In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had a long road to publication. An indictment of the totalitarian Soviet system set in 1949, the novel traces the chain of events set in motion by a junior Soviet diplomat's impulsive, dangerous phone call on Christmas eve to the American embassy. Solzhenitsyn wrote the book between 1955 and 1958, but couldn't get it published in English until 1968, after cutting out nine chapters and many individual scenes to get it past the censors. The version I read is the first uncensored edition, with all cut material restored, published in 2009.
The "first circle" refers to Dante's circles of Hell, with the first being the best (or least terrible), in which the luckiest (or least unfortunate) find themselves. The sharakshas, for example, were the best of the gulag prisons, in which prisoners with scientific or technical skills worked on technological projects for the Soviet government and lived in better conditions than those in the labor camps. The novel isn't merely a description of the gulag system, though. A larger "first circle" is that of the Soviet elite--diplomats, high-ranking Party members, military officers. Although they occupy the highest social levels, they're in the first circle of the hell that is Soviet society. At its highest and lowest levels, it is a society that is built on lies and blind glorification of Stalin. Everything works to crush individual achievement and independent thought.
Two men's stories comprise the main threads of this complex (but never boring) book. In the first circle of Soviet society is Innokenty Volodin, who makes the phone call that starts the action. Volodin is a young diplomat who has become disenchanted with the Soviet system and yearns for truth and a life with meaning and integrity. His phone call, from a public booth, is an attempt to warn the Americans that one of their number is a spy who is about to give the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviets. The call is listened to and recorded, but his identity is not known.
The search for the man who made the phone call leads to the introduction of the other main character, Gleb Nerzhin. Nerzhin is a zek, or political prisoner. His crime: having been a prisoner of the Germans during the war. (Many Soviet prisoners of the Germans were put into gulags upon returning home after the war, on the assumption that they must have picked up some anti-Soviet attitudes after spending so much time with Germans.) Nerzhin is a mathematician who works in an acoustics lab in a sharashka. His group is assigned the task of using electronic voice analysis to identify the man who made the phone call to the American embassy.
Many other characters and story lines give glimpses of what life is like for all kinds of people under a totalitarian system that seeks to control not only the movements and behavior but also the thoughts of its citizens, by force and intimidation. This book's wide-angle, multi-storied picture of a society at a particular point in its history kept reminding me of A Suitable Boy. But this is a much more chilling story. It's not the smooth page-turner created by Vikram Seth; rather, it's Solzhenitsyn's tribute to the people who struggle to maintain their integrity of mind in a crushing system. Although there is some humor and many appealing characters, it's a much more harrowing read. No one is free in In The First Circle; they're just occupying different levels of Hell.