Networking Solzhenitsyn: First Links to The First Circle

Katherine M. H. Reischl

Rereading Helen Muchnic, “Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The First Circle,’” The Russian Review, 29, 2 (April 1970): 154-166.


For readers of The Russian Review, Solzhenitsyn is a household name; first name and patronymic are as unnecessary for him as they are for his literary forefathers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Not since the sensational appearance of Ivan Denisovich in the pages of Novyi mir in 1962 has the author’s full name seemed obligatory. However, even in that case, the Soviet journal’s editor Alexander Tvardovsky introduced not the author (noted simply as “A. Solzhenitsyn”), but focused the reader’s attention on the “raw material” (zhiznennyi material) of the novella. It was not a “document,” in Tvardovksy’s view; and the reader was not to conflate Ivan with the author; the novella had no “deliberate concentration of terrible facts of the cruelty and arbitrariness that were the result of the violation of Soviet legality,” i.e., it did not dwell on the visage of Stalin.[1] Tvardovsky’s “Instead of a Preface” (Vmesto predisloviia) served as a savvy, well-calculated bid to shield the author, editor, and journal.[2]

Writing in The Russian Review just five years later, Liudmila Koehler observed that the “newness” of the novella’s political sensationalism had worn off. However, she predicted that Ivan Denisovich would stand the test of time. As opposed to the “soul engineers” of the Writers’ Union, and the “timid” attempts by other authors to further expose the horrors of the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn’s “masterpiece” marked “a return to the great tradition of the nineteenth century.”[3] The canonization of Solzhenitsyn was already underway.

Koehler was by no means alone in waging this campaign. Solzhenitsyn surged into English-language scholarship as the new face of Russian writing, by way of reference to the old. This essay, framing the old in the new and the new in the old, looks back to the “face” of The Russian Review through the work of Helen Muchnic. Muchnic played no small part in adding to this body of literature on Solzhenitsyn. Her “first response” scholarship, fusing the stance of a critical reviewer with that of a Russian literary scholar, was a mainstay of the journal and included her first look at Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle (V kruge pervom, 1968), published in 1970. In making visible some of her work here, I offer an examination of the shape of Solzhenitsyn’s canonization. This examination is in part made possible by our digital moment, which has rendered the once-hidden members of Solzhenitsyn’s networks visible, searchable, and plottable.

Prof. Helen Muchnic: A Canonizing Reviewer of The First Circle

Muchnic, a professor of Russian literature at Smith College and organizer of Smith’s Russian program, was a prolific scholar and a significant voice for the popular intelligentsia in midcentury America.[4] A 1971 review of Muchnic’s last book-length work, Russian Writers, in the New York Times frames her authority:

Over the years I have turned […] to the reviews and longer critical articles of Helen Muchnic, a Russian-American scholar, for knowledge and good sense. […] From Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn she has Russian prose and poetry in her bones. Professor emeritus of Smith College, she has read everything and is as responsive as an artist. […] [S]he has made it her business to get close to the questioning point at which all important novels and poets awake to what is individual in their statements. […] She makes us seem to be in at the birth and growth of a talent and shares with us eagerly the elation of that experience.[5]

Here, the reviewer, V. S. Pritchett, captures Muchnic’s spirit as the prolific author of more than thirty reviews of works of (largely) Russian literature in translation between 1963-1980 in the New York Review of Books. Muchnic was equally prolific in her contributions to The Russian Review, with thirty-four articles and reviews appearing in the journal. A graphic rendering of work (see fig. 1) reveals that Muchnic’s impressive output of scholarship held steady over time, with twenty-five publications (including books and long form scholarly articles) published in almost seven consecutive years.

Figure 1: Muchnic, Helen from “OCLC WorldCat Identities.” The graph shows 25 publications for the years 1961-2, 63-64, 64-65, 66-67, 67-68, 69-70, 71-72. The data (not pictured) also shows that the most “widely held” book is From Gorky to Pasternak: Six Writers in Soviet Russia (22 editions held at 1,255 WorldCat member libraries). View in Full Size

Muchnic’s “Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The First Circle’,” published in the journal in 1970, reflects the scholar’s status as a mature Russian literary scholar of her generation in structure, tone, and rhetorical flair – one distinctly characteristic of this moment in literary scholarship. Her piece is an attempt to evaluate and rank Solzhenitsyn’s latest novel amidst his growing oeuvre. Articles of this kind do, however, have a different generic appearance than those that appear in our scholarly literature today. In fact, were it not labeled by the JSTOR repository as an “article,” it could be mistaken for a long form book review. Unlike a scholarly article, the piece has no citations; unlike a book review, it presents no publication information.

