Tag: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Posted September 26, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction, Thriller / 2 Comments

Purge by Sofi OksanenTitle: Purge (Goodreads)
Author: Sofi Oksanen
Translator: Lola Rogers
Published: Grove Press, 2008
Pages: 390
Genres: Literary Fiction, Thriller
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I love a good literary thriller but I rarely find one that really impresses me. There is something about taking genre fiction and using it to explore social issues. If done right it provides us with a fast paced narrative full of thrills but will also leave the reader with plenty to think about. A recent example that comes to my mind is The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet. Then there is Purge. The 7th Function of Language was able to blend literary theory in a fast paced plot, while Purge takes more an approach to explore the complex social and political issues facing Estonia after the Soviet collapse.

Aliide Truu is an elderly woman living in the Estonian countryside which keeps her isolated from the outside world and all the tragic events happening around her. One day she discovers another woman looking into her kitchen window, who turns out to be Zara, the granddaughter of her sister Ingel. Zara is on the run from the Russian mafia, after they forced her into the sex trade. Purge is an unflinching novel that explores the obstacles women face in this rapidly changing society.

“Those who poke around in the past will get a stick in the eye.”

Both women have their past and secrets which they rather not discuss. For Aliide, an escape from the current political issues felt like only answer. A feeling that feels all too familiar with the current state of the world. However what we truly know about Aliide is still surrounded in mystery. It is rather Zara’s life that is the major focus, exploring the corruption and the sickening world of human trafficking. All of which feels like a direct result of that power vacuum in the country.

“She found it hard to believe that there would be any bold moves, because too many people had dirty flour in their bags, and people with filthy fingers are hardly enthusiastic about digging up the past.”

Setting the novel in 1992 allows the reader to explore an Estonia that was going through many recent political changes. In the late 1980s Estonia saw many political arrests for crimes against humanity. This brought great resistance against the Russification of Estonia, especially with the collapsing Soviet Union, which lead to their eventual independence in 1991. The country’s social and political values were changing, for better or for worse, this lead to the emerging Russian mafia.

The bleak exploration into Estonian life from the perspective of two women with different pasts tends to remind me of the Soviet novels I have read in the past. Novels that look at both political and social issues that a country faces. For Sofi Oksanen, it allowed her to focus on the hardships facing women of the country as well.  The style and fast paced narrative of Purge reminds me specifically of the ‎Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel In the First Circle. Both exploring the effects of the Soviet era on the people within the narratives. In the First Circle focuses on life during the Soviet era while Purge is looking more at the after effects.

I have read Sofi Oksanen before and found her to be very bleak. The novel When the Doves Disappeared just felt dense and I found myself struggling to get through it. It is a novel I would love to dip into again at some point, but I think Purge offered me much more. With Purge, I have a new found appreciation for Sofi Oksanen and the novel motivates me to read more from her. Purge is a novel I highly recommend, but be warned, Baltic literature tends to be very bleak.


Organising Your Personal Library

Posted February 14, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 4 Comments

Recently I have been thinking about building the perfect library; this was due to a collection of essays I was reading called The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. In this book, Manguel explores the process of building his personal library from an old barn but he also looks at the history of libraries around the world. Each essay is titled ‘The Library as…’ space, power, shadow, and so on. These essays explore different topics, giving you a wealth of information. Take for example ‘The Library as Shadow’, which explores a darker side of library history, from book burning to censorship.

What I am particularly interested in was from the essay ‘The Library as Order’, which focuses on how we would arrange our personal library. It does not matter where or how you house your personal library; every person has their own opinions on that topic. I wanted to explore the concept of how we arrange the books. There are so many ways to arrange books, currently my books are everywhere and there is a certain appeal to this. I have bookshelves around the house and any new books end up wherever it fits. If I need to find a particular book, I can spend hours searching for it. This is not always ideal but there is something about this literary treasure hunt that I enjoy. I often discover books on my shelves that I have forgotten about or I want to dip back into. Looking at a shelf that offers no rhyme or reason can be mesmerising, and who does not enjoy just staring at a bookshelf? While this method works for me now, it is not practical if I have a library, I need to arrange my books differently. In The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel suggests some different ways to organise books;

