Russian Studies in Literature
Fall 2007
Irina Kaspe

... While the serial of The Master and Margarita was publicized as a Vladimir Bortko project, the authorship of The First Circle adaptation was not trumpeted quite so loudly. For all the generally acknowledged authority of its director, Gleb Panfilov, the emphasis there was on teamwork (see the conflation of factual and fictional modes in a series of matching billboards: "Script by Solzhenitsyn," "Mironov on a Prisoner Transport," "Pevtzov Blows an Agent's Cover," etc.)

The motivation behind Panfilov's best-known adaptations – Vassa (1982) and The Mother [Mat] (1989) – was a determination to present "his" Gorky, an unread Gorky who did not conform to the official canons. But his new television project can be seen, on the surface of it, as running directly counter to that strategy, being focused less on the image of "his" Solzhenitsyn than on that of a living classic. The emphasis lay on a meticulous engagement with the text, up to and including reconstructing the interior of the prison laboratory [sharashka] where Solzhenitsyn served some of his time (in yet another conflation of fictional and factual, here motivated by the emphatically autobiographical nature of Solzhenitsyn's novels). The closing titles insist that Nerzhin's works (meaning Solzhenitsyn's – another conflation) are today being taught in schools. Finally, an off-camera voice, which belongs to Solzhenitsyn himself, leaves no doubt that there can be no appropriation of Solzhenitsyn this time. What we have here is Solzhenitsyn "for real." This type of perception of a literary work – the illusion of "penetrating the author's design," of reading a text "for real" – is, however, as likely to back up a strategy of fidelity to the text as it is to stand behind a strategy of textual appropriation, with the added proviso that in both cases a high status is accorded to the text. The image of the "genuine Solzhenitsyn" presupposes a position that is not so radically different from that which backs up the image of the unread (and, hence, genuine) Gorky. On the scale suggested by the constructs of the classic or televised serial, The First Circle can also be considered unread. It is not found on school curricula (though A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matrena's Home [Matrenin dvor] are), and its readership is substantially smaller than that of The Master and Margarita. Furthermore, even among that rather limited audience, the book's first version (1955–58), on which the adaptation is based, is significantly less well known than the second (1964), which made the rounds in samizdat.

In such a situation, Solzhenitsyn's involvement in the project – his script, his off-screen voice, his face on the billboards – not only legitimizes what is happening on the screen but also appears to cancel out the question of the extent to which book and film correspond. A unique regimen of fidelity to the text, extrinsic to the ritual of comparison, has been created; in fact, the procedure of comparison is, to all intents and purposes, declared superfluous. It is, then, all the more interesting to perform that comparison (which is, from the standpoint of cinema theory, entirely meaningless) and find out how exactly that avowed regimen of fidelity to the text operates and how the inevitable deviations from the regimen are effected, marked, and masked. Although the deviations are most aptly analyzed with reference to the scriptwriting phase, our discussion will deal with the serial as a whole, implemented as a team project and broadcast on a channel that commands one of the country's most extensive viewing areas. Reviews have already noted the production's pronounced degree of melodrama, which is, of course, identified as a trait shared by all televised serials. Indeed, the stories of love, of separation from family, of the deprivations suffered by the prisoners' wives are here emphatically psychologized; and the expressive acting is complemented by the background sound. In scenes in which women appear, the radio is, as a rule, turned on and is always playing music – usually the classics – which precisely echoes the actors' gestures and mirrors what the characters are going through.

That psychological track is particularly noticeable because all the other tracks are schematic. The serial's creators are seeking to "display" Solzhenitsyn's seven-hundred-page text by reproducing the basic plot outline almost perfectly. To achieve that, of course, they had to cut all the retrospective digressions, which meant narrowing an epic novel of destinies and biographies down to a novel of ideas. This technique of compression, of reduction, is highly consistent and seems to have been applied wholesale to the novel's structure, compressing its complex, multilevel, multi-tiered topography to two basic points located on a single plane: Stalin's vivid, opulent Moscow and the ascetic sharashka that is extraneous to it (other loci – the wooden house in Tver and especially the Siberian logging camp – are spectral and surface only briefly, in the characters' imaginations). This emphatic flattening of space, as well as the streamlining of the intricate system of doubles, bespeaks an approach to the text that is in many respects analogous to the structuralist and may therefore be readily described in structuralist terms, being based on the idea that one "system" can potentially be "transferred," "recoded," or converted into another.

This idea can also be seen in attempts if not to show, then at least to designate, long passages that cannot be accommodated by the script. For instance, when Stalin (played by Igor Kvasha) leafs through his own biography, this designates or illustrates an episode in the novel that runs for many pages and is densely packed with meaning. The subtle demarcation of the border between translation and illustration (although the only ones capable of deciphering that illustration are those who have read Solzhenitsyn's novel) is highly indicative. In the same way, the film hints at themes that were key to Solzhenitsyn. It is, for instance, easy to miss the perfunctory and incoherent allusion to the prisoner Kondrashev's painting The Castle of the Holy Grail if one does not know this image plays a substantial role in the book.

