In reading In the First Circle, certain points slap us up the side of the head. Some of those points are recurring themes of the novel, others maybe just are conclusions we can draw from having read what we read. Don’t blame Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for all the notions I gained from reading his book. A great book is going to spark responses from its readers, and In the First Circle certainly did that for me. I’ll number a few of the thoughts that came to me.
1/When a worldview gains control in a country, that worldview is difficult to fight against. Marxism-Leninism was the worldview of the Soviet Union. One might have thought that the prisoners in the sharashka, mostly educated and highly intelligent men and moreover the victims of Soviet injustice, would have readily rejected Marxism-Leninism somewhere along the way. But it seems not to be so. Many of them still thought in communist terms. One man, the very intelligent Lev Rubin–moreover a man of some sweetness of character–is so completely committed to Marxism-Leninism that he defends the system vigorously. But even most of the other prisoners are far from committed enemies of the Soviet regime. They know they have been treated abominably, but they still seem to think in communist terms.
This prompts me to compare our own country. We are exactly the same. We believe the stuff which we have been taught as we grow up. We think democracy is automatically the way life should be organized. Which is really nonsense. One would think that Christian people–of whom there are millions in the U.S.–would have been able to construct a more realistic view of how the world has been put together. But for the most part we have not. Those who believe God’s instructions about how life should be organized are considered fascist enemies of goodness. We Christians need to start trying harder to think God’s thoughts after Him. If we won’t do that, how can we expect non-Christians–raised in the same democracy-is-everything soup most of us have swallowed from grade one onward–to do the work we won’t do? In our own way, we have been as thoughtless as were the Soviet people with their ridiculous Marxism-Leninism.
2/People can always be found to do evil. Our instinct–barring the development of great character, which is extremely rare among any group of people–is to fit in, to go along. We find a way to fit into the system. Some of us will be worse than average. We have people like Antifa in our country. They are the raw material from which torturers can be drawn. There are enough of such types of people to run any totalitarian system in the U.S. History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. We are not exempt from doing great horrors in this country. Examples abound. We have killed 61,000,000 unborn children, and those who don’t cheer, instead just shrug. Who would have thought that we would find enough doctors and nurses to kill 61,000,000 children? We did it standing on our head, easily. Another example, who knew that the American people would shrug at the murder of countless innocent foreigners in our wars of aggression against powerless small countries? Who knew that many, perhaps most, Christians would cheer, and the rest shrug? Yet it has happened, and it goes on happening. Wait, you mean “our democracy” can do wrong? See point 1 above. And the evil that we do may just be beginning. In the First Circle is warning us.
3/The West is intellectually and morally dim. Innokenty Volodin, a key character in the book, risks his freedom and perhaps his life, to warn the U.S. that the Soviet Union is close to being able to steal information which will lead to the Soviets being able to produce the atomic bomb. His attempt falls on intellectually deaf ears. We were dim then, and we’re dim now. Who could have guessed, for one example, that the West would attempt to commit suicide by permitting the entrance of millions of Muslims to our western countries? Again, we have done it readily, happily, nuttily, and to this day only a tiny percentage of our people even acknowledge the danger. We are dim. With Alfred E. Neuman, our motto is, “What, me worry?”
4/A theme of the book is that we can only be free people if we live honestly. We must speak and live the truth. This is difficult to do. It takes character. Intelligence is not the key to life. The key to life is living as we should. Sometimes that is going to involve us doing the right thing and accepting consequences which are unpleasant. But that is the only way to become morally free. Which leads on to point 5.
5/This is not necessarily a theme of the book. It is a conclusion I have drawn from reading about the characters, and from having lived a long time. That is, each Christian person needs to develop a committed brand of Christianity which applies to all of life. Quasi-Christianity doesn’t really accomplish much good. Only one of the characters in the book has reached that brand of commitment. Dmitri Sologdin has freed himself from Marxist-Leninist nonsense. He is moving forward with different principles. His friend Gleb Nerzhin (probably Solzhenitsyn’s picture of himself at that time of life) is not up with Sologdin yet, but he seems to be moving in that direction. If you and I want to be a force for good in the world, we need to take our Christianity seriously, and need to keep making our beliefs and actions closer and closer to what God wants from us. This doesn’t come automatically. We need to be intentional.
6/Maybe this fits under point 3 concerning our dimness. But I think it deserves a point to itself. It is absolutely terrifying how many intelligent, educated Christian people have not read a word of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I could give names by the score, even in my relatively small circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. The word terrifying is not too strong. Satan is laughing at us, and celebrating. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a great gift from God, and for us to be too intellectually lazy and too self-absorbed to pick up that gift and read, is a disgrace. We have no realistic excuse. Terrifying. He is trying to warn us. We smile a patronizing smile, and ignore him. I hope God will have mercy on us, and wake us up.
7/Solzhenitsyn is a miracle. Here’s what Malcolm Muggeridge said/wrote in 1978-80:
‘If when I was a young correspondent in Moscow in the early thirties you had said to me that it would be possible for the Soviet regime to continue for sixty years with its policy of doing everything possible to extirpate the Christian faith, to discredit its record and its originator, and that after this there would emerge figures like Solzhenitsyn speaking the authentic language of the Christian, grasping such great Christian truths as the cross in a way that few people do in our time, I would have said, “No, it’s impossible, it can’t be.” But I would have been wrong.’ (The End of Christendom, p 39)
When God gives us a special blessing, we need to say “Thank you!” and to take advantage of the blessing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a miracle, and a great blessing. One need not begin reading him with In the First Circle, although that is a fine place to start. As one pastor/precentor said to us concerning the psalm we were getting ready to sing, “Grab a verse and hang on!” Grab something by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and hang on.