  • alphabetically
  • by continent or country
  • by colour
  • by date of purchase
  • by date of publication
  • by format
  • by genre
  • by literary period
  • by language
  • according to our reading priorities
  • according to their binding
  • by series

Amidst all of these choices, I have to admit ‘according to our reading priorities’ does sound appealing but I feel like this would continually change. The obvious choice would be to organise alphabetically (by authors last name of course) but there are some draw backs with this. Not only will fiction and non-fiction sit side by side but the idea of Charles Dickens sitting next to Philip K Dick or Jane Austen beside Paul Auster seems odd. Although for those authors that dabble in both fiction and non-fiction, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn this system may be preferable.

Sorting by genre seems like a popular choice, and for all intents and purposes the most logical. As someone that reads on a whim, the ability to just head to somewhere like the detective fiction section and pick a gritty hard-boiled novel sounds wonderful. My only problem is the fact that it is often difficult to fit novels neatly into a single genre. Also, with an author like Jonathan Lethem you would have to separate his works, especially with his early books. I like the idea of sorting by genre but I found too many flaws in this system.

Picking an organisation strategy appeared to be much harder than it looked. Organising by colour is aesthetically pleasing but I never considered this as an option; it is just too random. I am playing around with a book-sorting app on my phone, which allowed me to create different shelves for organising. This allowed me to scan my books into the program and play with different ways to organise.

I eventually decided that there was no perfect way to organise a library, you can go into your public library and see evidence of this everywhere. I had to come up with a solution that worked for me. I do not have a library yet, but when I do, I am now sure I know how it will be organised. I have settled on sorting by continents for my fiction, this is because I have a keen interest in books in translation. I have discovered that splitting my fiction into continents will give me the opportunity to see where my strengths and weaknesses lie. If I organise my fiction by continent, I will notice which continents I need to focus on, like South America and Africa. I love reading around the world, I find it both an educational and rewarding experience.

If your reading journey and your library is a personal reflection, then the books that do not appear on your shelves say just as much about you as the books you do have on your shelf. When I became a reader, I quickly started building my book collection to a point where I have shelves and shelves of books everywhere. The problem I face now is the fact that I have only read about half of them. Publishers sent me books because of my blog but I also purchased books that sounded interesting. Now I have evolved as a reader and discovered where my literary tastes lie, there are books that remain on my shelf that are not a reflection of me as a reader. These books do not tell you anything about me because I have no desire to read them. While I know I should cull all books I have no interest in, it is hard to let go of a book that you have never read. What if it is fantastic and I just do not know that yet? There is the problem, but I do feel like I am getting to a point where I can be confident about a book I would not like. So maybe a purge is coming.

Now the problem with sorting the fiction by continents is that there are some countries I have a greater interest in – the literature of France and Russia for example. Do I split them into their own section? I am interested in all post-Soviet literature, so that brings up another question. How do I shelve these books? Russia seems too exclusive; calling them post-Soviet countries just does not sit right with me; Baltic and Slavic countries do not cover all the countries. This is one problem I need to solve, but for now I think this is the best choice for me.

Another issue I found with sorting by continent is that the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland fall under Europe but they do not feel the same. There is so much literature from the United Kingdom anyway, I feel like it would require its own shelves. I wonder about North America but honestly, does it matter if Canada and the United States sit together? For me it does not, although this may displease my Canadian friends. There are so many things to consider and this is only a small fraction of the problems I face with sorting my books.

