Intro. [Recording date: August 17, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is Professor Kevin McKenna.... This is the first of several episodes on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's masterwork, In the First Circle. If you are interested, we can read along with the project. Just make sure you read In the First Circle: The First Uncensored Edition. You'll find it on Amazon listed in that way. It's a revision, an uncensored version of a book he wrote long before called The First Circle. Don't get The First Circle. Get In the First Circle. And of course we'll link to the book if you want to buy it directly, from our page. This episode is to introduce the author, Solzhenitsyn, and the historical and literary context of the book. In theory, there aren't going to be any spoilers, so if you haven't started reading you should be okay. I also want to add that while I'm confident there will be at least some additional episodes on the book, I don't know how many or whether they'll be bonus episodes or regular Monday ones. But, we'll try to keep you posted on here; and you can follow me on Twitter @EconTalker for updates. So, Kevin, let's start with the man himself, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This is the 100th anniversary of his birth year. Tell us about his life.
Kevin McKenna: Well, he had a very long and extremely and complex and interesting life. He's born in December of 1918. Somewhat interestingly, his father was involved in the First World War and did not live long enough to see his son being born--that is, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. His father came home from the war and unfortunately died within a few weeks in a hunting accident. At any rate, Solzhenitsyn, the novelist--our Solzhenitsyn--is born in the Caucasus Mountains in a town called Kislovodsk. He's got a pretty rough kind of childhood growing up. His mother, by necessity, has to work several kinds of jobs. Often she's away from where her son is living; and to a certain degree, Solzhenitsyn's aunt, or one of his aunt's, raises him to a considerable degree. He's going to, by the early 1940s, enlist or be called, drafted, into the army. He serves as an artillery officer during World War II, or what the Soviets call, and the Russians today refer to as the Great Patriotic War. So, from time to time if I say Great Patriotic War, I always mean World War II. He's received--
Russ Roberts: Has he been to college?
Kevin McKenna: Yes. He went to college, finishing up in about 1940. He, in fact, even gets married at the end of college, right before he goes into military service. He graduates from college with degrees in mathematics and physics, which is going to play into later life--that is, places where he lives and jobs that he has--as well as into the plots of a number of his novels and short stories. While serving during WWII towards the very end of the war, in fact in February of 1945, Solzhenitsyn is arrested. They'd just crossed into--that is, his military unit--has just crossed into Prussia. And in effect he's arrested for criticizing Stalin in a series of letters that he was corresponding in with a friend back home, or who was actually in the army, as well, serving elsewhere. Solzhenitsyn is interrogated in the famous Lubyanka Prison, and he's sentenced to a term of 8 years; and he's sent to a labor camp. His first, his initial labor camp, in fact is the setting for the novel that we're reading, In the First Circle. This is the labor camp Mavrino, which is really not all that much the kind of labor that we typically associate with Solzhenitsyn's life and terms in the Gulag. It's a camp, a special camp, for mathematicians, physicians--basically--
Russ Roberts: physicists--I think you mentioned--
Kevin McKenna: Physicists. Yes, I'm sorry. Did I say 'physicians'?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Kevin McKenna: Physicists, indeed. It's a camp which has been assigned a variety of different research tasks--essentially a camp for extremely bright and gifted Russians who happen to be, now, in prison. And, he serves there--essentially, that is, in this Mavrino research institute between the years of 1946 and 1949.
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to his arrest, though, for a minute. Just to make it clear, because it's sometimes hard to believe, for non-Russian folks: He was arrested by his own government. You said he was going into Prussia. They were advancing into the attack on and ultimate defeat of Germany. And, he's arrested for treasonous remarks; if I remember correctly, he said in this letter that Stalin wasn't doing a very good job prosecuting the war. Just like, a couple of sentences. But, of course, all the mail is censored. Which is not uncommon in wartime--'censored' is not the right word: it's read and censored. But the other part I want to just mention, because he's a little bit different, but he writes about this extensively in The Gulag, is that thousands of Russian soldiers were arrested after the war and thrown into prison camps if they had been in German prisoner-of-war camps. So, it's just important to think about--the camps we're going to be talking about--who is in them. Some of them are people who wrote an innocuous--somewhat innocuous after you read them--a pretty innocuous criticism of Stalin. Others are there under suspicion of treason, because if they were in a German prisoner-of-war camp, they may have collaborated with the Germans; they may have--who knows what. And so, the extraordinary thing, and so literally to me--'literally'--it's just unbelievable: that after suffering through a German prisoner-of-war camp you are greeted by your nation's police as a potential traitor and were thrown into a prison. And, an 8-year sentence was often, could be a death sentence. In American, or modern prisons, 8 years--okay, it's not fun. But these were--a lot of people died during their 8 year or 5 year or 10 year sentences.
Kevin McKenna: Yeah. As we read in the early chapters of the novel, In the First Circle, these 8- and 10-year prison sentences and terms, upon completion very, very often, in fact quite typically were converted into 15- and 20- and 25-year terms. So, in other words, theoretically--or I should say, both theoretically and practically, in practice--one could service his 10-year sentence and then have another sentence added onto this. The prisoners who went in, let's say, during the 1930s, particularly the early 1930s, we meet several of them in the novel itself who are now, let's say, in their 23rd, 24th, 25th year of sentence. This did not apply to Solzhenitsyn himself, nor to a number of his characters that he bases his novels on. But, you hit the nail on the head: at the end of WWII--now this would be following Solzhenitsyn's own arrest and interrogation and prison sentence--but in history and historical fact, Soviet soldiers who had indeed been taken prisoner, upon returning home to the Soviet Union they would either be arrested and immediately tried and sent to a Gulag camp; or, many of them, in fact, were executed. And this is why so many Soviet prisoners of war who were being released after the war from the German camps--many of them end up coming to Canada; some come to the extreme Northwestern part of the United States rather than going home. Because, by that time it was quite clear that they would either because arrested and sentenced to camp, or they would be executed.
Russ Roberts: Now, I want to mention two things that--again, to give a little more of the flavor. There's a joke--it's a fairly dark joke, but I'm pretty sure I read it in The Gulag Archipelago. The Gulag is, by the way--we should define what that is for listeners who don't know.
