, I don't know how a Russian of the time would view it, a Soviet citizen reading it in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or today. But what I found fascinating about that as the lynchpin of the story is that, we are deeply enmeshed in the sharashka, with the ethical and moral dilemmas of Nerzhin, Rubin, and Sologdin. And they talk about them all the time. Some of them they don't talk about, obviously, because they can't. But we hear their inner dialog often. And we understand how the difference between, say, Rubin, and Nerzhin, and how the commitment to Communism for Rubin affects his decision-making and so on. We understand that Sologdin is tempted by rewards to make progress on this technology, that ultimately is going to help the regime enslave people, and harm them, and oppress them. And so, we all understand this horrible central dilemma, at the heart of the novel. And yet, the--Volodin phone call, which starts the novel--that's treason. He is betraying the Soviet Union. And there is a debate within the book--of course, the characters in the sharashka debate, whether they should rely on the Americans, whether the Americans are a force for good, whether the Soviets are evil--you know, the power in the Party. So they are all dealing with that. But Solzhenitsyn creates this character in the center of the novel in the background, Volodin, who is betraying his country, weakening his country, keeping his country--trying to keep his country from getting access to technology that will allow them to compete against the Americans. And I found that to be a fascinating decision. And--major SPOILER alert: so, if you want to stop listening here, you may. Major spoiler alert: He gets caught. And his--and it's a brutal experience. And we know it's going to be much more brutal than what we observe in the novel itself. And, are we supposed to root for him? feel sorry for him? And if I were a Soviet would I feel differently than I do as an American? I found that part very interesting. It created a lot of tension that--it didn't have to. It could have just been a much less complicated crime.
Kevin McKenna: Well, Russ, let me address some of the points that you are making there, because there's something that you're missing very, very key to this novel. Without a doubt, you are entirely correct: This act was treasonous. If, and when Volodin were to be captured, and, say, tried for having made this treasonous act, he would either be sent directly to a Gulag camp or even more likely--
Russ Roberts: he was killed--
Kevin McKenna: he'd be executed--
Russ Roberts: yup. Yup.
Kevin McKenna: in Lubyanka Prison.
Russ Roberts: After being tortured. Yeah.
Kevin McKenna: And what you missed there, you and your readers if you look, I believe it's perhaps the closing paragraphs of Chapter 1, if I'm correct--I unfortunately left my copy of the novel at my office on campus--
Russ Roberts: I have it with me; I have mine with me.
Kevin McKenna: Good. At any rate, there's a line that says, and this is these are Volodin's kind of inner thoughts; and he says to himself, 'If a man cannot live according or in concert with the dictates of his conscious, how can we possibly live? How can we possibly call ourselves human beings?' Now, I've entirely misquoted that, since I don't have the book here in front of me. But that is essentially one of the central themes throughout this entirely novel. In the censored version--that is, [?], I think 9 chapters shorter than the novel that your listeners are reading, this question appears just about in every single central character of the novel. Ultimately, of course, the peasant, Spiridon, is going to provide the answer to that question. Throughout the entirety of the novel, Volodin is on a search. He is on an adventure, of sorts. As you've already indicated, while the novel opens with Volodin, the final chapters of the novel will end with Volodin. He indeed is going to be caught. And we see that he, Volodin, in those closing chapters, commences a life at the point where we have been meeting Bleb Nerzhin. Tying, of course, the two characters together. Further tying the two characters together, of course, is this theme of conscience.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Kevin McKenna: A human being, in Solzhenitsyn's mind, in his belief, in his character, in his soul--we human beings have to be able to live consistently with the terms of conscience in our own lives. Where Volodin, not to take this act, were he to continue to kind of live the sybaritic life that he has been leading all of his life, he understands that he essentially would not remain human. He would be giving in to the system. So while, Russ, you are entirely correct that this is a treasonous act, it's an act that he has to undertake in order to remain a human being, in order to be able to live with his conscience.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I don't--I totally agree with that. I understand that--and when I called it a treasonous act, obviously treason in an immoral regime can be a virtuous thing. That treason is a negative term--but I just wondered whether the reader in the Soviet Union in 1968 or today would have some unease. Let me say it differently. The zeks in the sharashka who work on the technology--on voice recognition and voice cryptography--we sympathize tremendously with them because they are caught between a rock and a hard place that no human being should have to deal with--very similar to moral dilemmas in Auschwitz and elsewhere, where people were put in an--there's no attractive solution. There's nothing--you are forced to do something immoral or die. And often the immoral act that you're doing has grayness to it, in the sense that--I mean, here, in the sharashka, there's nothing gray about it. Obviously there's nothing good about giving the Soviet regime more ability to eavesdrop and punish people. So, it's not fun to work on that. But I would think that there is a certain level at which betraying your country in the middle of the Cold War--I'll say it--let me say it a different way. I understand that many Soviet citizens during the Cold War rooted quietly for the Americans in the West. But some of them must have had some misgivings about that. And, I find it interesting that the book doesn't come to grips with that, and gives us a moral dilemma at its center that's a little more complicated, to me, than the sharashkas' [?] moral dilemmas.
