In one of the final scenes of The First Circle, the new television adaptation of Soviet author Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel, a security guard locks herself in a soundproof research laboratory and begins to sob. Through a tiny window, the camera records her unbridled—but inaudible—rage at the man who spumed her and the oppressive society that has subverted their relationship. That image of silent desperation is typical of Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal, in his novels, plays and essays, of life in the Soviet Union. Now, for the first time, the Nobel Prize-winning author—who since his 1974 expulsion from his homeland has lived mostly in Vermont with his wife and three sons—has allowed one of his works to be adapted for the small screen. A $ 10-million co-production by Montreal-based Communications Claude Heroux Inc. and France’s Technisonor Corp., in co-operation with CBC TV and Toronto’s Primedia Productions Ltd., the four-hour mini-series is proof that television can be a powerful medium even for messages that are dramatically complex.
Like much of Solzhenitsyn’s work, The First Circle is loosely based on the author’s own experiences. In 1945, authorities arrested Solzhenitsyn, then a 26-year-old captain in the Red Army and a mathematician and physicist, after confiscating a letter in which he had criticized Soviet leader Josef Stalin. After two years in a labor camp, he was sent to work in a research institute in Moscow’s Marfino prison. A similar establishment provides the setting for The First Circle. It is 1949, and the hero is a disillusioned mathematician named Gleb Nerzhin (portrayed with understated charm by British actor Robert Powell) who quietly but adamantly refuses to conduct research for the state machine that he despises. His stubbornness evokes stiff opposition from both his smarmy superiors and a friend and fellow scientist named Lev Rubin (Canadian actor Victor Garber), who embraces the party line despite his own grim circumstances.
Interwoven with their story is that of Innokenty Volodin (French actor Laurent Malet), a Russian diplomat whose pampered life is threatened by Rubin’s research: the idealistic scientist is developing a machine to identify Volodin's voice, which Russian authorities taped when the diplomat leaked top-secret information to U.S. authorities. As Rubin zeros in on the traitor’s identity and the diplomat scrambles to cover his tracks, their own lives and those of their families and colleagues take interesting, often surprising turns.
Like Solzhenitsyn himself, screenwriter Charles Cohen and director Sheldon Larry, both Canadians, occasionally oversimplify their characters. Stalin, especially, comes across as a Cold War caricature of evil incarnate— although American actor F. Murray Abraham clearly relishes the melodrama of it all. But on the whole, the film-makers have powerfully rendered Solzhenitsyn’s devastating story about the personal costs of totalitarianism.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.