In the In the First Circle: The First Uncensored Edition, there is a striking scene that I’d like to highlight. Most of the characters in the book inhabit one of the Moscow Sharaskas in the early 50s. A Sharaska was a special prison camp, unlike the work camps, the conditions of these camps were not so lethal. The conditions, while far far better than in the work camps, was liveable. These camps were primarily for those individuals who had skills, glass-blowing, engineering, electronics, mathematics, and so on that the regime decided to put them to forced work conditions in their speciality in order to further the regime. One of the major projects ongoing in the book was developing a working scrambler/descrambler system for their analog phones.

In the sharaska, the hours were long each day … and the work has very closely supervised by non-prison workers because the prisoners could not be trusted. Yet, apparently the guards and watchers could not be compelled to work the long hours every day and Sunday evening at 6pm until early in the morning Monday the prisoners were locked in and left to their own devices.

For the prisoners a day off meant that the heavy iron doors were locked from the outside, after which no one came in to summon a prisoner or haul him out. For those few short hours not a sound, not a word, not an image could filter through from the outside world to trouble a man’s mind. That was what their day of rest meant — the whole world outside, the universe with all its stars, the planet with its continents, capital cities with their blazing lights, the whole state with some at their banquets and others working voluntary extra shifts, sank into oblivion, turned into an ocean of darkness barely discernible through the barred windows by the dead yellow half-light from the lights on the prison grounds.
Those who sailed on in the ark were weightless and had only weightless thoughts. They were neither hungry nor full. They knew no happiness and so felt no anxiety about losing it. Their heads were not busy with trivial professional concerns, intrigues, the struggle for promotion; their shoulders were not burdened with worries about places to live, fuel, bread, and clothing for their children. Love, which has brought man delight and torment from the beginning of time, could neither thrill nor distress them. Their sentences were so long that not one of them as yet gave any thought to the years after his release. Men of remarkable intelligence, education, and experience of life, they had nonetheless been too devoted to their families to leave much of themselves for their friends, but here they belonged only to their friends.
During those Sunday evening hours, matter and body could be forgotten. The spirit of masculine friendship and philosophy hovvered beneath the canvas vault of the ceiling.
Perhaps this was the bliss all the philosophers of antiquity had striven in vain to identify.

It seems that the prison experience of Solzhenitsyn (not accidentally) reinforces that learned from early Christian experience that ascetic suffering has its own particular rewards.

One final thought to add, from another section. “You have but one life to live” spurred some of the characters (not in the prisons) to seek pleasures, riches, and to enjoy life to the fullest.

We are people who behave naturally,” Dotnara used to say. “We don’t pretend; we wear no disguise. Whatever we want we go all out for!” As they saw it, “We are given only one life” — and so must take from life all that it has to offer.

This is countered …

The great truth for Innokenty used to be that we are given only one life.
Now, with the new feeling that had ripened in him, he became aware of another law; that we are given only one conscience too.

Filed under: Book ReviewsBooksMark O.

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