Kevin McKenna: Well, I think you might be over-emphasizing, let's say, the number of Soviet citizens during the Cold War who were rooting for the Americans. With respect to the Space Race between the two countries, indeed I did find that to be the case. I could go on and on for that at great length, but I don't think it's all that germane to the novel. But, during the Soviet period, and today by the way, the Russians in 2018 are fiercely patriotic. Your very good question about how would the readers today look at Volodin's treasonous act of calling the Embassy is good for this reason: I would say that those Russians today reading this novel who indeed have found that comfort place in their own conscience, they would agree with Volodin. But, I can assure you, the overwhelming, vast majority of Russians today--pretty much, by the way, the same for, the overwhelming number of American citizens today--have not reached that comfort zone between the way that we lead our lives and the success or failure in its relationship to our conscience. Are we motivated primarily, as is Solzhenitsyn, and of course, Gleb Nerzhin--are we motivated primarily by our conscience, our duty to our conscience? Or, like the overwhelming, vast majority of Russians and Americans, are we motivated more so by personal interests? That might have to do with a career or getting ahead, etc., etc.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, I totally agree with you on that. Just to be clear, I think Volodin's act is a heroic act. But I'm raising the question whether others might not have felt that way.
Kevin McKenna: Some would, and some would not.
Russ Roberts: I want to ask you another question about conscience, which I found fascinating, which is, and we touched on this very briefly--I might have confused some readers, some listeners last episode. In real life, Solzhenitsyn divorces his wife on the grounds that it's very hard for her to be married to a prisoner. It's a very common experience. And I think I asked you and we left it hanging: I think they re-marry. Is that correct?
Kevin McKenna: They do. I believe--this is his first wife, whom he divorces. And they remarry once he gets out of the camp. Not right away, not immediately. I think that they remarry somewhere around 1957. I could be off on that year, but it was toward the end of the 1950s.
Russ Roberts: But for me, one of the most poignant, unbearable parts of this book are the romantic and sexual relationships between the prisoners and the women in their lives, some of whom are staff members, some of whom of course their wives back home. And the very, the scene--I just want to mention this in passing: You are given the advice as a writer to write what you know about. Solzhenitsyn is drawing so deeply--when he's describing the corridors and the stairwells, you don't feel like he's trying to imagine them. You feel like you are with him in those situations. And, the scene where the prisoners have--I think it's--how long do they have with their wives? Is it 30 minutes?
Kevin McKenna: Oh, gosh, I want to say--
Russ Roberts: Is it 10 minutes?
Kevin McKenna: I think it's 30 minutes. And it's once a year.
Russ Roberts: Once a year, with a guard who is looming over you, not giving you a moment--
Kevin McKenna: And you can't touch.
Russ Roberts: And you can't touch. There's something just unbearably sad about this. And the Solzhenitsyn character in the novel, Gleb, has a sexual opportunity that he turns down. And, we also get to watch his wife, Gleb's wife, have a potential romantic or sexual relationship. And Gleb does the honorable thing: He honors his marriage, he forgoes the sexual opportunity. And it's really an extraordinary--I found it very powerful, given that--you know, we don't know what Solzhenitsyn did in the camps, romantically, personally; we don't know what he did ethically. But, what I found extraordinary about this--one of the many things I found extraordinary about the book is that it was clear that this is what he wanted to be, Solzhenitsyn, in the form of Gleb. Whether he actually lived such a high code in his real life experiences, we don't know--or, I don't think we know. But, it's clear that in his fictional ideal, he was an honorable man, in virtually every dimension. It's such a heroic story, for so many of the characters. But for him especially.
Kevin McKenna: Yeah. Well, Solzhenitsyn, the man now, not the writer, has acknowledged that he was not as comfortable with the way that he and the hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers during World War II conducted themselves as they approached, essentially, Germany. He does not, or he did not take pride in what his fellow soldiers and he himself were doing. I would not go so far as to say that he failed to live up to his ideals. Solzhenitsyn is perhaps, in my opinion--I can't think of anyone, any writer or any person, who succeeds in living up to his ideals more so than he himself. Does he have occasional failures? Yes, he did. But, I don't think that those--that is the failures of Solzhenitsyn personally as opposed to the fictional world that he creates in his novels--I find his fictional world far more interesting than his real world--
Russ Roberts: [?]
Kevin McKenna: And that's saying quite a bit. Because his real world was--
Russ Roberts: darn interesting.
Kevin McKenna: [?] quite alive.
