from Russian Television Today
David MacFadyen

... These problems of inexhaustible, archetypal literature can be extended to prestigious novels of the Soviet period, too. Parallel to the problems discussed thus far ran versions of Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle (published in 1968) ... . Speaking of her role in the Solzhenitsyn adaptation, mature actress Inna Churikova celebrated the book's "lofty, free spirit. These are true heroes of honor and conscience, the kind you just don't see nowadays. ... Our film is very up-to-date, though, so maybe there's hope for mankind yet." The project likewise endlessly celebrated itself as noncommercial, while the actors advertised (immodestly) their willingly accepted modest wages. One of The First Circle's key thespians, Dmitry Pevtzov, had his head shaved completely for Episode Ten; the press noted how this would create difficulties in his daily work on the Moscow stage. The ethical importance of The First Circle made this haircut a justifiable, laudable forfeit.

Although Solzhenitsyn himself did not take part in the casting* or any of the press conferences, he was – according to his wife – most pleased with the result of these sacrifices. She called The First Circle a "pleasant surprise," especially with its attention to detail, all the way from prison-scene locations to Stalinist crockery and even the prisoners' own post-war, strangely denim attire – of equally strange American origin.

This series was masterminded by Gleb Panfilov, who, although he had directed Solzhenitsyn on the stage, was now responsible for showcasing Russia's first cinematic version of the novel. It debuted on 29 January 2006 on Rossiya, when the station spoke on Panfilov's behalf, underscoring the seriousness of the task at hand:

We're perfectly aware that over and above any ratings-related issues, we're obliged as a state TV channel to enlighten and educate people. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a classic writer on the level of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; his renown extends far beyond Russia's borders. His books were largely responsible for the way our country was both seen and understood by the world for several decades. Here in Russia there's a longstanding, paradoxical attitude to classic literature: it's respected, but nobody reads it. We hope that our adaptation will help many Russian viewers discover Solzhenitsyn; the direct participation of Solzhenitsyn himself has endowed our series with his novel's true spirit.

When seen in the context of Solzhenitsyn's entire corpus, interwoven as the massive Red Wheel, the author himself defines that spirit as tales of how "Russians, tragically, have destroyed both their own past and future." The series' producer, Maksim Panfilov, wanted to place at least some elements of helpful self-definition in this inescapable dourness, and declared The First Circle a narrative of "how, in the hardest possible circumstances, an individual can choose a difficult but worthy path. And win! That's a subject worthy of any age." As the lead actor, Yevgeny Mironov, put it:

Who knew that Solzhenitsyn would stand up against everybody, against the State, the entire State – and win? Amazing! It sounds like something out of a fairy tale, but id did happen all the same, so things like this really can occur.

Whatever its potential as a finger-wagging, teacherly tool, this series is an artistic success, especially in the light of Meetings with Solzhenitsyn, the author's own dull television show that was canceled in September 1995 due to poor ratings. His self-penned screenplay and off-screen narration for The First Circle do indeed accentuate Rossiya's respectful, serious intentions, despite the predominance of silly false beards and inflexible wigs – as on Stalin's head. The soundtrack was thankfully recorded live (i.e., not with additional dialogue recording [ADR]), save several re-recorded conversations that were initially whispered at insufficient volume. The use of Stalinist architecture's vacant, imposing walls and herringbone floors, so visible across Russia even today, likewise does much to grant the broadcasts a disconcerting contemporary relevance.

If one were looking for failings, however, they might, paradoxically, also come from Solzhenitsyn's hands-on approach, for V kruge pervom is a bit wordy. The author, in essence, took his favorite monologs or dialogs from the novel and then "dramatized" them, which results in an unnaturally marked frequency of aphorisms. This, however, does not detract from an extremely powerful storyline. The series stresses the dramatic deadlock between those men who actually gain a sense of mental and verbal freedom or relief from (finally) being incarcerated and the Soviet prison guards, who cannot ever grant their prisoners freedom, since they do not, in Solzhenitsyn's words, "have it" themselves. The vacant state is unable to grant significance to its subjects.

The problem of lack is impressively invoked at the start of each episode by the use of popular/political songs recorded between the Purges and the end of the 1940s. The decade is mapped with the strident jollity of ditties by Pokrass, Dunayevsky, Shvartsman, Lebedev-Kumach, and others, but the first and last episodes showcase the rousing "Russia" of 1947 by Novikov and Alymov. Essentially an obsequious celebration of Stalin as the "ancient knight and father of the Soviet people," this song nonetheless needs to draw upon something greater than the Kremlin and its residents in order to convey that mighty paternalism. Alymov's lyrics employ the "unfettered and beautiful land" that is Russia, and then – in turn – one country is itself compared to the biggest sky, to the sun and "a boundless, blossoming expanse of infinite fields." This need for policy (something very specific) to draw first upon nature, followed by the immateriality of the heavens (nothing in particular) will return many times. The "nature" of a purportedly organic patriotism is less than clear; language runs around trying to pinpoint and then outpace it. This endless glissage of a spoken or sung nationalism is tied to loss, to boundless realms, or a pitiless, now-absent history (for which the nation itself has no "unchanging" signifiers).

Solzhenitsyn's televised investigation of this sad dilemma was nonetheless attractive; The First Circle's debut was watched by a third of Russia's adult viewers. As we will see with The Master and Margarita, this show was also broadcast in a confident format: two episodes at a time, back to back, without advertisements. Whether this was due to the book's classic status or a modish, star-studded cast remained a moot point.

* SITE NOTE: Solzhenitsyn had actually requested that the lead be played by Yevgeny Mironov, and had approved several other cast members.