Russian Studies in Literature
Fall 2007
Alla Latynina
Translated by Liv Bliss

When a work is elevated to a classic, it moves from the sphere of literary criticism into that of literary studies and becomes the subject not of articles but of research studies. It stops being grist for spontaneous discussions and instead supplies topics for papers presented at conferences and symposia. But sometimes it abruptly regains its relevance and again becomes an arena for conflicting opinions. That is what happened to Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle after the Russia Channel aired Gleb Panfilov's adaptation of it.

One may argue that every screen adaptation of a classic rouses interest in the book itself. There is even an edition of The Master and Margarita that features movie actors in its cover art. But viewers do not debate if Margarita was wrong to cheat on her husband and whether Behemoth the cat could really buy his own tram ticket. Instead, they discuss whether the cat on the screen resembles the cat in the novel (although none of them has ever seen the cat in the novel) and if Satan's ball came out looking right.

With Solzhenitsyn's novel, though, the controversy had less to do with the extent to which the screen version met viewer expectations than with plot points in the novel itself. Take, for instance, the extensive discussion on the Live Journal [Zhivoi zhurnal] internet blog, where the most hotly debated topic was Innokenty Volodin's call to the U.S. embassy – his attempt to warn the Americans about an upcoming meeting between a Soviet intelligence agent and an American scientist who was ready to hand over "important technological details on the manufacture of the atom bomb." That was where the diametrically contrary opinions met and clashed. If one blogger called it treason, another would parry with a reference to [the quantum physicist Werner] Heisenberg: "In a totalitarian state, it is the duty of every decent person to commit high treason." One finds the phone call implausible: "Let's assume that the character wants to save the world, or to betray it. To do that, does he really have to call the U.S. embassy from a street phone? Any Granny Grunt in the middle of nowhere knows perfectly well that they'd just... send him you-know-where with a running start." Followed by an objection: "No, not at all. The call is picked up, the reels go round, the tape hisses through the guides, not only at the Ministry of State Security but in the embassy, too. So he won't be sent you-know-where at all."

How important is it to this plot point that the bomb has already been exploded? Did the country need an atom bomb? And what should our attitude be toward those who were working for nuclear parity? The discussion passes beyond the bounds of the novel and then comes back to it. There is also a lively discussion of the various redactions of the novel. One person recounts his father's response to the televised version: "But what have they done? The diplomat was a decent person in the book... and here he's just an ordinary traitor!" Another complains that "Solzhenitsyn has mutilated with his own hands a book that seemed so shocking in the 1970s." A third objects, claiming that, on the contrary, he has heightened the conflict.

No one fights like this over a classical novel whose once-trenchant impact has lessened. People fight like this over a work of current relevance. That warrants my approaching a novel written almost half a century ago armed less with the toolkit of literary studies than with the freer yardsticks of literary criticism.

... A bomb was exploded at the Semipalatinsk Test Site on August 29, 1949.

Four months after that explosion, Innokenty placed his call to the Americans – but why? In an effort to prevent the unconscionable theft of the atom bomb? Too late for that. So, then, he knew nothing about the test? But that contradicts what Solzhenitsyn says about his character. Innokenty is off to work for the United Nations. Like all other Soviets abroad, he will be not quite a diplomat: "He was being thrust out there with a secret mission, with an ulterior motive, a second layer of memory, a toxic instruction to himself from himself." It is highly unlikely that those "internal instructions" would have omitted the atom bomb, which was the most highly charged topic in late 1949. Even if they did, Innokenty could not have missed the TASS communiqué published in Pravda on September 25, 1949, with the subtitle "In Connection with U.S. President Truman's Announcement That the USSR Has Exploded an Atom Bomb." The communiqué was contradictory but quite transparent to those who knew how to read Soviet newspapers, and Innokenty not only knows how to do that but also teaches his sister-in-law Klara. "On September 23, U.S. President Truman announced that, according to data obtained by the U.S. government, an atom bomb had been detonated in the USSR in recent weeks. An analogous announcement was simultaneously made by the English and Canadian governments. After the publication of these announcements in the American, English, and Canadian press and in the press of other countries, numerous statements appeared that sowed alarm broadly through society," Pravda wrote, neither confirming the explosion nor denying it (instead, there was an idiotic passage on the numerous projects involving explosives in the USSR). "As for the production of atomic energy, TASS considers it essential to remind readers that as early as November 6, 1947, Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov stated with respect to the secret of the atom bomb, that "this secret has long been nonexistent.""

