In this special episode of EconTalk, host Russ Roberts welcomed first-time guest and professor of Russian language and literature Kevin McKenna, of the University of Vermont. In what will be the first of a series on Solzhenitsyn’s novel, In the First Circle, the two discuss Solzhenitsyn’s life and times, and particularly what it was like to have been a novelist in the Soviet Union. (There are as yet no spoilers to the novel’s story, so keep reading if you’ve not yet finished!)

1- Who/what finally allows Solzhenitsyn to publish his first novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? What does McKenna suggest is ironic about its publication? How does it affect Solzhenitsyn’s future publications in and relationship with his mother country?

2- Why would the Soviets have encouraged their people to read classic Russian novels, as McKenna reports? What end would it have achieved for the party? (And why would Solzhenitsyn come to self-censor his own work, as in the original edition of this novel, The First Circle?

3- McKenna asserts that Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel prize made him a martyr of sorts in the West. Why was this the case, and how did this compare with Solzhenitsyn’s reception in his native Russia?

4- Both Roberts and McKenna agree that young people today find novels such as In the First Circle to be”too ethical, too moral, and too deep.” McKenna offers an explanation for why young Russians’ reading habits have changed, but what about Westerners? To what extent are Roberts and Mckenna correct about young readers today?

5- This episode is the first in what will be a book club “series” on In the First Circle, and as part of the conversation, Roberts talks about why he chose to do this. Have you read (or started reading) the novel yet? What are your impressions? What about other Russian classics, such as the ones mentioned by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pasternak? How does Russian literature compare to the Western tradition to you? What do you most appreciate? What do you find most objectionable?