Kevin McKenna: Gulag is--well, the term Gulag means Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei--means the main administration of camps. Lenin, as early as the 1920s, in fact the early 1920s, followed by Stalin, essentially established what we would call, perhaps, concentration camps--quite different than the concentration camps that we associate for Jews in Germany and Poland--
Russ Roberts: They weren't explicitly extermination camps. They were work--they were labor camps. Although many people died.
Kevin McKenna: Oh, yes. Many people died. Typically, many people died en route to the camps. The camps often were based in the Arctic Circle, or in Siberia, or in Soviet Central Asia. But, at any rate, it's hard to say--the Soviets didn't keep records, and if they did keep them, they certainly didn't release them--but, it's estimated that several million Soviet citizens, both men and women, were sentenced to these Gulag camps between the early to mid-1920s all the way through, the extreme, early 1950s.
Russ Roberts: And Solzhenitsyn's history of this period of the camps, he called The Gulag Archipelago because it was--he saw it as a chain of islands that were linked together.
Kevin McKenna: That's right. Across the entire country.
Russ Roberts: But I was going to tell a dark joke, a macabre joke from that era--and I'm probably going to--I'm probably not going to get it verbatim right, but just a straightforward: when someone says to another--the prisoners are called zeks--z-e-k-s. Tell us about what that means, or where that phrase comes from, and then I'll continue my joke.
Kevin McKenna: Sure. Zek essentially means a person who has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to his or her prison camp experience. It's just essentially a collective noun referring to prisoners in the Gulag system.
Russ Roberts: Was there a longer version? I cut you off there.
Kevin McKenna: Zekichumly[?]--I'm afraid I only remember--the essence of it is basically a prisoner in a camp. A Gulag camp system.
Russ Roberts: And there's different kinds. There's political prisoners--Solzhenitsyn is one. There's actually--there's thieves and felons as well.
Kevin McKenna: That's right.
Russ Roberts: But the joke is, one zek says to the other, 'What's your sentence?' And he says, 'Ten years.' He says, 'What did you do?' He says, 'Nothing.' He says, 'No, that can't be. For nothing, you only get 8 years.' And that's the capriciousness of it. Writing a letter with a sentence in that's disrespectful of Stalin's skillset: I know in The Gulag, Solzhenitsyn tells a story--again, you never know whether these are jokes, true, or--there's--I think they are true but they are unbearably sad. Somebody wraps--somebody takes a newspaper and wraps a fish in it. But he wraps the fish, the part that comes to connect with the fish has a picture of Stalin from the newspaper in it. So, a neighbor informs on him and he's arrested.
Kevin McKenna: Oh, yes. Yeah. These are factual.
Russ Roberts: So, it's hard to imagine the tragedy involved here. It's just horrifying. So, excuse me: He comes out of the camps. He graduates from college. He's married. He goes to the war. He's arrested for a remark in a letter, and is in the special kind of camp called a sharashka[?] for 3 years--194-, you said--
Kevin McKenna: 1946 to 1949.
Russ Roberts: Doing scientific work on behalf of the regime. But as you read from the book, it's not like being in a labor camp but it's nothing like being in a normal institute, either.
Kevin McKenna: Yes. The First Circle--the title In the First Circle, obviously comes from Dante's comedy--The Divine Comedy. And as we read, in one of the very early chapters, I think it's Chapter 3 of the novel, there's a discussion once again among some of the zeks, who are talking about: What is the meaning of a sharashka[?]? and they say, 'Well, it comes, of course, from the notion of Dante's Divine Comedy. And the First Circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy was the easiest, the lightest; and it was essentially a circle of hell that Dante created for the intellects, the philosophers. He didn't feel--Dante, that is--didn't feel that you could really imprison these kind of pre-Christian philosophers in the more ugly circles of Hell. And, following that example, the First Circle in Solzhenitsyn's novel deals with essentially the intellects--the Soviet intellects--who are being spared, let's say, the lower circles of Hell. Now, as we're going to read--and I don't want to give anything away in the novel--a number of these prisoners, or zeks, in the sharashka ultimately have come to the sharashka from lower--5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th--circles of Hell, Gulag camps. And others are going to leave the sharashka, the 1st circle of Hell, and are going to embark on a journey to the lower circles of Hell.
Russ Roberts: And there is a--I think the word I would use is--I talk about that fish/newspaper story. There's a Kafkaesque element of surreal existence: those of you who haven't read anything about the Gulag or about Solzhenitsyn, when you read the book you'll get the flavor of that.
Russ Roberts: So, he's there for 3 years. He leaves there and goes where, in 1949?