Russ Roberts: Let's turn to the Stalin chapters. There are 4 or 5 chapters on Stalin. Which I enjoyed just tremendously. I found them incredibly entertaining--funny, in a dark way, of course. And fascinating as psychological portraits of a monster. But you could have cut them out of the book. They play no direct role. And, in fact, I'm going to add one more aspect to the book, which, I want you to tie these two together, which is: Another one of my favorite chapters was the trick of liars, where we see these bumbling, over-promising, stressed out Soviet bureaucrats and military officials lie and over-promise. The psychological insights are just unbelievable: the temptations in those settings, they are beautifully portrayed. But, you don't need them. So talk about what they add--and I say "need" them: they don't, if those were the chapters you cut, you wouldn't lose any of the plot. But there's something else. Why do you think they are there, other than to indulge our enjoyment of them? Which, they are spectacular. But why are they there?
Kevin McKenna: I'm going to speak out of both sides of my mouth. You've made a very good observation, in that many, many, many literary critics, both Russian literary critics and those from the United States and Europe, etc., etc.--a lot of literary critics feel that the Stalin chapters are unsuccessful and that indeed, they could be deleted. Speaking out of the other side of my mouth, I would not agree. And the reason I don't agree is that those chapters, 19 through 23, not only do we, not, let's say, American voyeur readers who encounter this scathing indictment of the psychopathology of Stalin himself, what we fail to recognize is that, like the zeks--the prisoners--in the First Circle of Hell, Stalin himself finds, by the last two chapters, 19 to 23, realizes that he himself resides in his own circle of hell--a hell of self-deception or a hell of ego or a fear or a doubt of suspicion. He's fearing and suspecting and resenting Lenin, who is now decades dead. And we see this psychological pathology of Stalin himself where he has imprisoned himself in his own personal circle of hell. And, by extension, I would say, as you initially indicated, the, what? The management, the head of the military departments and the research departments, they, too, find themselves find themselves in a First Circle of Hell, like the zek prisoners. For example, when, Chapter 10, entitled "The Rosicrucians," when the two prisoners, Prancikov[?] and Bobuinian[?] go to visit Colonel Yakoniv[?] and they are able to exercise far greater freedom than the head of this institute, Yakoniv[?] can--I think it's Prancikov[?] who says, and I quote, 'You need me, and I don't need you.' He goes on to say, 'Shout at your colonels and generals. They've got a lot to lose. But the man from whom you've taken everything is no longer in your power. He is free again.' This is a direct quote from that chapter. And, by extension, we note that the deputy minister of state security, Sebastianev[?], as well as the head of the special equipment section of the ministry of state security, Major General Roaskalupov[?], and finally, the Chief of Operations at the institute, the Colonel of Engineers, Yakoniv[?], they are going to have to meet with and lie to Stalin's minister of state security, General Abakumov[?] in the same way that the zeks have lied to Yakoniv[?].
Russ Roberts: Of their progress. Yeah.
Kevin McKenna: Yeah. In other words, the extension of Dante's metaphor of hell is very rich in this novel. And in response to your original observation, I would keep the Stalin chapters, because we see that at the very top, at the pinnacle of this triangular power-relationship, Stalin, obviously, he, too, is a prisoner.
Russ Roberts: And he's also, in some way--the other metaphor that came to my mind, besides the First Circle, is a web. A spider web of--
Kevin McKenna: Sure. Very good--
Russ Roberts: since everyone's trapped and struggling to get free. And Stalin in some sense is the weaver of the web--
Kevin McKenna: Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: He's the spider at the center. But he's entangled in it, also, in so many ways.
Russ Roberts: You know, there's another chapter you could do without, in theory, which is the extraordinarily brilliant chapter where there's a propaganda lecture on Stalinist theory. And it has no content--the lecture. But, of course, it seems grand and important; and we watch as the attendees drift off, write notes to each other, just like in a bad school setting. And, it reminded me--this is a very--it feels weird making this contemporary references, but it reminded me a lot of the series called The Wire, which is about Baltimore and David Simon's brilliant creation of, in the first season, of the drug war. And you see the different characters--the drug addicts, the dealers, the police, and the bureaucrats above the police all enmeshed in this system trying to do their jobs, get ahead, make money, get promoted. And it's a very symbiotic relationship, akin to, you know, 'You need me. I don't need you.' They all need each other, unfortunately--many of the characters need each other. And they find themselves in what is essentially an immoral landscape. There's really going to be no easy way to go forward in line with one's conscience. And, in that series, one of the things that's so effective about it is you don't know who to root for after a while. You start sympathizing with the drug dealers, who like any other business are just trying to--but then again, you've got people dying from drug overdoses, and then you've got the police doing brutal things but also trying to do what they think is the right thing. You know, it's just very--it's similar in the sense that the system itself has a set of incentives that are relentless. And I think that's a better way to describe what's going on here, rather than just say it's symbiotic. The incentives built into the system entrap everyone. In this case, the zeks want to provide the technology because that way they might get free. The bureaucrats want to make Stalin happy so they can get a promotion. Stalin wants to be free of his worries and fears of [?] being overthrown; he wants to have more power--hard to believe, but he does. And, given those incentives, which of course Stalin has created, and the system itself has emerged from his paranoia and brutality, everyone is then entangled in it in different ways, enmeshed with each other, enmeshed in those brutal incentives. And, of course, much of the book is the heroism of the zeks who refuse to respond to those incentives. It's just an important point in economics. We always assume people respond to incentives. And, of course, most of the time they do. Often they do; in some dimension they almost always do. But, sometimes something calls with a higher incentive--that of conscience. And, I think that triumph of people refusing to betray their conscience in return for what seems to be gain is really the--is, as you mentioned in private email with me--is really the essential lesson of the book. That, there are times when we forego benefit for greater good. And it's just such a poignant, powerful example of that.