When it comes to non-fiction, it was not difficult; this was always going to be sorted by subject. Philosophy, history, Russian history, books about books, art, and so on. However, that posed some interesting questions as well. Do you include philosophical novels like The Stranger by Albert Camus or Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard in the philosophical section? My feeling is yes but where do you draw the line? There are novels that are philosophical in nature that I would not include under philosophy, like The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I will continue to ponder just how I would organise my dream library, but I wanted to give you plenty to consider. Instead of reviewing The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, which everyone should read, I preferred to explore what I got out of this essay collection. I have not even touched on any of the other topics in this book; I will leave that for you to discover. Also, I have not even talked about other aspects of setting up a library, like using the Dewey decimal system, or a card catalogue system. Thinking about setting up a dream library is an exciting activity for every bibliophile and we all have different ideas. I loved reading about someone’s journey and it gave me plenty to contemplate. For now, I will continue cataloguing my books using the app BookBuddy and working out how to organise everything. This experiment should also help me discover the gaps in my own library so I can pick better books to purchase.


Understanding my Fascination on Russian Literature

Posted January 31, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 0 Comments

I am not entirely sure where my interest in Russian literature came from. I think it started with a fascination with the Cold War, which lead to a desire to understand the complex nature of the Soviet Union, both its politics and the people. The first Russian novel I read was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, however my obsession with Russian literature came soon after. When I first became a reader I was using the 1001 Books You Must Read before You Die list as a guide to work out what to read. While I would love to complete the full list, it has served its purpose, which was to expose me to good literature in all genres, allowing me to find where my literary tastes lie.

My Russian literature obsession grew from my interest in satire, beginning with Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which is a dystopian tale of globalisation. However under all that, it is an autobiographical novel of a Russian immigrant. I loved discovering the story underneath the plot, and I quickly discovered that Russian literature was a treasure trove for that. Russia has a very complex history; this is often reflected in its literature and makes it a big part of Russian culture.

Just a brief history on Russian literature, which has its roots in Chivalric romance, epics and chronicles on the Russian life. It is here at its roots where we establish the importance of irony and satire in the literature. It was Peter the Great’s efforts to modernise Russia that gave way to Russian literature in the 18th century. While I have not read any of these authors from this time, authors like Antiokh Kantemir and Vasily Trediakovsky were notable contributors to its literature. The 19th century is the golden age for Russian literature with Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy creating some of Russia’s greatest pieces of literature. It was also where the literary movement Russian Romanticism was established, which explores metaphysical discontent with society and self, from notable authors like Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. The silver age in the beginning of the 20th century was focused around poetry and the avant-garde. Poets often associated with the silver age include Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak.

This was then followed by the Soviet era, which was the rise of Socialist realism, Russian formalism and futurism. While the Soviet era was an extremely complex period for literature, and covers so many different literary styles, it is easier to put all of the work from the Soviet Era together. If you want to break out the soviet era, you could do that by Samizdat, Tamizdat and Gosizdat. Samizdat ‘self-published’ is the distribution of literature illegally published (often by carbon copies of typescripts) and distributed among other Russians. This is similar to a method used in the Tsarist era, and allowed uncensored literature by authors like Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to reach an audience. Tamizdat ‘over there’ is when a soviet writer has their works published in the West because they could not publish in Russia. Most Soviet authors had to rely on this method to have their works published, most notable example of Tamizdat is Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Gosizdat ‘State publisher’ was the term used for officially sanctioned publications. In all honesty, I cannot think of a single modern classic from the Soviet Era that was published originally by the state. Although the Russian literature magazines where many works were first published would have been state run.

The post-Soviet era covers all literature published after the collapse of the USSR. Although the censorship of the soviet era was officially lifted, writers still approached sensitive subjects in a similar fashion. In part by the political/economic chaos of the post-Soviet era and partly to follow the traditions of great Russian literature. Although authors like Boris Akunin enjoy huge success in popular fiction, writing a historical detective series. This does not include the authors that fled Russia or the Soviet Union and became authors after gaining citizenship elsewhere, such as Ayn Rand, Isaac Asimov, and Vladimir Nabokov.

While there is a rich history of Russian literature, often there are common themes that appear throughout the ages. Most notably is the struggle for stability; Russian history has been a whirlwind of war and tyranny. This struggle often translates as redemption through suffering. This could be a struggle with religion, philosophy, society or even one’s self. That struggle can be seen in novels ranging from the likes of The Brothers Karamazov to Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 science fiction novel Day of the Oprichnik. Although my wife might agree with Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, who said “Russian literature is devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs.”