Kevin McKenna: Well, he didn't leave voluntarily. And this has to do with the novel, once again; but I can't relate that experience at this point. But, at any rate, Solzhenitsyn indeed leaves the sharashka; in fact, in a very interesting ethical point of view or from an ethical perspective, he decides--Solzhenitsyn decides--that the sharashka, the First Circle of Hell is a bit too difficult for him in certain respects; and you'd have to read the novel in order to be able to understand the ethical, philosophical dimensions of Solzhenitsyn's decision. But he elects, himself, as is going to be true of some of the characters in the novel--he decides that he's going to subject himself to the lower circles of Hell. And this deals with, perhaps, one of the most important ethical, philosophical questions or premises of the novel: By what values, by what ethical systems do we human beings live? This is a question that is raised throughout Russian literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly by Leo Tolstoy at the end of the 19th century, a Russian writer who, along with Dostoevsky very much influenced Solzhenitsyn the man as well as Solzhenitsyn the writer. So, at any rate, Solzhenitsyn, in 1950, goes to what we would call now more of a concentration camp, a very ugly kind of camp. For those of your readers who have already read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, this is the kind of ugly experience--
Russ Roberts: brutal--
Kevin McKenna: brutal experience that Solzhenitsyn experiences himself. This takes place in Kazakhstan, between the years of 1950 and 1953. And it's during this period that, in order to spare his wife, some of the very ugly atrocities that are being committed against spouses, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers of those who have been arrested and sent to a Gulag camp, Solzhenitsyn spares his wife of that difficulty by divorcing her. And, lastly, it's in this period when he's in a Gulag camp in Kazakhstan that he has an early operation for cancer, there in the camp itself. And this is going to figure into another one of Solzhenitsyn's later novels called Cancer Ward. By 1953, 1954, Solzhenitsyn completes his 8-year sentence. We are getting now of course to the period of Stalin's death, which gradually kicks in release for hundreds of thousands if not early millions of zeks, or concentration camp/Gulag camp prisoners, to be released from prison; and gradually they are going to--initially they have to stay out in Siberia, but they are no longer in prison--and then gradually, let's say by 1957, Solzhenitsyn like many others were rehabilitated and permitted to return to Russia from Central Asia. Living in Kazakhstan especially in Central Asia during the 1940s and 1950s, brutal cold weather, not at all any kind of humane or even human treatment of the prisoners. But at any rate, from 1953-1954, Solzhenitsyn is finally being released from the Gulag camp; but he remains in what was then called 'perpetual exile.' And it's in this year, roughly a year after his treatment for cancer, his first treatment for cancer, that the cancer returns and Solzhenitsyn, now out of the camp but in perpetual exile, goes to the capital of Kazakhstan, Tashkent, and he's going to be treated much more successfully for the cancer that he suffered in prison camps. And this, as I've mentioned already, is going to be the setting for his novel, the Cancer Ward. By 1957, Solzhenitsyn, like thousands and thousands of other Soviet zeks, has not only been released from the camps, he's been released from perpetual exile. He returns to Russia. He moves initially to Ryazan, where he teaches mathematics in what we would probably understand as a middle- and high-school type of educational experience for Russian youths.
Russ Roberts: Before going on, I think--I'll put a little bit of historical context here. And I just want to mention one other thing before I do the historical context, which is: I haven't said why we are doing a Book Club on this book. Which is kind of embarrassing that I haven't mentioned it. But I just want to say to listeners: The reason we are doing this Book Club is that, for reasons not worth going into, I went back to this book. I had read the original version, called The First Circle, back 40 years ago. And I decided to go back and read it again in this new version. And I was so blown away by the book--I was so moved by the book--it is an extraordinary novel. It's thought-provoking; it's heartbreaking; it's funny. So, that's just a little ad. It's also very long: 740 pages. It's also very hard to read. And at the end of this conversation I'll give some suggestions on how to make that a little bit easier for a newcomer like myself rather than a professor of Russian literature like Kevin is. But, the historical context is, there is this period--and I'd like you to talk about it, Kevin--there's this period after the death of Stalin where the Soviet Union goes through what I guess is best described as some kind of thaw. So that the prison system--this liberation of prisoners is an incredible event. Now, at first they are liberated into exile; and then they are eventually allowed to sort of come back into normal life. But they are not really prepared for normal life. And it's not just a small group. It's hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And so, their society is grappling with this transition. Stalin has been in power for roughly years; has turned the entire country into a police state of informants and all kinds of other things. We're not going to talk about collectivized farming and created a famine in Ukraine which kills millions of people and this enormous prison system. But, talk for a little bit about what's going on outside the camps, what's going on in Soviet society at large in this period, say, 1954 into the 1960s, which is going to allow Solzhenitsyn to actually publish some of his books.
Kevin McKenna: Sure. Well, perhaps the most important aspect of this period, say between Stalin's death and the early 1960s, initially, the Russian people were totally caught off guard by the death of Stalin. He had ruled them for so long and they had become so accustomed to the strictures of living life in the Soviet Union that they now found themselves without a leader--a vorst[?] as it is called in Russian. And perhaps to help us imagine this: Russian and Soviet--and now by the way, both Soviet and Russian history--has never done a very good job of grooming successors to political leaders. We can look, for example, today, at Putin. He is very, very careful, as has been the history of the 20th century, in not grooming someone to replace him. We saw, of course, about 6 years ago, how it was that he more or less anointed Medvedev, his then-Prime Minister, to be elected as President, so that he, Putin, could claim that he was very democratic and he did not serve more than two terms in office. But, as we know, of course, in 2016, Putin then comes back, legally, and he's now the President; and he lengthens the term of the Presidency from 4 to 6 years. Well, my point is that, because no one is being groomed politically to succeed Stalin--as was true, by the way, as of to succeed Lenin--the Russian people find themselves lost. There's a triumvirate of Russian leaders, Stalin being one of these three members of the triumvirate, who, by 1956, has pretty much claimed the leadership of this triumvirate. And he--excuse me, did I say Stalin? Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev, one of Stalin's generals and members of his hierarchy. Khrushchev ascends to power, certainly in 1954, 1955, 1956. And he decides to move in a direction of what is called 'de-Stalinization of Russia' or of the Soviet Union. And, this period of roughly 1955, 1956 to the early, early 1960s is a period in which we begin to see relaxation of some of the extreme aspects of living life in the Stalin era. But, for our purposes we even see a relaxation in some of the literary codes and values under which Soviet writers had to write. What I'm referring to is something called 'Socialist realism.' And, unlike the strictures of Socialist realism, wherein a writer or an architect or a poet or a musician, etc., etc. had to subscribe and to ascribe to three criteria--basically, naharodnest[?], which means whatever was going to be created, for our purposes talking about literature, whatever was going to be written--had to deal with the values of the people. They didn't really--writers were not at all encouraged, in fact they were prevented from dealing with the lives of individuals. Individual was kind of a four-letter word in the Soviet period. In addition to this value of naharodnest[?], we have an expectation of ideenest[?], or what would be called ideological purity. That is, any writer, any musician, any conductor, architect, etc., etc., essentially had to create, with or in tune with the ideological premises and values of Marxism/Leninism. There was, again, once again, one could not use basically use his or her individual genius or individual interests to write or to create. And then the third one, not to go too far into depths here, of course, was partinest[?]--any kind of literary or other form of artistic creation had to deal essentially in accordance with the values of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And then the point is: Here in the West when we think of literary creation or music or art or architecture and so on, we ascribe, of course, different kind of values. We are much more prone to thinking of the values of the individual, for example. Or, we shun, at least, any kind of political or government control of creation, literary or music creation, etc., etc. So, in other words, this period of the thaw, roughly between 1956 and 1962, we are having a gradual relaxation with respect to literary values. And it's in this period that Solzhenitsyn, by 1961, is going to be able to submit a novella that he has written called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He never would have considered submitting this prior to the thaw. Because, not only would he be laughed out of town, he'd be arrested and sent back to some kind of prison camp. Or, as often happened, he would be sent, obviously, to a psychological ward--because anyone who would write something questioning the values of the Soviet Union had to be an insane person.
