Love, Lies, and Fiction in the Soviet Union

"... a perfect example of what fiction does - illustrate reality in a way a series of facts cannot..."

Love, Lies, and Fiction in the Soviet Union
Title: "Soviet Life #000111". Image generated at Prompt = "Neo-plasticism mondrian-like, gray and dark tones with a section of bright colours".

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This article contains the script of Episode 5 of the GreatInsights Minicast, hosted by Guillermo Pablos Murphy.

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Minicast Script

The following is a reading of ‘Chapter Six’ of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The First Circle’. If you would like to follow along with this recording, you can find a link to the video’s script and the entirety of Chapter Six, in the description below.

First, a synopsis of the novel.

The First Circle is a highly autobiographical novel by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, first published in 1968.

Set in 1949, the novel depicts the lives of the occupants of a sharashka, a research and development bureau made of Gulag inmates, located in the Moscow suburbs, called Mavrino. The Gulag was a system of forced labour camps in the Soviet Union. Many of the sharashka prisoners are technicians or academics who were arrested during Joseph Stalin’s purges following the Second World War under suspicion of counter-revolutionary activities.

Unlike inhabitants of other Gulag labour camps, the occupants of the sharashka were adequately fed and enjoyed good working conditions; however, if they found disfavour with the authorities, they could be instantly shipped to Siberia, an extensive region of North Asia known for its long, harsh winters, and home to an extensive network of Gulag labour camps during the early decades of the Soviet Union.

The title of the Novel is an allusion to Dante's first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy, wherein the philosophers of Greece, and other virtuous pagans, live in a walled green garden. They are unable to enter Heaven, as they were born before Christ, but enjoy a small space of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.

I am reading from a paper copy of the 1971 Eighth Impression of the 1968 English Version published by William Collins and Harvill Press, translated from the Russian by Michael Guybon.

Now, a reading of 'Chapter Six' of 'The First Circle'.

[start of Chapter]

Serafima was so tiny that it was difficult to call her by anything but the diminutive of her name, Simochka. She wore a cotton blouse, always had a warm shawl round her shoulders, and she was a lieutenant in the MGB.

All the free workers at Mavrino were officers of the MGB.

In accordance with the Stalin Constitution of the USSR, they had a great many rights, among them the right to work. But they were entitled to do so for eight hours a day only, and their work was not productive but consisted in supervising the prisoners who, bereft of all other rights, were granted that of working a twelve-hour day. The free workers took it in turn to work late shifts in the laboratories so that the prisoners would be supervised during their additional four hours - from seven to eleven p. m. - as well as during the dinner break from six to seven.

Today, the birdlike Simochka was on night duty in the Acoustics Laboratory
where, for the time being, she was the only representative of authority.

The regulations required her to see that the prisoners worked and didn't idle or
use their working time to manufacture weapons, dig tunnels, or take advantage of the radio equipment at their disposal to set up two-way communication with the White House. At ten to eleven she was expected to collect all top-secret documents, lock them in the safe and then lock up the laboratory.

It was only six months since Simochka had graduated from the Institute of
Communications and, because her background was impeccable from the security point of view, had been sent to this top-secret research establishment, officially referred to only by a code number but which the prisoners irreverently called the 'monkey-house'. All free workers in it were automatically given the rank of officers in the security service and salaries higher than those of ordinary engineers. They also received clothing allowances and bonuses according to rank. In return, their only duty was to be dedicated and vigilant.

It suited Simochka very well that no one expected her to show any competence
in her special field. Like many of her girl-friends there, she had not learned anything at the Institute - this for many reasons. The girls had done very little maths or physics at school. In their final years it had come to their ears that the headmaster was always reprimanding teachers for failing too many students, and they realized that they would scrape through even if they knew nothing. As a result, when the time came to go to university they were completely lost in the jungle of mathematics and radio-technology and very often they had no time at all for study. Every autumn they were taken for a month or so to collective farms to dig potatoes. The rest of the year they attended classes lasting from eight to ten hours a day, so they had no time to digest their lecture notes. On Monday evenings they had political studies, and at least once a week they were obliged to attend some meeting. Then there were the obligatory 'civic' activities - helping to produce the wall - newspaper, organizing workers' concerts, sponsored by the Institute. Time had also to be found for housework, shopping and looking after their clothes - and for an occasional evening at a cinema, a theatre or a dance. If you don't have a little fun as a student, when are you likely to have it later in life?