Authors within Russia often fall into the social class (I don’t think I need to explain the role class plays in Russia) known as the intelligentsia. This class of intellects are tasked to guide or critique society’s culture and politics. This is why Russian literature plays such a huge role in Russian culture, and also explains why literature was so controlled in the Soviet era. Union of Soviet Writers was formed by Stalin to control the field of literature in the USSR. Membership was not mandatory but if an author was not a member, they would have very limited opportunities for publication. Despite their best efforts, thankfully we still have a rich selection of Soviet literature critiquing the culture and politics of the time.

In both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, authors had to be careful of what they said, many were exiled to a labour camp for what they wrote. So literary devices were often deployed to say what needed to be said in a more creative way. Literary devices often found in Russian literature include metaphors, allegories, irony, satire and even propaganda to express the author’s views. Which is why many Russian classics are very philosophical or political in nature. It is the dangerous writing that seems to have stood the test of time.

There is so much to offer in Russian literature, I know I have so much I need to learn and read but I am excited about the prospects. I find it sad when I see “Russian novel” used as shorthand for lengthy or turgid; I never understood that. While War and Peace is often considered a challenging book due to its length, there is a reason why it is considered a masterpiece. I would love to gain some recommendations on Russian literature I should check out. My personal favourites include Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and for something really weird, Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Posted January 23, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynTitle: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Goodreads)
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Translator: Ralph Parker
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 142
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

One of the most important works of fiction to come from the Soviet Union was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was this novella that informed the world of the harsh realities of the gulag under Stalin’s reign. The reaction from the world even lead to Solzhenitsyn’s most important piece, The Gulag Archipelago, a seven volume exposition into the gulag; it was part oral history, part personal account and a political statement. The Gulag Archipelago has become an important piece of literature, and it is taught in Russian high schools, while One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is sometimes assigned reading in classrooms around the rest of the world.

The novella follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov for one day in 1951, exploring life as a prisoner in a Stalinist labour camp (known as the gulag). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sent to the gulag in 1945 for criticising Joseph Stalin in a private letter. He would have been left there to die but when Nikita Khrushchev became the first secretary of the Communist party after Stalin’s death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released in 1956 due to his poor health. Most of his writing is autobiographical in nature, in particular One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (about life in the labour camps) and Cancer Ward (which is about his battle with cancer that lead to his release from the gulag).

The significance of this novel is far reaching, not just on giving the reader an understanding on life in the labour camps but also as a political statement on Stalin. The book looks at the struggle to keep human dignity in such harsh treatment. From constantly being treated inhumanely to the removal of their identity by referring to everyone by a serial number (Shukhov being SHCHA-854). While the guards are constantly trying to discourage camaraderie, we still get a glimpse into the interactions between the prisoners. It is here that we get an idea on just how temperamental Stalin could be. Although getting into the tyrannical reign of Stalin requires more research, you get an idea of unjust punishment while reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

There is a lot to explore in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ranging from the constant struggle with privacy to the vivid descriptions of the cold weather. However, the one thing that stood out for me is the parcels that Tsezar was selling. Not just tobacco but a range of desirable items. For me he became a symbol of worldly pleasures in a place where everyone had nothing. This turns the novella into something so much deeper. You might notice that the name Tsezar is similar word to Tsar, in fact both are Russian words for Caesar. Keeping this in mind we now have a motif for the events that lead to the Russian revolution and it begins to explore the corruption of power under Stalin. Rather than working towards the socialist utopia that the Bolsheviks dreamt of, Stalin rewarded the people that had his favour while punishing everyone else. This idea stuck with me and I think it transformed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work into something far greater. Although this is what I have come to expect from this author.

