Farah Nayeri

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was spurned for so long in his homeland that none of his novels ever became Russian-language movies.

The First Circle, which the Nobel-winning dissident based on his time in captivity, has just been brought to the big screen by Gleb Panfilov. Titled To Treasure Forever, it comes too late for Solzhenitsyn, who died in August. He would have turned 90 on Dec. 11.

The two-hour movie, which premiered in London, takes us to 1949 Moscow and to the moment when a U.S.-based Soviet agent is about to hand his masters the formula for the atom bomb.

One man is determined to stop the beans from being spilled. Innokenty Volodin, a high-ranking Soviet diplomat keen to prevent nuclear holocaust, anonymously tips off the U.S. embassy from a phone booth in downtown Moscow. The call is taped by Soviet intelligence, but the caller's identity is impossible to trace.

What follows is the U.S.S.R.'s mad scramble for voice- recognition technology. To that and other intelligence-gathering ends, Stalin's henchmen lock up many of those suspected of being subversive: engineers, acousticians, mathematicians and academics.

These bonded brains sleep at least 20 to a dorm, work 12 to 16 hours a day, are banned from getting parcels, and see their wives once a year. The wives lose their jobs, are pressured to divorce, and can't kiss or touch them during the yearly visit. Some are so love-starved that they kiss anyway, breaking the rules and ending the visit.

Farcical Stalin

Stalin appears in a long and somewhat farcical scene, dressed in his trademark gray uniform. Looking like a combed and raven-haired Albert Einstein, he sits in his stately dacha, twisting a fountain pen at a long banquet table.

His counterintelligence chief Viktor Abakumov, proudly showing off three stars on his epaulettes, tells the paranoid Stalin of plans to blow up a boatload of agitators. He recommends the death sentence to fight subversion. Stalin agrees, suggests that traitors be fried alive, and asks a petrified Abakumov – only half in jest – if he's not afraid of being the first man shot.

To Treasure Forever is boiled down from a 10-part television series – also directed by Panfilov – that Solzhenitsyn scripted himself, and that drew tears to his eyes (according to Panfilov). The movie manages, eventually, to convey the chilling reality of life under Joseph Stalin; it does, however, meander along the way.

Terror Tapestry

Some of the characters are tangential to the story. Solzhenitsyn includes them in his tapestry of repressed figures to show the many victims of Stalinist terror. Yet on film, they come across as loose strands whose link to the plot is not immediately obvious.

The men who should scare us most, particularly Stalin, come across as buffoons. Director Panfilov, present after the London screening, explained, "Grotesque is part of life, not just on the screen!" and said the book's portrayal of Stalin had seemed grotesque, too, when he first read it.

Ultimately, the phone-booth diplomat and his wife – played movingly by the real-life couple Dmitry Pevtzov and Olga Drozdova – are the pair whose plight grips us most. As they knock back vodka in crystal glasses at a family dinner, she leaves the table for a quiet sob, and he later uses her purse as a sick bag. We see their romantic preparations for a night out being interrupted by a sudden telephone call.

Despite its flaws, To Treasure Forever is a movie to be seen, particularly by the generation born since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, to whom Stalin must mean as much as Genghis Khan. It is also a timely tribute to Solzhenitsyn, who personally endured so much of what he lived to tell.