Russ Roberts: I can't help but think of William Faulkner's Nobel Prize address, where he describes the goal of art as to describe, "the human heart in conflict with itself." That is a non-Socialist realism kind of topic. It's not as threatening as, say, criticizing the regime. But what you are telling us is that at that level of individual struggle, torment, ethical issues, love, despair, etc., that was not what Soviet artists were supposed to deal with.
Kevin McKenna: Absolutely not.
Russ Roberts: So, he writes this book. And it must have been scary, even if there was a thaw. You know, the thaw--you never know if it's going to last. It was a tremendous act of courage to put this book forward. I'm sure it wasn't straightforward. But it's important to emphasize: It had to pass muster. It had to pass approval. It had to be--it wasn't like he could call a publishing house and they could go, 'Ehhh, I don't know if we should publish this. The regime might not like it.' There was an official way that things got published through the government.
Kevin McKenna: Absolutely. In order to be able--well, you, or I, or any person on the street, were he or she, let's say, talented enough in whatever they wanted to tackle for a literary submission to a publishing house: Anyone can write and submit, in the West, of course, their literary creation. In Russia, in order to be able to submit something you had written--whether it be a poem or a play or a novel, you had to belong to the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] Writers' Union. And, while, indeed, during the thaw there was some amount of relaxation, the USSR Writers' Union continued to exist. And, to become a member of the USSR Writers' Union, you absolutely had to subscribe, both in theory as well as in practice, to those three values of partiness, theological purity, and peopleness--or literature for the people. And so, Solzhenitsyn has to submit, um, his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to a literary journal, Novy Mir--The New World--that he feels he has the best chance to get it published. And it's also, at the time it was the leading literary periodical in the Soviet Union. And the editor, a person by the name of Tvardosky, recognizes immediately, on reading Solzhenitsyn's manuscript that this is a work of genius--extremely well-written and it has all kinds of qualities to it that Russian readers have not seen in a very, very long period. But, Tvardosky as the Editor in Chief of this journal, understands that no way in hell, of course, is this work going to be published. It's way too dangerous. And what Tvardosky does, he submits the manuscript from Solzhenitsyn to the one and only person who could say 'Yay,' or 'Nay' to this outside of the literary world. And that, of course, was Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev reads the manuscript. And he approves of it. Even the somewhat dim Khrushchev recognizes the literary value. But he also recognizes, first and foremost, that this is going to be a major contribution to his--Khrushchev's--de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union--
Russ Roberts: Sure--
Kevin McKenna: In other words--
Russ Roberts: It serves his purposes.
Kevin McKenna: It serves his purposes. Indeed. And so, this would be, again, for your American readers, this would be the equivalent of a novel or short story or play, whatever, to Barack Obama or to Donald Trump, to say, 'Can I publish this in the state of Vermont, or the state of Utah, or California,' etc., etc.
Russ Roberts: Well, and it's like somebody gives Donald Trump a novel that criticizes Obama. So, you figure you've got a shot.
Kevin McKenna: Well, that's a very good point. So indeed, Tvardosky, his journal, is given the permission to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It goes through numerous reprints. And while--I'm leaving a lot of the story out, of course--while the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republic] Writers' Union, many, many members of it were opposed to the publication of this novella of Solzhenitsyn's, they recognized that if Khrushchev has provided his imprimatur, they'd better follow suit. And so the novella is an extreme popular success. It has mixed and varied critical success, essentially owing to the very backwardness of the members of the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] Soviet writers' union.
Russ Roberts: Let me ask a question. At this point--so, we're in 1961--and I'm a, let's say, a 30-year old in the Soviet Union, I was born in the 1930s, so I've never lived under anything other than Communism and the Soviet Union: Can I read Tolstoy? Can I get a copy of Dostoevsky to read? Or am I only reading socialist realist products that are published under Communism?
Kevin McKenna: What the Soviets referred to as the Russian classics--Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and so on and so on--the great writers of them, 19th century, the Soviets actually, for the most part encouraged the reading of Russia's literary greats, but with many, many exceptions. A number of the works of Dostoevsky, for example his Notes from the Underground, were never printed in the Soviet period and were forbidden from being written. In other words, the Soviet presentation, let's say of Dostoevsky's works, was to say, 'This is what life is like in the West under Capitalism,' saying that some of the values--the crime and corruption and so on--the Soviets are warning their readers in the 20th century that the kind of life and characters, criminals and so on--the Raskolnikovs--that Dostoevsky is creating are very dangerous. They don't really see these characters or these plots the way that Dostoevsky intended or the way that leaders in the 19th century understood these works or, of course, any readers in the West understood those works.
Russ Roberts: But I mention it because there must have been an incredible sensation in the street in the Soviet Union that there was a book--forget the fact that it was written about--writing about the camps, which they all had some knowledge of indirectly because they all had a cousin or brother or husband--typically a man--in prison there. But also because it's, like, a new novel. I mean, they'd been reading all this junk--
Kevin McKenna: Oh, yes--
Russ Roberts: stuff that they were supposed to read, that was force fed to them, and now, here comes a novel about an individual's suffering. It must have just electrified them.
