August 3, 2008


Toast of the TV in Russian Eyes: It's Solzhenitsyn (STEVEN LEE MYERS, 2/09/06, NY Times)

The first episode of "The First Circle" was the most watched program in the nation last week, narrowly edging out "Terminator 3," according to TNS Gallup Media. By this week, though, it had slipped to fifth place, at least in Moscow — national figures were not yet available. But it was still attracting 15 million viewers a night.

Solzhenitsyn was greeted as a prodigal son when he returned from exile in 1994, only to see his later works — "Russia in Collapse," an apocalyptic political attack on society's ills in 1998, and "Two Hundred Years Together," on Judaism in Russia in 2004 — met with public indifference. He once had his own talk show, until it was canceled because of low ratings.

"This would-be prophet has played no significant role in Russia's political dialogue since coming back," a commentator for the official Russian Information Agency, Anatoly Korolev, wrote in August 2004.

Now, 18 months later, in the twilight of an immeasurably influential career, he is back before the public in a society that has not always known what to make of its most famous living writer.

"I assumed that bringing it to the screen would be possible in 300 years," the director, Gleb Panfilov, said in a television interview, recalling his desire to make the film after first reading "The First Circle" while it was still banned, some 30 years ago. "But it happened earlier."

The series is the first Russian film based on Solzhenitsyn's writings. In a country where attitudes toward the Soviet history remain deeply conflicted, it amounts to the popularization of some of the darkest episodes.

"The young people today say: 'Oh, he is not a good writer. Communism is over. He is not so interesting,' " the writer Viktor Yerofeyev said in a telephone interview. "In the history of Russia, he is in the first place."

"It is like Germany after the war," Mr. Yerofeyev added. "In two or three generations people really start thinking about what happened in their country."

Solzhenitsyn, now 87, is credited as the screenwriter and narrates long passages. He also served as a consultant during filming, advising the crew on how to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of the network of forced labor camps known as the Gulag, where he served eight years after criticizing Stalin in 1945. "There is not one drop of falsehood," his wife, Natalya, told Izvestia.

As reclusive as he was when he lived in exile in Vermont for 18 years, he has not discussed the series publicly, but Mr. Panfilov reported that he had tears in his eyes when he saw the edited version.

"The First Circle," first published in the West in 1968, chronicles three days in the lives of prisoners at Mavrino, a "special prison" set up in a country estate outside Moscow in the aftermath of World War II. The political prisoners there, chosen for their expertise, work on two projects: a secure telephone for Stalin and a method of voice recognition needed to identify a suspected traitor. [...]

The series — seven and a half hours in all, shown without commercial breaks — is appearing on Rossiya, one of Russia's two state-owned television networks. Given the Kremlin's influence over what is broadcast, many here have interpreted the production as a signal of a new willingness to examine Stalin's legacy critically, if not to embrace Solzhenitsyn per se.

"As my mother said, 'Stalin is shown like a bastard,' " Mr. Yerofeyev said. "It means the Kremlin's power is not, let's say, monolithic." [...]

Viktor A. Moskvin, director of the Russian Abroad Foundation, a cultural center created by Solzhenitsyn, said the screenplay amounted to a distinct new work by an author, born in 1918, whose life spanned the entire Soviet era and now the beginning of another, different one.

"It is an important work at the beginning of the 21st century," he said. "It will help develop democracy."

[originally posted: 2/12/06]

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 3:31 PM


Posted by: Jim in Chicago at February 12, 2006 1:03 PM

It is an outstanding book, and I hope that someday the miniseries will be available here with subtitles.

Vermont? Yes, Vermont. Apparently he thought it reminded him of the vistas back home, and it was certainly private.

Posted by: Steve White at February 12, 2006 1:43 PM

Good to see that Putin's recent anti-democratic backsliding and media suppression hasn't gone so far as to repress this.

Posted by: PapayaSF at February 12, 2006 8:45 PM

But for Solzhenitsyn, Putin would be a flunky in some Soviet embassy in Africa, most likely running scams on the side to have a better retirement plan.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 12, 2006 9:45 PM

Of course, while American conservatives crow about how Vermont is "Stalinist! Stalinist! I tells ya!" someone like Solzhenitsyn who had experienced actual Stalinism would find that a little overblown.
Does anyone know if this version of The First Circle is coming to DVD in the US anytime soon?

Posted by: Bryan at February 13, 2006 8:39 AM

On Instapundit's podcast, he was interviewing some guy from Stategypage or something talking about how Russia has been criticising Stalin as a other words, there's more going on here.

Posted by: RC at February 14, 2006 8:11 AM
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