Kevin McKenna: Spinning off of what you just said, let me note a kind of ironically we see how those people in the novel--and they are primarily the prisoners, the zeks--those who are in their own first circle of hell, prisoners, quite creatively and engagingly, Solzhenitsyn indicates that those occupants of the First Circle of Hell tend to be far freer than those who occupy the First Circle of Power. Whether it's Abakumov[?], historically accurate person--he's not a fictional creation--or whether it's Stalin himself. And I would say, next to or maybe alongside conscience, the theme of being free; and for a writer like Solzhenitsyn, as well as the prisoner Solzhenitsyn, the theme of freedom--how is it, can a prisoner be free? And what Solzhenitsyn I think succeeds in doing in this novel, and really in all of his fiction, is to indicate that prisoners in life or in the Soviet Union can actually be freer than most people living outside the camps. You may want to delete what I'm about to share, kind of a personal experience, but let me go ahead, if that's okay with you.
Russ Roberts: Please.
Kevin McKenna: To share an experience that I had, oh, gosh, this would have been about 1981. I won't go into all the details, but I was living for about a year and a half in, then Leningrad. And I was a great lover of jazz. And I happened into a jazz bar in Leningrad. And I met a man, a zek, a prisoner, who had been arrested in 1976 and sentences to a Gulag camp--his was up on the Arctic Circle--essentially for mooning the President of the United States. I believe this would have been, perhaps Jimmy Carter, way back in 1976. But at any rate, I met this fellow; his name is Sasha. No last names intended. And Sasha could not have been more excited to meet an American, whom he, naively though, would take Sasha's story back to Washington, D.C. And his story was essentially this: He and I spent a night together, essentially listening to, my listening to his account of what it was like to live in this camp for 5 or 6 years. And it was an awful story: I don't need to rehearse it; we can just read Solzhenitsyn's novel. But I remember how he ended the story. He said--we were on, oh probably about the 7th floor of a hotel and we were sitting in a window, an open window--and he said, 'Look at those people down there on the street.' This was now 5 a.m., and women were pouring in from all corners of that part of the city with their milk jugs, essentially to have their milk jugs filled up with milk, blah blah blah. And, looking out of this window on the 7th floor of the hotel, it looked like ants crawling around. And he said, 'This is life in the Soviet Union outside of the camps. There's no way in the world that these people are free.' He said, 'I, for 6 years, living in the camp, was far freer than these people that we're looking at down on the ground.' And, this is what, in my opinion, Solzhenitsyn is trying to capture and to share and to pass on to his readers, the value of the meaning of freedom. Matched, of course, with his great thoughts on living in concert with one's conscience.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's very well said.
Russ Roberts: I want to add two things to that. One is, it reminds me of Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which book I recommend, which is a similar theme, idea, that physical suffering is not really the measure of our physical pleasure. It's not the measure of our wellbeing. And it's a theme we might come back to some time here on EconTalk: it's a deep, obvious deep philosophical issue. The other point I want to make is that I think Solzhenitsyn hammers on that relentlessly, in the book: the idea that, almost that--it reminds me of friends of ours who had two kids and lived in a two-bedroom apartment; and the two boys, young boys, shared a bedroom. When they went to visit a friend in the suburbs who lived in an enormous house, one of the kids said to the other, 'I feel sorry for them. Each kid has to sleep by himself.' And, I wonder how much Solzhenitsyn's rationalizing this unbearable, horrific deprivation that he has to go through--that his life is ripped from him, that the pleasures of married life and normal society are unavailable to him. And he's stuck in this horrible first circle of hell--it's better than the other ones, but he's stuck in this circle. So, one thought I had, of course, is: Well, this is the way he deals with it, is he says, 'Aaah, it's actually better. It's not just not so bad: it's actually better. I feel sorry for those poor people struggling as they did in the Soviet Union to get their milk for the day,' and to just go through the--I'll say it a different way. Daily life under Communism was somewhat degrading. It did not have the opportunities that we are blessed with and that so many people have today. And so, he was right, to some extent; but you also wonder whether he was psychologically just trying to make himself feel better. At the same time, it's obviously true, and he captures this so well, that his life in the prison was like being in a philosophy seminar. And I think he was being--I don't think it was just artistic. I think the conversations he had there, just like wartime is often, for all its horror, is a transformative event for the people who are fortunate to survive. So, it's not like he would say, 'Oh, everyone should have the thrill of being in a camp.' He's saying, 'Well, in the camp, you are forced to come to grips with meaning and with philosophical and ethical issues.' The other point I just want to make quickly, which I thought, as fiction motif is just extraordinary in the book, is that: The real Gulag looms over the book. The characters who, at the end, go off to the real Gulag, have to leave the sharashka, who trundle off in the meat wagon--which is unbelievably; I get goose bumps just mentioning it--as it's driving around town and deceiving the passers-by who see it and think it must be a food delivery, when it's actually human beings going off to a far worse fate than the First Circle of Hell--the sharashka. And Volodin, who we see basically his first night in prison--the worse and even more horrific things that await those people are never described. They are never made vivid. Now, we can read about them in his other books, obviously. We can read about them in the book The Gulag, which is nonfiction. We can read about them in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which isn't a real camp. But, in this book, he makes the conscious, clearly conscious decision not to embellish. He lets--he doesn't exploit that to make us feel even sadder. It lets it be unspoken. I think that's just an unbelievably interesting fictional decision.