When the examinations came, Simochka, like the other girls, wrote cribs, hid them in her clothes, smuggled them in and took them out and unfolded them at the right moment, so that they looked like legitimate sheets of rough work. The ignoramuses could easily have been shown up if the examiners had asked enough questions at the orals, but the teachers themselves were overworked - what with committees, meetings and writing various memoranda and reports for the Dean and the Rector. Failing their students meant extra work examining them a second time. Besides, if their students failed, the teachers suffered, just like factory workers turning out defective goods - on the well-known principle that there are no bad pupils, only bad teachers. No wonder that they didn't try to catch their students out but did their best to get them through as quickly as possible and with the highest possible marks.

In the last years of their studies, Simochka and her friends came to realize with
a sinking feeling that they had no liking for their subject and indeed found it a terrible bore. But by then it was too late to change. Simochka trembled at the thought of actually having to do responsible work in radio technology.

Fortunately she was sent to Mavrino where this was not expected of her. But
even someone less small and puny might well have had been overawed on entering this secluded citadel where specially chosen jailors and armed guards kept watch over important state prisoners. She was briefed, together with nine other girls who had all just graduated from her Institute. It was explained to them that the place they had come to was more dangerous than a battlefield - it was a serpents' nest where the slightest false step could be their undoing. They would be in contact with the dregs of the human race - people unworthy of speaking Russian, and the more dangerous because they did not openly bare their fangs but always wore a mask of courtesy and good breeding. If asked about their crimes - which the girls were categorically forbidden to do - they would weave a clever tissue of lies, trying to prove that they were innocent victims. Finally, the girls were told that they must never show their hatred of these vipers but, as good members of the Komsomol, and like the prisoners themselves, put on a show of politeness. On the other hand, they must not get into conversation with them (except on purely practical matters) or run errands for them outside the prison. At the slightest infringement of these regulations (or even the first hint of such a possibility) they must immediately report everything to the Security Officer, Major Shikin.

The major was a short, swarthy, self-important man with a big head, closely
cropped grey hair, and feet so small that he wore boys' shoes. He told them that
although the reptilian nature of these wicked men was obvious to him and to other
experienced people, there might well be someone among the girls - completely new to this work as they were - who, out of the kindness of her heart, would waver in her duty and break the rules, say, by lending a prisoner a book from the library intended only for the free workers, or worse, by posting a letter for him outside. (Any such letter, though addressed to a Maria or a Tanya, was bound to be intended for a foreign spy centre.) He urged anyone who saw a friend going wrong to come like a good comrade to her help by reporting her action to him at once.

Finally, the major pointed out that to have an affair with a prisoner was an
offence under the criminal code which, as they all knew, was very flexible and
provided penalties up to a sentence of twenty-five years hard labour.

The girls were shaken by this bleak picture of the future ahead of them. Some even had tears in their eyes. But the seeds of mistrust had now been sewn among them
and, as they left the briefing session, they did not talk to one another about what they had been told.

With her heart in her mouth, Simochka had followed Major Roitman into the
Acoustics Laboratory, and instantly felt like shutting her eyes and as though she were falling from a great height.

In the six months that had gone by since that day, something strange had happened to her. It wasn't that she had stopped believing in the reality of the imperialists' dark designs, and she was still quite prepared to accept that the
prisoners who worked in all the other laboratories were bloodthirsty villains. But as for the dozen or so she saw every day - these engineers and technicians, some with the highest university degrees - they seemed so grimly indifferent to the thought of freedom, to what was happening to them, to their prison terms of ten or twenty-five years, and they were so wrapped up in their work which brought them no return, that she simply couldn't bring herself to see them as desperadoes of international espionage a type so easily identified by cinema-goers and so easily hunted down by spycatchers.

Simochka wasn't in the least afraid of them, nor could she hate them,. Their
great learning, and the stoicism with which they endured their fate aroused nothing but her boundless respect. Though duty and patriotism compelled her to report all their transgressions to the Security Officer, she began to feel, for reasons that were not at all clear to her, that her role was a thoroughly despicable one and that it put her in an impossible position.