It is a convoluted announcement, with blatant hints of irony and complacency and a suggestion of Stalin's characteristic idiom, of the desire to preen about having the atom bomb, and of an aspiration to outsmart everyone else. But a thinking person would instantly understand that this was not about Molotov's bluster but about Truman having told the American people that the Soviet Union had exploded an atom bomb. Incidentally, Volodin, as a diplomat, has access to the foreign press and knows foreign languages, so he can read foreign newspapers. In fact, that is part of his job description.

There is one more thing that influences the contemporary perception of what Innokenty Volodin did. The intelligentsia's myth of the United States as the bulwark "of goodness and freedom" has by now collapsed. Volodin's original motivation follows the general lines of Uncle Avenir's pronouncements that the atom bomb in the hands of the Stalin regime meant certain war: "What does our motherland want with it?", he ponders. "What does the village of Rozhdestvo want with it?" A lot of people would have signed on to ask that very question during the Soviet period of our history, the consensus being that, in the hands of the responsible Americans, the bomb was no cause for alarm and that all the tough talk about "warmongering" was only Soviet propaganda. "Who out there remembers that they rejected the eminently sensible Baruch Plan, that if we gave up on the atom bomb, the Americans would be put under international lock and key?", Innokenty muses. Today we know for a certainty that although Stalin's was a regime of cannibals, the decisionmakers in America were no angels either: when the Americans were bombing Yugoslavia, those same circles that used to idealize the United States were sometimes glad that we had the bomb. The Baruch plan was more self-serving than it seemed. As Grushenka tells her rival in [Fyodor Dostoyevsky's] The Brothers Karamazov, "[Y]ou may be left to remember that you kissed my hand, but I didn't kiss yours." The world was being asked to kiss America's hand. Locks and keys are all very well, but a monopoly is a monopoly: "You may be left to remember that I have the bomb and you don't." The recently declassified U.S. plans for a preemptive nuclear strike – in particular Operation Dropshot, which would have carpeted the USSR with three hundred atom bombs – also speak to the dreams that nuclear supremacy engenders in the military. Although war games should not be equated to an administration's intentions, absent parity between two hostile sides, there will always be a temptation to turn the war games into the real thing. Understanding that, most of the eminent physicists employed on the Manhattan Project probably believed that atomic secrets should be shared with the USSR, and while they may not have been working directly for the Soviet intelligence services, they surely facilitated the outflow of information.

Thus, the lofty goals of Innokenty Volodin's phone call to the U.S. embassy (to prevent the atom bomb from being handed over to Stalin's regime) definitely contradict reality. Solzhenitsyn sent his character out to do a great deed, even though the deed in question was "not well thought out." But an absurd or petty act does not warrant the status of a great deed. "It would not be so bad to die," Innokenty thinks, "if only people knew that there was once a citizen of the world who had saved them from the atom bomb." But what about dying for betraying a Soviet agent to U.S. intelligence? ...

It is also germane to ask if the implausibility of what Innokenty Volodin has any significance for the novel. Solzhenitsyn needed a character prepared to sacrifice himself for the common good, who is then ground up and spat out by the state machinery. Then why not view the "atom bomb" as simply an arbitrary device? As Vladimir Berezin wrote in Knizhnoe obozrenie, with reference to the improbability of the plot ("the bomb went off in August... why go huffing and puffing into the phone about secret blueprints when it was nearly December?"), the motif of treachery is simply a "stand-in for Sartre in these backwoods of ours": "The First Circle is (anti)Soviet existentialism."

Solzhenitsyn really did enjoy putting his characters into borderline situations: Gerasimovich, who refuses to work on inventing nasty toys for the NKVD (dooming himself thereby to a hard-labor camp and perhaps to death); Nerzhin, who voluntarily prefers the rigors of a transit camp to satiated slavery in a sharashka, and so on. They all have an existential choice to make. The principle of not living by lies was tested first by Solzhenitsyn's characters. But in making their choice, the characters are functioning in plausible circumstances. ...This is where the novel's realistic poetics come into conflict with the arbitrariness of this structuring ploy, which is why many readers regret the loss of the rejected version ... . But that is unfair. [This version of] Circle ... is, of course, more three-dimensional, more complex, brighter. ... There is only one thing to regret: that in 1968 Solzhenitsyn did not favor, instead of the "atomic bomb" plot whose luster has dimmed with time, [a] conflict that seemed to him artificial and banal but has ultimately proven to be genuine and eternal.