Kevin McKenna: It absolutely did. They had not read anything as honest and as exciting. And when I use these two adjectives I'm not really trying to address One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the way that many of us in the West received and perceived the novella. We essentially, let's say in the 1960s and the 1970s and even into the early 1980s, we thought that this was a literary masterpiece because it revealed the sins and the excesses of Stalin, and of his Gulag camp system--
Russ Roberts: And Stalin had been somewhat romanticized by the intellectual class of the West forever. So, this was a blow to that romantic movement. But as you say, most of us knew something about it.
Kevin McKenna: That's right. What we, certainly in the West, what we often failed to see is the actual literary genius--the artistic measures that Solzhenitsyn is bringing to this novella. Artistic mastery which Russian readers have not seen hitherto--let's say, almost, let's since the maybe the teens of the 20th century.
Russ Roberts: So, the book comes out. It's a huge success. But the thaw, the de-Stalinization thaw of Khrushchev from late 1950s to early 1960s changes again. And, I'm looking at the opening--the author's note to In the First Circle: it says, 'Written 1955-1958.' So, that's during the thaw. 'Distorted, 1964. Restored 1968.' So, the 'distorted' is, is that he self-censored this book--
Kevin McKenna: right--
Russ Roberts: because he was afraid it wouldn't get published. So, he changed the plot. He cut out 9 chapters. What's happening? And we'll talk about that in a future episode. But: What's happening on the ground that makes that necessary in the Soviet Union?
Kevin McKenna: What's happening on the ground--oh, for Solzhenitsyn to have to do that? The period of the thaw--let's say, the happier days of the thaw, closed rather dramatically and quickly with the overthrow of Khrushchev and the ascension of Brezhnev.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Kevin McKenna: For a variety of reasons. A number of Khrushchev's attempts--well, let's say the Cuban Missile Crisis; I won't go on too far in this direction--but they were such miserable failures that Khrushchev is driven out of office. And, while we don't, let's say, for the rest of the 1960s and the 1970s, we by no means enter into a period of Stalin once again. We have a period where the writings of Solzhenitsyn, like In the First Circle, or Cancer Ward, or The Gulag, or August 1914 are just not going to be tolerated because, in the minds of the USSR Writers' Union, in the mind of Brezhnev and the Politburo--the ruling class of the Soviet Union--these works should not be encouraged or allowed to be published. So, Solzhenitsyn succeeds only in publishing three successive short stories after Ivan Denisovich. By 1968, he is expelled from the USSR Writers' Union, which in effect means he can never, ever publish another work of fiction in the Soviet Union. And, as I mentioned--
Russ Roberts: So, let's stop there for a moment. We just recently did an episode with Charlan Nemeth on troublemakers and dissenters. So, at this point, Solzhenitsyn is celebrated around the world for his book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But, he's out of power in the literary sense. He's got no venue. He's got no platform. And he's persona non grata. He is a very, very lonely man. And, as far as he knows, he'll never publish again. So, the story, at this point, is about as dark as it gets. And given what we know of his subsequent literary output, at this point he's only published a novella and three short stories--
Kevin McKenna: That's right--
Russ Roberts: and has zero prospect, on the surface of ever publishing again. Meanwhile, he's written the book we're talking about, In the First Circle; just hasn't published it. He has--although he's going to publish a version of it in that interim period--but not the real thing. He's writing or has written a multi-volume history of the camps, called The Gulag Archipelago, which is extremely toxic and controversial, and no chance of being seen in his own country. As far as he knows. And, somewhere along the way, somehow, he has encouragement, I guess, as well as recognition of his greatness: He wins the Nobel Prize. For literature. For a novella.
Kevin McKenna: Right.
Russ Roberts: Which is nuts. What year is that?
Kevin McKenna: He receives the Prize in--well, he is announced as the winner for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. It's going to be 1973 before he's actually able to leave the Soviet Union to deliver his address in Sweden. Essentially, what is happening is that, In the First Circle, or actually at this point it's being called The First Circle--the expurgated version In the First Circle--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I misspoke. I misspoke. By 1960--when he was expelled from the Writers' Union, he has published The First Circle. Correct?
Kevin McKenna: No. What happens is that--
Russ Roberts: that's why he self-censors it--
Kevin McKenna: Yeah. He--there is a term called samizdat, which means a system whereby books that have not been published in the Soviet Union are kind of spread out, dispersed, among a variety of trustworthy friends and friends of friends, so that, in order to read, let's say, a copy of The First Circle, one would have to type up a carbon--let's say, 10 copies on carbon paper of the novel, distribute those copies to 10 people who in turn would create another 10 copies. And over the years, samizdat became quite a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union.
Russ Roberts: It's like a bootleg--it's like a bootleg recording of a concert.
Kevin McKenna: That's right. And the second thing that's taking place is that copies of Cancer Ward and First Circle get out of the Soviet Union. It's not Solzhenitsyn who was sending them out. He was very much opposed to these works being published abroad before they could be published within the Soviet Union. But at any rate, copies did manage to get out, and indeed, a publishing house in Italy, and then in the United States, were translating and then publishing these Russian novels. And so, works like The First Circle, Cancer Ward, were becoming--well, they were both published in the West as early as 1968. And so, Solzhenitsyn receives the Nobel Prize for Literature not only on the merits of One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich, but his non-published-in-the-Soviet-Union novels, works published only in the West: Cancer Ward and First Circle.
Russ Roberts: And, he's afraid--given the timing of this, he's afraid to leave the country to accept the Prize at first, because he's afraid--this is hard to believe for most of us, but--he's afraid he won't be let back in.
Kevin McKenna: That's right. He's certain--he'd learned the experience of Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. And, there are many who feel that the hell that Pasternak was put through by the Soviet authorities--how he was ripped apart by Pravda and other Soviet news media--eventually led to Pasternak's death. So, Solzhenitsyn didn't want to repeat Pasternak's experience. And so, he knew that, were he to leave the Soviet Union, he definitely would not be permitted to return to the Soviet Union. Russian writers have learned over the centuries, particularly the 19th and 20th centuries, that they can only write, or at least, rightly or wrongly they hold an opinion that they need to write in Russia--in the country of Russia, with Russian people, not abroad. And, the irony is that, with Solzhenitsyn's receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, he now becomes too dangerous for the Soviet authorities to arrest or to execute, because he's become basically a martyr in the West. And so, the Soviets find themselves in grave, deep problems about what to do with Solzhenitsyn. He was too much a thorn in the side of the Soviet authorities. They couldn't manage to send him to an insane asylum, which they had been doing by the thousands, or to execute him, or to arrest him. And, it's only going to be, of course, in 1973 where indeed they expelled him from the Soviet Union, something that he strongly resists.