Kevin McKenna: Well, I could not agree with you more. And you're touching on something I believe is very important for us Americans reading Solzhenitsyn's novels to understand. When his works were first being translated into English and becoming accessible to us here at the end of the 1960s, throughout the 1970s, the early 1980s, and so on and so on, typically we Americans thought, 'Oh, Solzhenitsyn is a genius.' And we thought that he was so good because essentially he was revealing to the world the sins of Stalin and the tragedies of the camps, the Gulag camps. What I find to be--and this is going to triangulate back to the early part of your last observation--what I find to be the genius of Solzhenitsyn's fiction, his novels, is not that he reveals what Stalin did or what life in the camps was like. It's his artistry--the manner in which he does this. And what I mean by the manner or his artistry is precisely what you are referring to--the success--I think if we go back to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, those of your listeners who have read that novel already or who may want to in the future--your listeners are--and you and I--are absolutely astounded by the horror of this one day, this 24-hour period out of whatever it is, 3,364 days. And what Solzhenitsyn does, he never in the novella, Ivan Denisovich, or this novel, In the First Circle, he never screams out his pain. Or the pain of his prisoners, or his observation. It's the under-statement that is the main artistic device, I would say, that Solzhenitsyn employs in his writing. He leaves it up to us, his readers, to essentially scream our heads off. But never once does he or his prisoners do so.
Russ Roberts: Let's turn to the set pieces in the book that reminded me of Dostoevsky--there's a lot that reminded me of Dostoevsky, and we talked about this last time. The other thing I mentioned last time was the Faulkner Nobel Prize line about 'Great fiction is about the human heart in conflict with itself.' And I think your observation that--I think he made it very clear--it's very clear in his novels that Solzhenitsyn didn't want to write a bunch of books about Stalin's crimes. He wanted to also--he did; but he also wanted to also write about the human heart in conflict with itself. And that's really what makes this work, that understatement, so powerful. Let's turn to the set pieces. There are two chapters that struck me as sort of standalone: You could publish them as short stories. More than two, but two leap out, because they are so self-contained. One is "The Trial of Prince Igor, and the other is "The Buddha's Smile." It's the Buddha's--Buddha, possessive--the Buddha's Smile--is again, a heartbreaking glimpse at deception. It's hilarious, and it's heartbreaking at the same time. Talk about both those, if you can. It's almost--in a way it reminded me that he was channeling Dostoevsky--because Dostoevsky does the same thing: He'll have a chapter that sort of stands by itself. And many of Dostoevsky's chapters like that have been republished sort of on their own. So, talk about the influence of Dostoevsky on Solzhenitsyn, and those two chapters, if you could.
Kevin McKenna: Sure. Well, the way I would begin my comments is to refer back to the very last document that Solzhenitsyn wrote the day before he was kicked out, exiled, from the Soviet Union. And it's a letter which is called, "Live Not By Lies." "Live Not By Lies." And this is something that is very important thematically, as well as personally, to Solzhenitsyn the writer and Solzhenitsyn the person. And, in the chapter, "Buddha's Smile," the deception--
Russ Roberts: It's a whole lie.