Counter to the framing of Ivan Denisovich in Novyi mir, Muchnic’s piece dives headfirst into the novel: “In the late afternoon on Saturday, December 24th, 1949, Innokenty Volodin, State Counselor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, makes a telephone call from a public booth in a crowded subway station of Moscow.”[6] Dropping her reader into the suspense of the novel’s plot, Muchnic draws us into a world that is clearly not yet assumed as a shared text. However, those authors and characters already shared in the Russian literary imagination reorient and frame Solzhenitsyn and his new novel. For the journal’s audience, Ivan Denisovich was not so much a novella to be introduced, but a character to be freely deployed: “[The life of these privileged zeks] is luxurious by comparison with that of such prisons as Ivan Denisovich’s.”[7] Having entered and passed through canonical transformation, Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle’s Lev Rubin can be brought into the fold alongside Ivan Karamazov, whose presence serves to bring Solzhenitsyn into timeless copresence with Dostoevsky himself. Muchnic effects this move rhetorically:

And how is it that an honorable Lev Rubin can advocate the obvious inhumanity of a regime, excusing its ‘mistakes’ on the ground[s] that its goals are high, giving his unequivocal assent to the terrible problem that made Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov ‘most respectfully return the ticket’ of admission to a ‘universal harmony’ built on innocent victims? Why?, asks Solzhenitsyn, posing the unanswerable question of all tragedy.[8]

As Pritchett notes in his own review of Muchnic’s work, her scholarship brings readers “close” to the perceived “questioning point” in interpreting “important novels and poets.” Regarding the place of the author of The First Circle, Muchnic leaves little room for doubt, stating “Solzhenitsyn belongs in the tradition of Russian nineteenth-century Realists, whom one senses constantly in the background of his work.” While he differs in his “intellectual attitude,” what makes Solzhenitsyn distinct is still based on the ethical terms of the nineteenth century: “He describes good and evil, and his descriptions are touching and harrowing, but he is not given to elaborate speculation.”[9] Such parallels permeate both her scholarship and that of most other journal articles dedicated to Solzhenitsyn published between 1964-1970. Whether as a parallel or a point of contrast, Dostoevsky is the most often mentioned author in this period, followed closely by Tolstoy.[10]

This revaluation and recontextualization of the professional output of Muchnic and other scholars writing in this time should not be read as a dismissive critique. Rather, it seeks to lay bare our assumptions about how the Russian literary canon is shaped, and the ways it is consciously and unconsciously deployed. These insights might prompt reflection on our reticence as a discipline (that is, Slavic Studies) to diversify the canon today through “quick” scholarship, alongside the slow.[11] The very lack of space for a hybrid review/critique in our journals today – divided as they are between book reviews and journal articles— might be a contributing factor to this reticence. If a review of a new literary work (or even a review of a scholarly one) is not valued as a scholarly “intervention,” it is not believed to meet the threshold of “critical scholarship.” It also bears repeating that Muchnic was a scholar of Russian literature during the Cold War; the cultural ethos of that moment surely provided an impetus to connect Solzhenitsyn’s work to the family tree of a pre-revolutionary (and alternative Soviet) canon. However, just as our scholarly past cannot be divorced from political realities, our own scholarship is informed by the information resources available to us today. With this in mind, it is worth developing a fuller picture of the stability, and instability, of a “canonical” text like The First Circle.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: An Author Made of Invisible Networks

Solzhenitsyn is, avowedly, an author of networks and connections. Muchnic’s assessment of The First Circle repeatedly utilizes the motif of a nefarious web, with Stalin as the central node. Soviet surveillance is a “gigantic web which covers all of Russia”; there is no escape from “Solzhenitsyn’s hell,” a “spiderweb with a malignant, powerful little tyrant at its center, spinning the poison of his malice to entrap the whole of Russia.” In the socialist state, “[a]ll men are enmeshed in Stalin’s web of terror, where no one’s life is even reasonably secure.”[12]