Russ Roberts: And he leaves. He leaves against his will. And, my understanding is he additionally comes to the Hoover Institution at Stanford where I work. And is--somebody told me he slept on a couch there for a while. I don't know if that's true. But, you know, he doesn't have money--obviously. He doesn't have a job. He's just--he's a [?]--by the way, he remarries his wife, at some point.
Kevin McKenna: Well, that's another question. Let's correct something. Solzhenitsyn was well on the way to becoming a multimillionaire by this time. In other words--
Russ Roberts: Could he get his money out? When he was expelled? Could he get access to it?
Kevin McKenna: Oh--
Russ Roberts: He had royalties in the West.
Kevin McKenna: In the West. Yeah. He was not making money in the Soviet Union. Writers--all kinds of problems with that. Money, at that time didn't mean anything in the Soviet Union. One could only really purchase things through connections. The source of Solzhenitsyn's money, of course, were the publications in Western publishing houses.
Russ Roberts: But anyway, he comes here. And he starts off in California. And then he ends up in Vermont--because, I assume, he liked the climate: it reminded him of home. And there's something incredibly poignant about that. And he eventually goes back to Russia, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Correct?
Kevin McKenna: Yes; a bit misleading. Eventually, would be 18 years later. He lives here in Vermont for that 18-year period; and what he had declared very early on was that he refused to return to his homeland--to his home country, the Soviet Union--unless and/or until the Soviet Union would publish all of Solzhenitsyn's writings within the country. And that looked as though, certainly in the 1970s and in the 1980s as though it would never, ever happen. So, it wasn't even a question. But, with the arrival of Gorbachev, we have, in the latter part of the 1980s, eventually, by 1988 Gorbachev is moving in the direction where by roughly 1991, indeed all of Solzhenitsyn's works are being published within his own homeland. And, it's at this point where he says, 'I will now come back to the place of my birth, and continue to write there.'
Russ Roberts: And so, I'm 64 years old--I'm returning to--I want to now turn to the bigger--I'm going to leave his life per se and I want to turn to the book and his standing in the world. So, when I was younger--I was born in 1954--the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a very formative political experience for me. And, I was very much an anti-Communist person as a youth. As, of course, were many. But certainly anti-Soviet. And, I was extremely interested in Solzhenitsyn in my 20s. I read all the Gulag. I read many of his novels. And then, I got older and I didn't read much about him. I read Anne Applebaum's book, called The Gulag--which is a wonderful book I also recommend, and for people who don't want to get through all three volumes of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. And there's one other thing to mention, which is that in, I think it's 1978, he gives a Commencement Address at Harvard and causes quite a stir. We'll put some links up to that, about that. But, he becomes kind of forgotten. The Soviet Union falls. Communism ends. The Gulag becomes an historical footnote. There's no--Russia today has many problems, but they don't have anything like the labor camps of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. And, in many ways he becomes almost an anachronism--a chronicler of something that was important, obviously; incredible in the 20th century. In fact, I would call him one of the most influential people of the 20th century, not just one of the most influential writers, because he had such an incredible--as you say, it was incredible, you were talking about something else, but he was a thorn in the side of the regime, for decades. But he's out of--people aren't that interested in him any more. They've sort of stopped reading him, I feel--I'm guessing--certainly relative to the 1970s and 1980s. And so, here we are today in 2018, and yet all of a sudden I'm interested in him again. I think we realize we didn't have the end of history, that maybe we have things to learn from the totalitarianism of the 20th century. And I think he's ripe for rebirth. But, I think it's an incredible thing just to think about the fact that this man who was as famous a person as you can possibly imagine, as a non-American in America when he got here, is sort of like--most people probably couldn't tell you anything about him other than he must be a Russian.
Kevin McKenna: Well, there was a variety of reasons for that. During the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, in the Soviet Union, Russian people, Soviet readers, were considered the most novel-reading people in the world. And there's a reason for that. There was nothing else to do. One, let's say, a 24-year-old, a 35-year-old, couldn't go into business. There was no business. Business was the matter of the state, and so on. And it's only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a lot of missteps during the 1990s--but, between, let's say, the end of the 1990s and the present, young people, whether they are 16 or 30 years old, they actually now have an opportunity to create a life for themselves. Something that they never had, previously. That would be one factor involved here. Another thing is that they--
Russ Roberts: You are saying they don't read as much as they used to. For starters.
Kevin McKenna: Yeah. They definitely don't read; and they don't do the kind of reading that they used to do. We, Americans, to a certain extent a lot of people in the West--we don't create, we don't establish the kind of writing, deeply ethical, philosophical readings, creative literature that Russian literature in the 19th and 20th centuries have been so known for. While, Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago was not permitted to be published in the Soviet Union, everyone, virtually, had read that novel. As well, or along with, many, many other officially unpublished Russian writers. The Russian novel, Russian writing, is something very, very different than what it is in the West, and certainly very different than what we perceive, let's say, to be fiction or literature here in the United States. I would say that Solzhenitsyn--the nature of Solzhenitsyn's writings have become, for, what 25- and 35-year-old Russian people, too ethical, too moral, too deep--their--
Russ Roberts: Too philosophical. Yeah.
Kevin McKenna: too philosophical. They are much more interested in getting the kinds of, or beginning the kinds of careers that are going to make them money. Russian people were very, very unprepared for this new world of capitalism, which was opened up to them in 1991 and throughout the 1990s. While the Russians never really came to practice capitalism as we understand it in the West, it did, nonetheless, enable them to essentially establish a real different kind of life for themselves--life different from what they had in the Soviet Union.
Russ Roberts: Yeah--I'm not sure American readers are that different in terms of wanting to grapple with ethical and philosophical big-picture questions.