Kevin McKenna: It's all a lie. And what he's in a certain sense, much as he does with the meat wagon at the very last two pages of the novel, there's the reality of a bystander on a street in the center of Moscow, looking at--I guess it's a Frenchman--looking at a wagon, a food wagon going by, and he says, 'Oh, how nice. The Soviets are trying to get deliveries of their food to their citizens.' While it's just the opposite. It's a meat wagon in the sense that some poor prisoners who have been just kicked out of the sharashka, the research institute, and they are now bound for Hell. Their first circle that they experienced in the sharashka, the research institute, long gone. They are going to worse circles of Hell. Now, "Buddha's Smile": Solzhenitsyn was very aware, and not pleased with--and we can even look later to his Nobel Prize address or to his speech at the Harvard Commencement--Solzhenitsyn was never comfortable with what he saw to be the United States's inability to see evil of the Soviet Union as it really was. And certainly, Mrs. Roosevelt and her little delegation visiting one of the camps, and falling into the trap of believing everything that their Soviet hosts are showing them--that is, the fresh clothing, change of clothing; the good meals, the elaborate[?] meals--
Russ Roberts: The religious books for exploring--the Koran and the Bible--
Kevin McKenna: That's right. That's right. And the prepared, and the system has prepared the prisoners so well, Mrs. Roosevelt inquires of one of them, 'I'm here representing the United States. Is there anything you prisoners here in the Soviet Union would like to share with me? That you would like Americans to understand?' And the question, of course, that one of them asks [?] were [?], 'We're very much upset by the issue of slavery and racism in the United States.' Well, clearly this is not at all an issue that Soviet prisoners in a Gulag camp are concerned about. This is what they have been told to say. And, of course, we see the naiveté of Mrs. Roosevelt, essentially through Solzhenitsyn's eyes, of this is yet another instance of Americans not understanding anything about actual life in the Soviet Union.
Russ Roberts: Now, this is a fictional event, as far as I can tell. Eleanor Roosevelt--
Kevin McKenna: Uh, no. Actually, she did--she--factual, I guess I want to say. She did visit a camp. Now, frankly, as I recall, this was not a camp in which Solzhenitsyn was present. But he heard this story of one of his fellow campmates, an experience that he had had a different Gulag camp. I could be wrong about that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I couldn't find it. I couldn't find any historical record of that. So, if there is, we'll put a link up to it. It doesn't matter. What's true is that Americans starting with Lenin visited the Soviet Union and brought back lone[?] reports that were terribly inaccurate. New York Times reporters won Pulitzer Prizes for reports that were literally lies.
Kevin McKenna: Exactly.
Russ Roberts: They hid the famine in the Ukraine, the deaths in the Ukraine--that's Walter Duranty. It's despicable that that prize--in my view--that this has never been revoked. But, people lied knowingly on behalf of the Soviet Union, as well as unknowingly. And this is an unknowing--
Kevin McKenna: Yeah, absolutely--
Russ Roberts: naive impression. Same thing has happened, of course, with Castro in Cuba, and others. But, that chapter is just spectacular.
Russ Roberts: "The Trial of Prince Igor" is--talk about what that represents.
Kevin McKenna: It's genius. Absolutely genius. While it might seem initially as, 'What does this have to do with the Gulag camps of the 20th century?' it's a wonderful satire, essentially talking about how it is that--oh, what would he be? probably 13th century--Russian prince by the name of Igor, how it is that Prince Igor becomes a captive of, I believe that it's a tribe of Mongol invaders. At any rate, the 20th century court trial is to try the 13th century Prince Igor for his failure to live up to the dictates of the Soviet system. So, it is a huge, comical chapter in which Solzhenitsyn brilliantly satirizes the Soviet system of law.
Russ Roberts: And the zeks are talking about Prince Igor because, 'Well, what's wrong with that? It's 700 years ago.' And of course they are really talking about the present.
Kevin McKenna: Yeah. And they are talking about the present in the sense that, that famous, what is it--Article 58? the criminal code article under which essentially all of the Gulag prisoners were tried and found guilty--this chapter essentially is bringing Prince Igor to trial under Article 58.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, I just want to mention--one of the most chilling asides in the book, which is just a passing remark, is when they can't decide which of the two potential suspects are guilty on the voice recording that they have. One of them, of course, is, we know, is the real person--it's Volodin. The other, I forget his name--some other bureaucrat in the state security office--it's a general, says, 'Oh, we'll find something on him, too. Don't worry.'
Kevin McKenna: That's right.
Russ Roberts: Don't feel bad, because all of us are guilty of something. We didn't maybe smile sufficiently when Stalin passed by or whatever it was.
Kevin McKenna: In fact, Rubin[?], a very, very enjoyable, prominent, likeable character, notwithstanding his marriage to Communism, Rubin, towards the end of the novel, when Volodin has been separated as indeed the person who made the telephone call, Rubin begins to experience a little bit of a sense of guilt, saying, 'Oh, gosh, now this fellow,' he doesn't know[?] well, 'Volodin, is going to be sentenced and subject to the kind of life that we live here in the Gulags.' And then he thinks, 'Well, no. The positive side of this is that the other four people who were accused are going to be free.' And it's an ironic kind of notion on Solzhenitsyn's part of how it is that we or one can kind of shift gain, guilt or blame to suit our consciences.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's extraordinary.