There is, however, a more significant loss than this. In the serial's horizontally extended topography, the sharashka is no longer perceived as an insecure locale whence one can easily slip away into other, more terrible "circles" (i.e., into a camp). The other circles are designated or mentioned, but almost as tangentially as is The Castle of the Holy Grail. Also disappearing, along with the symbols of a hierarchically organized, multistage space, is the semantically fraught metaphor of impenetrable boundaries, which is exceedingly important in the novel. Whereas in the book Stalin is locked away in a paranoid world, behind "bulletproof glass" through which "neither [the country nor] the earth nor the universe was visible," in the serial he not only does not forget to ask Minister of State Security Abakumov about the sharashka's classified telephone project but is also abreast of what is the basic plot point in both the Solzhenitsyn novel and Panfilov's serial – he knows about the secret call made by the diplomat Volodin to the U.S. embassy.

Whereas in the serial Minister of State Security Abakumov has only to hear that the prisoners do not have enough hot water for tea at night for him to dispatch a tea urn to the sharashka, in the book the farcical scene involving the request for boiling water continues no less farcically: an administrative order comes down that only exacerbates the situation, so that, beginning right after dinner, no one will be allowed into the kitchen to fetch hot water at all. In the novel, Potapov's farewell, "Write me!" to Nerzhin, who is being transferred out of the sharashka, is glossed by the narrator: "[T]hey both laughed. ... Correspondence between the islands of the GULAG did not exist." But in the serial, Potapov is entirely serious and, as one might have predicted, the moment passes without explanation. The reconciliation between the Communist Rubin and the anticommunist Sologdin, which is not in the book but does take place on the screen, and third-millennium Moscow, which puts in a brief and hallucinatory appearance in one of the episodes, both slot easily into the general tendency to eliminate discontinuities and surmount boundaries.

For Solzhenitsyn, "boundaries" and "broken communications" are meaningful in that they are in many respects his way of speaking about the fully functional but at the same time balky mechanisms of totalitarian power. The metaphor of the closed society here points not only to an external boundary but also to multiple internal boundaries. To Solzhenitsyn, a closed society is also a society that has been atomized to the greatest extent possible, smashed to smithereens by the totalitarian machine. This is the perceptual context for the classified telephone project (telephony being the branch of communications in which the sharashka specializes) and for the call to the embassy – which, although interrupted, is still caught on tape – and for the words spoken by Innokenty Volodin (which are, of course, reproduced in the film): "Here there are fences of prejudice. Here there's even barbed wire and machine guns. Here it's virtually impossible to break through, either with the body or with the heart. And the upshot is that there is no mankind – only fatherlands, fatherlands, and everybody's is different."

In that sense, a particular role belongs to characters in the novel who are capable of traversing boundaries, especially the janitor Spiridon. It is the story of "his crossing and recrossing from one warring side to another," of his unceasing efforts to keep his family safe in a setting not designed to foster family ties (which story has, of course, been left out of the film) that motivates the emergence of the criterion, the standard "[we] are... to use in trying to understand life": "The wolfhound is right and the cannibal is wrong." Paradoxical as this may be, the polysemy of Solzhenitsyn's novel derives from the evaluative, exaggeratedly trenchant, precise nature of that choice. The plot is constructed not via the neutral juxtaposition of antagonistic poles that are equal in the eyes of an objective, omniscient, distanced author, but via the dramatic advent of one new boundary after another, which can be discerned only by an involved narrative position.

To be sure, the serial preserves the basic emphases, but they are substantially soft-pedaled, air-brushed, and in some cases almost blurred out, these operations being offset by tokens of the author's presence (the off-screen voice) or by symbols of authority (a "schoolroom classic"). In other words, everything that was a resource for the book's polysemy (the author's involvement in the narration, the verging on autobiography, etc.) shifts in the film into a direct transmission of norms. How effective that is may be judged from public pronouncements on the serial, which mostly boil down to two basic themes: did Volodin commit treason; and were viewers being shown a "different Solzhenitsyn," in a complete turnabout that forced them to view Volodin's phone call as treason? So the text is, of course, compared with the film regardless, but in a way that assumes the value of unambiguous interpretations. The mechanisms of interpretation go awry as they approach one of the most salient boundaries drawn in the novel, that of the state. Here, the invocation of the literary text begins to be perceived as a recourse to an authoritative eyewitness of the past, to a "lesson of history" that should not be distorted but at the same time can only be distorted.

In this instance, the past becomes the chief resource for recognition, for induction into the readers' collective experience. Such a resource – unproblematic, familiar to all potential viewers, and generally accessible – tapped by the serial's creators is the opulent "grand style" of Stalin's Moscow. The celebratory meal, one of the most notable and visually best conceived scenes in the film, demonstratively imitates A Book on Tasty and Healthy Food [Kniga o vkusnoi i zdorovoi pische], which was a fixture in almost every Soviet home, linked generations, and was handed down in families. This is an image of the past that is not only nostalgic but also – and this is of no little importance to the serial – formulaic. In fact, such types of recognition and aesthetization of the past only ever come as a package, forming an enclosed, self-reproducing model in which the recognized has been aestheticized and the aestheticized is recognized.

The blurriness and neutrality of Gleb Panfilov's project cannot be said to have resulted from an insufficiently conscientious "translation" (the condensation of a literary text and the creation of a televised analogue are impossible tasks) or from the ideological turnabout that converts a strongly anti-Stalinist novel into a film that propagandizes totalitarian values. On the contrary, the viewers are faced with the result of a strategy of fidelity to the text – or, more precisely, of a strategy that declares itself via the rhetoric of fidelity – that is specific to television serials. But the semantics of discontinuities and impenetrable boundaries sits badly with that strategy, with the expectations that a literary serial should personify. ...