It was particularly painful in the case of her nearest neighbour and working
partner, Gleb Nerzhin, who sat facing her across their two desks.

For some time now Simochka had been working closely with him, under his
direction, on diction tests. At Mavrino new telephone circuits were always being tried out to see how well they conveyed the nuances of human speech. There was still no instrument which could accurately measure this factor and register it on a dial. From this point of view, the efficiency of a circuit could only be judged by someone listening while a second person read out test syllables, words and sentences at the other end of the line.

Nerzhin was responsible for the mathematical programming of these tests,
which were working out so well that he had even written a monograph on the methods involved. Whenever he and Simochka felt that their work was getting on top of them, it was he who decided what was urgent and what could wait: at such moments he looked so young and self-assured that Simochka, whose mental image of war was derived from the cinema, saw him in a captain's uniform, shouting orders to his guncrew in the blaze and smoke of shell-fire.

But, in fact, Nerzhin was decisive only because he wanted to get through his
work as quickly as possible and relapse into idleness. Once he had said to Simochka: 'I am active because I hate action.' 'What do you like?' she had asked shyly. 'I like to think', he said. And indeed, once an immediate crisis was over, he would sit still for hours, his face grey, showing his age and his wrinkles. There was no trace now of self-assurance, and his movements were slow and hesitant. He would think a long time before writing a few of those notes which Simochka, today again, saw on his desk among a pile of technical reference books and monographs. She noticed that when he finished he always put them in the same place on the left side of his desk, but not in the drawer. She burned with curiosity to know what he was writing and for whom. Without knowing it, he had become for her an object of sympathy and admiration.

So far, Simochka's life had been very unhappy. She was not pretty. Her nose
was too long; her hair was thin and grew awkwardly - she gathered it together at the back of her head in a straggly little knot. She was not just small, which can be quite attractive, but too small - more like a schoolgirl than a grown woman. Also, she was rather prim and proper, had no time for fun and games, and this also put the young men off. At twenty-five she had no boy-friends and had never been kissed.

A month ago something had gone wrong with the microphone in the acoustics
booth and Nerzhin had called Simochka to help him fix it. She came with a screwdriver in her hand, then, in the soundless, airless room where there was barely enough space for the two of them, bent towards the microphone which Nerzhin was examining, and before she realized it, her cheek was touching his. She nearly died of fright at the thought of what might happen next. She should have drawn back, but she went on foolishly looking at the microphone. There followed the longest and most terrifying minute she had ever known - their cheeks were on fire as they touched, but he too did not draw away! Suddenly he seized her head and kissed her on the lips. Simochka's whole body felt exquisitely faint. She forgot her duty to the Komsomol and to her country; all she could say was:

'The door's not shut.'

They were hidden from the noisy room outside only by a thin flapping blue
curtain in the window of the booth - anyone could have pulled it up at any moment. Nerzhin risked only ten days in the punishment cell, but for her, Simochka, her security clearance, her career, perhaps even her freedom, were at stake. Yet she had not the strength to draw away from the hands that clasped her head.

For the first time in her life a man had kissed her.

In this way, the cunningly wrought chain broke at the link formed by a woman's heart.

[end of Chapter]


I hope you enjoyed that Chapter.

'Chapter Six' stood out during my reading of 'The First Circle' as a perfect microcosm of a certain life under the Soviet Union. It is a perfect example of what fiction does - illustrate reality in a way a series of facts cannot. I think on the corruption of Simochka’s university, the mandatory political ceremonies, the weaving of lies into her work life and how it separates her from the other graduates, and the promotion of betrayal by her supervisor, and what it tells us about our past and our present.

Thank for listening.  There is a copy of this video’s script in the description below, including the entirety of Chapter Six.

Yours from beyond the walled green garden,

I am Guillermo Pablos Murphy.

Minicast Description

"... a perfect example of what fiction does - illustrate reality in a way a series of facts cannot..."

This is Episode 5 of the GreatInsights Minicast, hosted by Guillermo Pablos Murphy.

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