In The First Circle, The Uncensored Edition by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
This is the first novel released after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's death in 2008. It includes a lot of strong political and philosophical statements about the Soviet Union, especially an indictment of the atomic bomb and the prison system in the old Soviet Union. This is a much stronger political statement than his earlier works, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago.
In The First Circle refers to the first circle of hell where the virtuous pagans go in Dante's inferno. The setting is in a sharaska, a minimum security prison for engineers, intellectuals, and other political undesirables. Here the prisoners work 12 hours a day making things for the state like listening devices, torpedoes, and other things. It is a place on the edge where forbidden ideas can be explored.
The book mostly plods along telling the life of the prisoners, the guards, and the bureaucrats who created the prison. The story stretches outside of the prison to include the prisoners wives and lovers as well as the creators of the whole Soviet system.
Stalin is one of the main characters. Every few chapters the lead characters change. The author is trying to create a sweeping drama over the 740 pages of the novel. Stalin as a character is superbly frightening. He demonstrates fear, paranoia, and ambition at its fullest capacity. Solzhenitsyn is at his best in this novel when he is describing bureaucratic terror or black comedic irony.
There is a short story, The Buddha's Smile about Eleanor Roosevelt visiting a high security prison. It describes how the guards prepare the prisoners. The story is a reflection on how the Soviet system attempted to create a false picture of well being to the world. Every bit of the novel drips contradiction.
This contradiction is best reflected in the prisoners arguments with each other about ideas; communism, capitalism, imperialism, the church and other ideas are discussed freely inside where they cannot be discussed outside because of fear of going to prison. The prisoners also read novels that are a reflection on the novel. The Man In The Iron Mask, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are mentioned.
There is a definite sense of right and wrong throughout the novel. This is an example of Russian realism. There is clear good and evil. Added to this sense of evil is a spattering of mysticism. A prisoner is trying to the paint the castle of the holy grail, the mathematicians attempting to make a listening device are referred to as rosicrucians, and there is a sad visit to the remnants of a Russian orthodox church.
Most of In The First Circle is steady excellent craftsmanship. I wondered at points about the translation; whether the translator needed to pick better wording. However, at moments the writing becomes sublime espcially when the author is describing irony or bureaucratic terror. This novel reflects on the darkness in the human heart and the ability to live with the impossible. It is filled with deep intellectual thought and is slow going. If you want to read a complex novel in the traditional Russian style you will like this.