This is only my second Solzhenitsyn book (the other being In the First Circle) but I am constantly surprised with the depth he goes to in order to explore his ideas. His books were often published as samizdat (Russian for self-published but referring to the illegally published and distributed literature of the Soviet era) but he still has a unique ability to hide a deeper idea in his novels to avoid serious repercussions from the government. One of my favourite parts of Soviet literature is the way the authors often use satire, motifs and symbolism to explore their true message. I always get a thrill from these books, as if I am understanding some hidden secret. I do think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an essential read for anyone interested in Russian literature and I am a little ashamed I put if off for so long.


Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Posted October 1, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

Doctor Zhivago by Boris PasternakTitle: Dr Zhivago (Goodreads)
Author: Boris Pasternak
Translator: Max Hayward, Manya Harari
Published: Everyman's Library, 1957
Pages: 512
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Hardcover

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

When thinking about staples in Soviet literature, one book immediately comes to mind, and that is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. A novel in the vein of the Russian epics like War and Peace, Pasternak’s novel tells of a tragic hero, Yury Zhivago. The novel follows the life of a flawed character as he tries to control his life and his hormones. While trying to live a moral life, he is often a victim of his own desires and misfortune, while Russia changes around him.

I have mixed feelings about this modern classic and this is mainly due to the fact that some people refer to this as an epic romance. Doctor Zhivago is as romantic as Wuthering Heights as it explore romanticism rather than love. Russian Romanticism often has an emphasis on the metaphysical discontent of society and one’s self. In this way, yes, Doctor Zhivago is a wonderfully Romantic novel but if you are looking for love, you’ve come to the wrong book. I know translator Richard Pevear has called this a moving love story (which cements many issues I have with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) however, can you call the struggle with morality a tale of romance?

Let’s talk about the relationships found within Doctor Zhivago. The relationship between Yury and Lana is the main focus of this classic; a woman he has lusted after for his entire life. However he marries Tonya, a woman that Yury shows no real affection towards. This is not to say that Yury does not care for Tonya, just the whole idea of marrying someone while in love with someone else is just stupid. Now I know this is an autobiographical novel and it is a reflection of Boris Pasternak’s own relationship mistakes but the relationship between Yury and Lana was always doomed, especially since she shows no interest in him.

There is something to be said about the marriage of Yury and Tonya. Following the loss of his mother and the abandonment of his father, Yury is consistently seeking out a maternal figure. One may even call it an Oedipus complex and Tonya is more of a mother figure to him. This brings up a major theme in Russian literature not just Doctor Zhivago. In the case of this novel, the human desire for companionship plays out in context of the longing for stability. Russia has suffered a lot of tumultuous times and the desire for stability tends to be reflected in their literature.

What interested me the most about Doctor Zhivago was what it had to say about the political landscape. This is why the novel was refused publication in the Soviet Union and the story behind the book is just as interesting. I picked up The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée as soon as finishing Doctor Zhivago. This book is part biography on Boris Pasternak and part history of the novel.

Boris Pasternak was so passionate about writing Doctor Zhivago, he would continually return to it in-between paid translation work. He knew that it would never be published in the Soviet Union but wanted his story out there. Because the novel covered a time between the first Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Civil War. The reader is able to follow the ideological struggle that Pasternak would have had towards his much loved motherland, from the dreams of a socialist utopia to its grim reality. These themes, its criticism towards Stalin and mentioning the realities of the Gulag (covering this topic before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) were some of the main reasons this book was denied publication. It was the CIA who published the book and distributed it in the Soviet Union as propaganda, the story behind this an interesting one, which I learnt from The Zhivago Affair.

Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of the country by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli with Pasternak asking him to help get his novel out to the world, who first published the book in Italian. Pasternak also gave the manuscript to George Kutkov in the hopes of a decent and faithful English translation. Katkov promised the best translation possible and settled on Max Hayward and Manya Harari for this task. According to The Zhivago Affair, “The pair alternated chapters and then checked each other’s work. Katkov supervised them both, ‘going over everything for accuracy and nuance.’”