Russ Roberts: Talk about--I'd like to close with some insights about Spiridon. So, he's half blind. And, if I remember--by the way, I read the book this summer. Which was wonderful that I found time for it, but I didn't have time to read it again before our conversation. I suspect you've read it more than once. Is that correct?
Kevin McKenna: Yes. I follow Vladimir Nabokov's[?] beliefs on reading it. He made a very famous statement when he was teaching a literature class at Cornell University, end of the 1950s. And one of his graduate students made the observation that 'I,' like Russ, in fact, 'read this novel during the summer. But I haven't read it again since. And I'm not really following what you're saying.' And, Nabokov[?] responded by saying, 'Reading a novel? There is no such thing as reading a novel. Novels can only be re-read, re-read, and re-read.' So, that is kind of a humorous injection on my part, about your not having re-read it yet. I can pretty much guarantee that you will re-read this novel.
Russ Roberts: Oh, I hope to. But my memory is that Spiridon, who would mispronounce, worse, other than that--but Spiridon--he sweeps up. He's the guy who--is that right? Is he the snow sweeper?
Kevin McKenna: Yes. He's the snow sweeper. He's--unlike the genius physicists and chemists and mathematicians, etc., etc. who populate this research institutional, Spiridon is more or less sent there by mistake, to the Institute. And he ends up being--he never even finished high school, much less college. He's not an intellect. He's not an intellectual. But he's--
Russ Roberts: He's wise.
Kevin McKenna: He's very wise. He enlists in a sense to sweep floors or to sweep the snow or shovel the snow outside between two points in this camp. And, in relation to that, Sologdin[?] and Mirgin[?] come out to work--that is, to shovel the snow with Spiridon as often as they can, so that they can carry out and conduct the kinds of philosophical conversations that they so love to do.
Russ Roberts: And, you mentioned earlier that Spiridon stands in for some of the wisdom of the peasant. And before we started taping, you mentioned a proverb of his. So, explain what that is.
Kevin McKenna: Sure. We have seen how it is that Nerzhin, early on in the novel, sees himself as a follower of Taoism. He sees himself, later, as a skeptic. And then, for hundreds of pages, he's turning to Rubin, his friend, for kind of answers on the meaning of life. And he alternates in turning to--excuse me; I'm trying to Spiridon, but I don't want to say Spiridon--
Russ Roberts: Sologdin, right?
Kevin McKenna: Sologdin. Thank you. To his friend Sologdin. And finally, let's say roughly at the last third of the novel, Nerzhin realizes that neither Communism of Rubin or the kind of will, the power of the will of the intellect, which characterizes Sologdin--neither of these two paths in life satisfies Nerzhin in terms of providing the answers to the meanings of life. And so he turns, indeed, to Spiridon--lately, in the novel--and he, in a long, lead-in paragraph, he says, essentially we see all this suffering, crime, and the people who have been slaughtered in our country by Stalin, etc., etc.; and he said, 'Tell me: What is right? What is truth?' You know, this. And Spiridon responds with a very, very famous and yet age-old wisdom, Russian wisdom, Russian proverb, by saying--let's see, how would I try and [?] this into English--by saying something to the effect--
Russ Roberts: You want to say it in Russian first, for us?
Kevin McKenna: Well, I'm now in the English part of--'The wolfhound is right. The man who hunts men is wrong.' And what this proverb means is that the nature of a wolf out in the wilderness--
Russ Roberts: You can't blame him.
Kevin McKenna: That's right. It's by his own internal nature that he, the wolf, hunts. But he says, 'When a man hunts, the lives and souls of his fellow man--that is wrong.' And this is a moment that goes back--this particular moment that we're referring to--goes back to Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, when one of the main characters turns yet again to a peasant; and the response of Prince Pierre[?Pyotr?], War and Peace, is the same response of Nerzhin in Solzhenitsyn's novel: 'What? Say that again. Finally I understand.' It's a brilliant chapter.
Russ Roberts: Well, my favorite moment of the book--I probably said that already, and if I did, I apologize, but I think this is my actual favorite, is, at the end of the book--I just looked it up; it's on p. 728 out of 741 pages, very near at the end. When, through the bizarre detail-oriented nature of the bureaucracy and the machinery of the bureaucracy, Nerzhin receives back his--finally gets back his volume of poetry. Yesinin--I would have pronounced it 'Ye'sinin'--
Kevin McKenna: 'Ye-see'-nin'.
Russ Roberts: Ye--see'-nin. So, Yesinin died tragically at 30. I looked this up. He died young. He was harassed by the NKVD [Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del]--the Soviet police. And, I think--I don't know if this is true, but he wrote his last poem in blood--
Kevin McKenna: That's right--
Russ Roberts: on his deathbed.
Kevin McKenna: He commit suicide. That's right.