Solzhenitsyn’s revolutionary literary experiment, The Gulag Archipelago, opens with another web: the map of interconnected Gulag camps that did not appear on official maps:

[T]his Archipelago crisscrossed and patterned that other country within which it was located, like a gigantic patchwork, cutting into its cities, hovering over its streets. Yet there were many who did not even guess at its presence and many, many others who had heard something vague. And only those who had been there knew the whole truth.[13]

In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s authority is defined by his proximity to events in his own life – his identity as a “zek” – but also to his network of people and documents. As he asserts, the book “could never have been created by one person alone…material for this book was given to [him] inreports, memoirs, and letters by 227 witnesses whose names were to have been listed here.”[14] Not only does he emphasize the materiality of the book as object in duplicate (eta kniga), but also the story of its coming into being through this network becomes a significant site in forming the picture of the text.[15] In fact, the role that samizdat plays in the book cemented his image as an author of the “underground” even before the Gulag Archipelago reached “the West.” In the very same year that Muchnic’s assessment was published in The Russian Review, Solzhenitsyn also appeared as a key member of a group of samizdat authors in the New York Times below the headline, “Samizdat is Russia’s Underground Press.”[16]

The individuals who were instrumental in bringing Solzhenitsyn’s work to readers by preparing, photographing, and hiding his manuscripts on film reels (plenki) were eventually named as his “Invisible Allies” (his so-called nevidimki) in a supplement to his memoir, The Oak and the Calf (Boldalsia telenok s dubom) in post-Soviet publication.[17] While he originally listed 227 “witnesses” at the opening of his Gulag Archipelago, with the expansion of circulation, the list of helpers grew. Today, they have been crowdsourced into various online repositories, including Wikipedia entries listing his nevidimki (118) and his svideteli (“eye witnesses,” 257).[18]  

Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between Solzhenitsyn’s “Invisible Allies” and their respective texts. Due to the fact that the majority of the nevidimki narrative is focused on the material history of the Gulag Archipelago, that text is most strongly represented in the diagram. The text appearing with the second highest frequency, often in connection with the Gulag Archipelago, is The First Circle. This visualization removes the book’s main character and author from the picture to focus on the samizdat objects at center. Moreover, in contrast to noting the nevidimki in a simple alphabetical list, people and their physical connections to the text is brought to the fore. The image illuminates those who made the material existence of the text possible by secreting manuscripts on film to “the West.”[19]

d3 Loom Chart - Nadieh Bremer Figure 2: "Networking Solzhenitsyn," based on the d3.loom chart by Nadieh Bremer, representation of the links between Solzhenitsyn's "nevidimki" and examples of his works/archival materials circulating as samizdat. Visualization by Andrew Janco. Interactive visual, including individual biographies and roles of the named nevidimki is available here.  Data for the visualization can be found here. This visualization will grow to include the individual biographies and locations of texts as the project develops. View in Full Size

This visualization of Solzhenitsyn’s “Invisible Allies” is only a first step.[20] In this sense, its parallel lies in the “incomplete” picture that was before Helen Muchnic as she sat down to craft a scholarly response to The First Circle. We see the many hands that held and moved The First Circle, making possible the first “light” publication of the work (consisting of 87 chapters), which had already been rejected for publication in the Soviet Union. The 96-chapter edition would not be published until 1978 by the YMCA Paris Press, as the samizdat plenki filled out the tamizdat book. However incomplete, these examples of “quick” scholarship, of incisive pictures opening new but still partial vistas, suggest a model for how scholars today can make stories of the invisible visible. To this end, many more questions might be asked of the ever-growing data available around the publication not only of Solzhenitsyn’s texts, but of our scholarship as well. This approach also gestures to ways of diversifying scholarship through the resources of the digital world we have at our fingertips. Through such an approach, we can see how a book comes into a new set of hands, and in what material shape, even as our world continues to dematerialize.

Katherine M. H. Reischl is an acting assistant professor at Stanford University.