Originally Katkov suggested to Pasternak to use Vladimir Nabokov for the translation but this idea was rejected. “This won’t work; he’s too jealous of my position in this country to do it properly.” I am not sure what the relationship between Pasternak and Nabokov is but he has been quoted in 1927 as saying “His verse is convex, goitrous and google eyed, as though his muse suffered from Basebow’s disease. He is crazy about clumsy imagery, sonorous but literal rhymes, and clattering metre.” When Doctor Zhivago was published in America it knocked Lolita off the number one spot on the best seller list. This lead Nabokov to call it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences.”

Despite the criticism and while I do agree it is a little clumsy in its coincidences, I cannot deny Doctor Zhivago as anything but a masterpiece. I know Boris Pasternak wanted the novel to be accessible and simple, and I was surprised how easy it was to read. There is plenty to say about this novel and I would love to talk more about it. I know this will be a novel that will be read over and over again and I encourage others to read it not for the story but for what is says about the Soviet era. Doctor Zhivago is such a cultural phenomenon and at great risk to its author, in fact apparently when Boris Pasternak gave the manuscript to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli he said “you are hereby invited to my execution.”


In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Posted January 9, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

In the First Circle by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynTitle: In the First Circle (Goodreads)
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Translator: Harry Willets
Published: Harper Perennial, 1968
Pages: 784
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Moscow, Christmas Eve 1949; a man makes a phone call to the American embassy to warn them about the Soviet Atom Bomb project. This call was caught on tape and quickly disconnected by The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). A brilliant mathematician named Gleb Nerzhin, was taken as a sharashka (known as zeks) prisoner and ordered to help track down the mystery caller. The zeks know that they have it better than a “regular” gulag prisoners but they are faced with the moral dilemma; to aid a political system they oppose or be transferred to the deadly labour camps.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a Russian author as well as a historian; he was also a critic of Soviet totalitarianism which found himself in prison much like Gleb Nerzhin. He was accused of anti-revolutionary propaganda under Russian SFSR Penal Code (Article 58 paragraph 10) which is a ‘catch-all’ criminal offence that could be used against anyone that might threaten the government. During the period of Stalinism, the crime of “propaganda and agitation that called to overturn or undermining of the Soviet power” jumped from a six month prison sentence to seven years of imprisonment, with possible internal exile for two to five years. On 7 July 1945, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp for comments he made in private letters to a friend. After his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was then internally exiled for life at Kok-Terek, which is in the north-eastern region of Kazakhstan.

The First Circle was self-censored before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn even attempted to get it published in 1968. Originally the book was 96 chapters long but the censorship turned the novel into 87 chapters. Some changes included the man telling another doctor to share some new medicine with the French instead of warning the Americans about the atom bomb. All mention of the Roman Catholics and religion was also removed. It wasn’t till 2009 a new English translation (not sure of the details on the Russian editions) saw the book restored and uncensored; now with the title In The First Circle.

The title alone is fascinating and it allows the reader to pick up on the whole metaphor before starting the novel. Looking at Dante’s Inferno, it is easy to find that the first circle of hell is limbo. In the epic poem Virgil introduces Dante to people like Socrates, Plato, Homer, Horace and Ovid. The time between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is often referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, in which he descended into limbo and brought salvation to the righteous. However in Dante’s Inferno this meant that Christ saved people like Noah, Moses, Abraham and King David, but a lot of the intellectuals where left. This is metaphor for the penal institutions, making reference to all the intellectuals and political thinkers arrested under Stalin’s Russia.

This novel made me feel a lot smarter than I actually am, there is a lot of information within In The First Circle however Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn presented them in accessible way. Going into the book I knew a little about Solzhenitsyn’s life and the metaphor in the title was explained in the Goodreads synopsis. So I was able to witness how everything came together without doing any research. The book sometimes goes into Russian history; I was fascinated with everything I learnt.

I have read so many books set in Cold War Russia but I don’t think there have been many actually written by a Russian. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has lead an interesting life and I am keen to read more of his novels before attempting The Gulag Archipelago, his three volume book on the history of a gulag labour camp. If you have paid attention to my best of 2014 list you would have noticed that In The First Circle did make the list. This was a wonderful book that was both thrilling and educational, I would recommend it to anyone interested in Russian history, especially the Cold War era.