Russ Roberts: Physically broken. So, this is a--it's not a coincidence that that's the poet who Nerzhin--he's not reading somebody in the 19th century. He's reading somebody who had died a few decades before. And this book is very precious--as is every book, in the book. Which is also beautiful. But, he's trying to give the book away, and he's struggling to do so. And finally, he gives it to Spiridon--who is blind. So, he gives this precious gift of a book to a man who can't enjoy it. And, in case you missed it, he has--also tragic moment right after where he reads Spiridon a letter from his daughter. Because Spiridon can't read. He's blind. And I'm not sure he can read, anyway.
Kevin McKenna: That's right.
Russ Roberts: And so, the symbolism that Gleb Nerzhin is giving a book of poetry which is--a book of poetry is by definition about as pure a work of art as you can have. It's not going to help you sweep better. He gives it to a man who literally can't enjoy it. It just broke my heart. That scene is just--and that whole chapter, and chapters around it of farewell, are--the vividness of them--and we talked about this a little bit the last time: As the reader, we are saying goodbye to the characters. So, as they say goodbye to their friends and get into the wagon, we are feeling the same emotions that everyone's feeling, like maybe we won't see them again.
Russ Roberts: Anyway, it's just such a tremendous, beautiful work of art. I'll let you conclude, Kevin, with anything else you want to add about it.
Kevin McKenna: Well, I might triangulate off of what you just said about Yesinin, the poet, and this book of poems that Gleb leaves him. In actual fact, there were three books that Solzhenitsyn, the person, took with him when he was sent off into the Gulag camps. One of the books factually was a book of poems by Yesinin, who, by the way, was Solzhenitsyn's obviously his favorite poet. But he was Solzhenitsyn's favorite poet because Yesinin's poetry gelled[?] so much with the lives of peasants and the lives of rural Russia. The second book that Solzhenitsyn takes, of course, is a copy of the Bible. And the third book is a copy of [?] Collection of Russian Proverbs. Proverbs are unbelievably important to Solzhenitsyn's fiction, at least. This is something I'm arguing in the book that I'm currently writing, a book that essentially addresses the influence of Russian proverbs and the role of Russian proverbs in Solzhenitsyn's fiction. But at any rate, this parting with Spiridon, there could not be anything that Solzhenitsyn could leave to his great, close friend Spiridon than the one book that means more to him, Nerzhin, than anything else. It's a beautiful way to have that parting scene between two very close individuals.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Here's--Yesinin wrote his last poem in blood because he couldn't find any ink. And there's some dispute about whether he committed suicide. Some say he was assassinated. But, his last poem is very brief. I'm going to read it. It's called "Goodbye, My Friend, Goodbye." It's also appropriate for the closing of the novel. This is in translation, obviously:
Farewell, my good friend, farewell.
In my heart, forever, you’ll stay.
May the fated parting foretell
That again we'll meet up someday.
Let no words, no handshakes ensue,
No saddened brows in remorse, --
To die, in this life, is not new,
And living's no newer, of course.
Kevin McKenna: Wonderful.
Russ Roberts: Really beautiful. And I think--maybe I'm misremembering this, but I feel like somewhere in In the First Circle, they refuse to make a grand farewell, because, of course, they want to at least pretend they'll see each other again. And I don't know--did Solzhenitsyn--Rubin, the character that Rubin is based on--was Solzhenitsyn's friend. Did they ever--do you know if they saw each other outside the camp when Solzhenitsyn got freed?
Kevin McKenna: Oh, yes, yes. I think it's roughly 1957. When--let us do it this way: Roughly in 1955, all of the zeks are freed from the Gulag's. They are not allowed to return home, however: They have to live on what is called [?], Eternal--oh, boy.
Russ Roberts: Exile?
Kevin McKenna: Exile. Thank you. I couldn't come up with that. But by roughly 1957, 1958, there is a proclamation of freedom, whereby these people who are living in Eternal Exile now may return home to their cities. Very interestingly, Solzhenitsyn does not return home to his--let's say his native home, Rostov[?], where he had left. He goes to--and this is the short story--Matrona's[?] house, Matrona's home, as the protagonist of that short story writes, having just got out of prison himself, 'I wanted to go to the real Russia.' And by the real Russia, he means the Russia of Yesinin, the Russia of Turgenev. And, by the way, by extension, the real Russia that Solzhenitsyn finds for himself in Vermont, where he settles for 17, 18 years after he has been kicked out of the Soviet Union.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Kevin McKenna. Kevin, I want to thank you for being part of EconTalk and enriching my understanding, and I'm sure my listeners' understanding of this great book.
Kevin McKenna: Well, I thank you for this opportunity to kind of share some of my thoughts and insights, particularly because later today I'm going into one of my classes where we're reading--it's a class on the fiction of Solzhenitsyn. So, this always helps me to kind of organize some of my thoughts.