Kevin McKenna: Well, I think, without a doubt, particularly, let's say, young--whatever that means in the United States today--younger readers today are not into what we would call deep literature any more, either. They want to read the kinds of things, of course, that are most popular with young readers. But, the same thing is definitely going on in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so we have an irony here. While, in 2006, Time Magazine proclaims Solzhenitsyn the most important writer of the 20th century, while Russian citizens, throughout or to the end of the 20th century and now to the end of the first fifth of the 21st century, in their minds, Solzhenitsyn was the single most important individual leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, whether or not this is accurate--one can debate, of course--
Russ Roberts: doesn't matter--
Kevin McKenna: but I would certainly say that he was an important factor. And the irony, is, finally that it is Putin, who in 2009, dictates rules that all Soviet high school students have to read Solzhenitsyn in their schools.
Russ Roberts: Wow.
Kevin McKenna: So, in the 1970s, and you know, for that matter, in the late 1960s and the 1970s and the 1980s, when I would be strip-searched when I would go into the Soviet Union, people, that is, the authorities looking either for a copy of the Bible or of Playboy or of anything written by Solzhenitsyn, by 2009, and to the present day, by the way, people have, that have, that is Soviet high school students have to read Solzhenitsyn. So there's considerable irony there.
Russ Roberts: So, I just want to make a couple of reactions to that. I recently read for the first time The Brothers Karamazov. And I read it about, maybe a month or two before I read In the First Circle. And I was struck by their similarities. In the sense that both books essentially grapple with the biggest philosophical questions that there are: Why there is suffering? What is the good life? What should a person do faced with ethical dilemmas?
Kevin McKenna: That's right.
Russ Roberts: And I would just encourage--besides encouraging readers to read The Brothers Karamazov--a mere 900-page book to add to your reading list--I would also just mention that there is, I just also happened to read David Foster Wallace's essay viewing a biography of Dostoevsky by Frank. And David Foster Wallace says, 'Americans can't write books like this.' Like Dostoevsky's. And, if they do, they have to do it in sort of cutesy ways, with irony. And he makes this point in a very cutesy and ironic way. It's a tremendous essay. It's found in his collection called Consider the Lobster, which I recommend. Question: Why did it take so long to get the book translated? The book--he says "restored in 1968." I don't know if that means--
Kevin McKenna: The Russian book.
Russ Roberts: Was it available, In the First Circle, in Russian in 1968? Other than in Samizdat[?] It was not published in that version?
Kevin McKenna: No, it was not published. Ummm--he--that is, Solzhenitsyn, restored _In_ the First Circle--that is, the original novel that he had written--
Russ Roberts: added the chapters back, changed the plot--
Kevin McKenna: he restored it from--that's right. He added the chapters back, changed the plot somewhat; made some additions, as well. From the expurgated version, which is called, of course, _The_ First Circle. The English-language translation of In the First Circle only becomes available in 2009.
Russ Roberts: Right. Why the gap?
Kevin McKenna: Why the gap? In fact, Solzhenitsyn's autobiography, a book which in English translation is called, --oops, what do you call it?--The Calf. The Calf butted up against the tree--there's a more, better translation of that. That's the Russian common translation. But, his follow-up to The Oak and the Calf--that's the name of it in English translation--the follow-up to Oak and the Calf has been translated now and will appear only in November of 2018. So, these books take a long time to be translated. A lot of it has to do with: Is the reading public going to indeed be interested?
Russ Roberts: Right, worth [?] them?
Kevin McKenna: Exactly. And so there's a lot to that.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's a good point. I guess a lot of people could have said, 'Well, you've got The First Circle. What do you need this other one for?'
Kevin McKenna: That's true.
Russ Roberts: And, you could argue that's just--The First Circle is a great book. There's no doubt about it. So, it's--you could make the case. What do you think, as someone who speaks Russian, what do you think of the translation?
Kevin McKenna: The English language translation?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Kevin McKenna: This translation, I think is the best that I have seen. This is another reason, by the way, for why it took so long for a lot of these things to be translated. Solzhenitsyn ended up being very dissatisfied with some of the English language translations that he was getting from his novels; and, I would say over the course of the late 1970s, all of the 1980s, into the 1990s and so on, there was quite a difficulty in basically finding translators, whether they be British or American, who could handle essentially the difficulties of translating Solzhenitsyn. Schools of translation, of course, are as many as there are translators, but Solzhenitsyn writes in a Russian language which is extremely challenging to read even for Russians. Let's say, if we look at One Day the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a lot of In the First Circle, a lot of Cancer Ward, definitely the Gulag, etc., etc., Solzhenitsyn often will intersperse Ukrainianisms, Bielorussianisms, prison camp jargon and speech. He likes to write in and with a number of old Russian proverbs. Solzhenitsyn, in his writing in Russian, had a definite goal. He wanted to leave the boring, stilted, ugly language of the Soviet Russian period, of let's say the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century, and he wanted to return the beauty to the Russian language, and particularly the richness of the Russian idiom. And in doing so, for Russians today and in the latter half of the 20th century, he was difficult to read. He was very much against, for example, using foreign words or words that were American or Englishisms in Russian; and he would, if a word didn't exist in the Russian language, he would create a word on the basis of Russian etymology. And so, to be able to--well, for example, I would say Gogol and Dostoevsky are two of the most difficult writers of the 19th century to translate into English. I would say Solzhenitsyn is probably the most difficult 20th century author to do so.