My enormous thanks to Andrew Janco, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Haverford College, who served as the invaluable and inspirational digital humanities collaborator for this piece.

[1] Aleksandr Tvardovskii, “Vmesto predisloviia,” Novyi mir 11 (1962), 8-9; Alexander Tvardovsky, “Foreword” in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Trans. Ralph Parker (New York: New American Library, 2008), xx.

[2] See also Andrew Wachtel, “One Day – Fifty Years Later,” Slavic Review 72, 1 (Spring 2013): 102-117.

[3] Ludmila Koehler, “Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Russian Literary Tradition,” The Russian Review 26, 2 (April 1967): 176. Koehler also cites Max Hayward as he intones similarly in “Solzhenitsyn’s Place in Contemporary Soviet Literature,” Slavic Review 23, 3 (September 1964): 432-36.

[4] Her books include: An Introduction to Russian Literature (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1947), From Gorky to Pasternak: Six Writers in Soviet Russia (New York: Random House, 1961), The Unhappy Consciousness: Gogol, Poe and Baudelaire (Smith College: The Barton-Gillet Company, 1967), Dostoevsky’s English Reputation, 1881-1936(New York: Octagon Books, 1969), and Russian Writers: Notes and Essays (New York: Random House, 1971). See her short biography at the Smith College Library site:

She was also a close friend and intellectual confidant of Edmund Wilson. Princeton University Library holds 197 letters from Wilson to Muchnic. Much of the communication focuses on Wilson’s interest in Russia, and “the evolution of Muchnic's career as an author and professor of Russian literature at Smith College.”

[5] V. S. Pritchett, “Russian Writers,” New York Times, March 7, 1971.

[6] Helen Muchnic, “Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The First Circle’” The Russian Review, 29, 2 (April 1970): 154.

[7] Muchnic, “Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The First Circle,’” 155.

[8] Muchnic, 166.

[9] Muchnic, 165.

[10] The only figure more frequently mentioned is Stalin. This data is compiled through a JSTOR dataset of Solzhenitsyn scholarship from 1964-76. That dataset, along with the dataset informing Muchnic’s scholarship in scholarly journals, is available for download here

[11] By way of contrastive examples, “Rapid Response Research” (RRR) projects are quickly deployed scholarly interventions in pressing political, social, and cultural crises. Together, teams of researchers, technologists, librarians, faculty, and students pool skills to make swift and thoughtful contributions through digital scholarship in these times of crisis.” The Nimble Tents Toolkit, Such a model is clearly contrasted with the academic cultural phenomenon advocated in Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 2016).

[12] Muchnic, 156, 159, 165.

[13] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1 trans. Thomas P. Whitney (xviii); Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Arkhipelag GULag: 1918-1956, vol. I-II (Ekaterinburg: Izdatel’stvo “U-Faktoriia,” 2006), 7.

[14] Solzhenitsyn, trans. Whitney, xix; Solzhenitsyn, Arkhipelag GULag, 10.

[15] For more on the materiality of samizdat, see Ann Komaromi, “The Material Existence of Soviet Samizdat Author,” Slavic Review, 63, 3 (Autumn, 2004): 597-618.

[16] Albert Parry, “Samizdat is Russia’s Underground Press,” New York Times, March 15, 1970. The caption for the photomontage, composed by Michael Sullivan, describes the picture: “Scribes proscribed: Superimposed on an imaginative double view of Red Square are the faces of some of the leading samizdat writers. From left, novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn; essayist Nicholas Berdyaev; Yuri Galanskov and Alexei Dobrovolsky, associates of Alexander Ginzburg, who was imprisoned for distributing the minutes of the secret trial of Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, two whose crime was publishing pseudonymously in the West.”

[17] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Nevidimki,” Boldalsia telenok s dubom (Moscow: Soglasie, 1996), 401-592; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Invisible Allies, trans. Alexis Klimoff and Michael Nicholson (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995).

[19] Solzhitsyn repeatedly refers to “the West” (na zapad) as that distant destination. It is most often a stand in for Paris.

[20] This project, visualizing the connections between these “nevidimiki” their proximity to manuscript texts and archival materials, will grow and shift. It, like our history, remains in dynamic flux. See the network link in the caption for the most up-to-date version of the d3.loom chart.