Russ Roberts: So, we're running out of time here. I think what I'll do now is give my reaction to listeners about how you might go about reading the book: give some advice. And then let Kevin react to that; and then we'll wrap up this introduction, which has really been fantastic for me to hear. I made the mistake--for whatever reason--I gave my copy--I bought the book and I gave it I think to my youngest son to read. So, I read it on the Kindle. And, it's very hard to read on the Kindle, folks. I'm not saying you can't do it. You could. And there's some advantages to doing it on the Kindle. But, let me start with a general issue here, which is: It's not a hard book to read at all. The prose for an American reading it in translation is delightful. It reads easily. It moves quickly. The characters are incredibly vivid. The scenes that we see them behaving in are, as I said, heartbreaking, amusing, tragic, delightful, funny. So, it's not a hard book to read: it's just a hard book to grasp. And the reason is very simple: there's about 50 characters in the book. And there's the standard Russian problem, which is they have multiple names. There is, in the paperback version, a list of the characters up from which--some of them might give away a little too much of the plot, but you use that. You can keep your finger there if you need to. And of course in the Kindle you can look back; you can search and find the first time the person is mentioned if you need to. You can find--you should bookmark. If you are reading on the Kindle, bookmark the list of characters so you can flip back to it relatively quickly. But, that's not the problem. It's not that they have multiple names--it's a little bit of a problem, but eventually that works out okay. The real problem is that it's hard to know--let me say it differently. A lot of the characters get lots of air time. It's not like there's an insignificant character and you go, 'Oh, that person just shows up.' That person might show up and have a pretty important chapter about them; and they don't show up again. Or, they only show up again at the end. So, don't be discouraged by that. That's the first thing. The second thing is: I would take notes in the margin of the physical book, besides using the glossary of characters, the list of characters in the beginning, keeping your finger there, you might want to make a little, jot a little note down for yourself about their activities or what they do or who they are. Or keep your own list of characters. It will help you keep them straight. Having said that, I didn't bother keeping them straight. I just kind of kept reading. Because it's too hard. Part of it is, by the way, for an American, the Russian names--even if they only had one name, it's hard because they are not so American, so familiar to the American ear: you start thinking, 'Is this that guy who was sweeping, or is this the guy who works as an engineer, or is this that guy who works as a general?' So, that's hard for me. It might not be hard for you out there, listeners. But for me that was hard. And I just kept reading. The main characters do come back over and over again. And, it'll be okay. So, my advice is: Don't get discouraged when you struggle to remember who's who. Keep reading. To reduce the trauma of that and the anxiety and the occasional, 'Who's that? Oh, yeah, that's the guy,' take some notes and do refer to the list. But again, be prepared that it's a sprawling book. And, there is a plot. But, you know, I hate to say this; this is going to be somewhat sacrilegious, perhaps; but you could call it "A Few Days in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." It captures what life is like in the sharashka--in an incredible way. And along the way, of course things happen to these folks. And they get swept along by events and currents, and it all does have a denouement at the end that's very powerful. But it's not a normal novel. So, be prepared for that. Go into it with an open mind. Watch what emerges from the lives of these people interacting with each other--they are all interacting. And it's a beautiful, beautiful, I would call it a quilt, of their interactions that is just--it is just magnificent. So, I encourage everyone listening to read the book. Read it in print. If you can't, read it in the Kindle. If you can't listen as we discuss it, in the next episode. And enjoy. And, Kevin, I'll let you comment, add anything you want to that; and we'll end it.
Kevin McKenna: Sure. Your description of the cast of characters that I think appears at the beginning of the novel, on page, roman numeral page xvii or so, I might suggest writing in the margin, or you could even photocopy these three or four pages of the cast of characters--
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah. Great idea--
Kevin McKenna: Write down page numbers where you are introduced to a particular character. I wouldn't say each and every character, because there are too many. But, you are going to see--and this goes to the second point of what you are describing--another thing that makes Dostoevsky so hard, so challenging to translate is the structure of his novels--
Russ Roberts: Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn? Or both? You said Dostoevsky.
Kevin McKenna: Yeah. We mostly associate--this is where Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn are so similar. Dostoevsky is famous for what is called the polyphonic structure of his novels. That is: Rather than having, as we are used to in the West, one central, main character who kind of stands as the centerpiece as everything that happens in the novel, the polyphonic structure of a Dostoevsky or a Solzhenitsyn is that there is not a main, central character. There is a cast--
Russ Roberts: yep--
Kevin McKenna: and by cast, I would say perhaps 5 to 8 central characters, as well as perhaps 3 to 4 central major themes. And so, everything--it's kind of a fugue of characters. A fugue of plot action. And, again, it's this polyphonic structure over 741 pages, that holds together masterfully. I would say that's the main fault of The First Circle--deleting those 9 chapters from the original version that Solzhenitsyn had completed. The First Circle didn't hold together nearly as well or as successfully as In the First Circle does. I would say those would be my main comments. I also do have one final one. I'm afraid that as your readers, or listeners I guess, are listening to your and my comments, really some of your and comments, they might say, 'Oh my gosh. This sounds difficult to read.' One thing I would add: I don't know of any work that is morally[?] boring[?] to read than this one. This is a masterpiece akin to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Bulgakov[?]. This is some of the best writing of Russian literature, period. And your readers or your listeners are going to be so amazingly rewarded when they complete this novel. Not because they've made it through 741 pages, but because some awfully deep and complex characters and themes and plot action so interact with each other over the course of this novel that, as you are reading the hundred or so pages, you think, 'My God, I wish this were twice as long'--
Russ Roberts: yep--
Kevin McKenna: 'I don't want it to end.'
Russ Roberts: I hated to leave them. When it ended, I felt bereft. And that's really the sign of a great work of art and a great novel. I just want to emphasize the point you made earlier, because I think it's extremely important. And I wish I'd done this. It's better advice than I gave. When a character shows up, go back to the Glossary; print it out is a great idea. If you don't print it out, just go back with your finger and write that page number down next to the character. Because, when they show up later and you think, 'Who was--I've met this person before?' You can find it. And you can do that on the Kindle by searching. The problem with the Kindle is so many of them, so many mentions, you are not always sure which one to go back to. So--take--and it's not as easy to see it quickly. So, I recommend that. The second point I want to emphasize, and just reinforce, is that: It's not a hard book to read. It's not like reading Ulysses by James Joyce. The prose is fabulous. It's a breeze. When you pick it up and read the first 5 pages you will say, 'I've got to find out more.' But, as you go on, you may find it challenging because it does have that polyphonic nature, and that's a much better metaphor than the quilt I used. It really is different melodies or weaving in and out. It is a fugue. My guest today has been Kevin McKenna.