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a) In the First Circle

It would of course be absurd to suggest that Solzhenitsyn had a soft spot for Stalin; and it would at least seem to be odd if Solzhenitsyn, so anxious while in the United States to distinguish 'Russia' from the Soviet Union, should admit that the Georgian Stalin could have had a streak of Russian patriotism, even a taste for Orthodoxy. And yet this is what he does in the portrait of Stalin he draws in The First Circle. Those who have read the version of The First Circle that became available in the West in 1968 will probably think his Stalin is a crude and unconvincing caricature, especially when compared with the powerful portrait of Lenin in The Red Wheel - published separately as Lenin in Zurich. But the 1968 version of The First Circle with its 87 chapters ('Circle 87') was a truncated version of the original, which had 96 chapters ('Circle 96') and which only appeared in an English translation (as In the First Circle) in 2009. [4]

[4]  From The Oak and the Calf (Collins/Fontana ed, p.218) we learn that Solzhenitsyn reworked 'Circle 96' in 1968 so we can't be sure that it all predates 'Circle 87'.

Solzhenitsyn prepared Circle 87 in the hopes of getting it published in the Soviet Union. It is 'anti-Stalinist' in the way that just might have been tolerated in 1964 - One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich had received Khrushchev's approval in 1962. But Circle 96 was written in 1955, revised in 1957, when there could hardly have been any thought of getting it published, nor indeed of Solzhenitsyn ever having a possibility of engaging in any sort of effective political activity. It includes a chapter reflecting on Stalin's whole life which is not flattering to Lenin and though the unflattering assessment is being made through Stalin's eyes one feels that Solzhenitsyn has some sympathy with it. And one feels that Solzhenitsyn has some sympathy with 'Stalin''s view that the secret of his own strength is that he was closer than the other Bolshevik leaders (the 'pointy-beards') to the real feelings of 'the people':

b) 'Stalin' on Lenin

'Stalin later refused to speak of the "great" February Revolution, but he had forgotten how he himself had rejoiced and sung and winged his way from Achinsk [where he was in exile - PB] ... and done foolish things and handed in at a post office in the backwoods a telegram to Lenin in Switzerland.

'Once in Petrograd, he had immediately agreed with Kamenev that this was it, all that they had dreamed of in their underground days. The Revolution was complete, and all they had to do was consolidate its achievement. This was a time for practical people ... They must do all in their power to support the provisional government.' 

[Stalin's arrival from Siberia with Kamenev and Matvei Muranov is described in March 1917, v.4. The Bolshevik leader in Petrograd at the time was Alexander Shlyapnikov,  a rare proletarian among the Bolshevik leadership, whom Solzhenitsyn treats very sympathetically. Under Shlyapnikov Pravda has been the only paper to take a firm stand against the continuation of the war. Shlyapnikov feels it in his bones that the Bolsheviks should attempt to overthrow the recently formed provisional government. He manages to extract the agreement of his fellow members of the central committee, Molotov and Peter Zalutsky but can't get the support of the other Petrograd Bolsheviks. His position is then completely undermined by the 'Siberians' who take Pravda out of his hands.- PB]

'It was  all so clear to them until that adventurer, who knew nothing about Russia, who lacked all-round practical experience, arrived and - spluttering, slurring, twitching - came out with his "April theses" and created total confusion! Yet somehow he cast a spell over the Party and dragged it into the July uprising! This desperate adventure failed, as Stalin had foretold, and the whole party almost went under with it. And where did the strutting gamecock turn up next? He had saved his skin by fleeing to the Gulf of Finland while the foulest abuse was heaped upon Bolsheviks back home. Was his liberty more valuable than the prestige of the party? Stalin had posed the question candidly at the Sixth Congress but had not obtained a majority.

'Altogether 1917 had been an unpleasant year: too many meetings, eloquent ranters were carried on the crowd's shoulders. Trotsky was never off the stage in the Circus building. Where had they all come from, these nimble-tongued ninnies, swarming like flies onto honey? He had never seen them in exile, never seen them when he was carrying out "ex-es"; they had been idling abroad and now they had come back to yap their heads off and sneak into the front row. Whatever the subject under discussion, they hopped onto it as quick as fleas. They always knew the answer before the question was asked, before the problem arose. They laughed at Stalin openly, insultingly. True, he steered clear of their debates, never sat on platforms. For the time being he was keeping his own counsel. He did not like bandying words, trying to shout an opponent down, and he was no good at it. This was not how he had imagined the Revolution. Occupying important posts, doing a serious job - that was what he had looked forward to.

'They laughed at him, all those pointy-beards, but why was it on Stalin that they loaded all the heaviest and most thankless tasks? They laughed at him, but why did all the others in Kschessinskaya's former palace [the Bolsheviks had installed themselves in the delicate bijou-like palace of the dancer, rumoured to have been a mistress of Nicholas II before he became Tsar, Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya - PB] suddenly develop stomach aches and send Stalin to Petropavlovka [the Peter and Paul fortress in Petrograd - PB] when the sailors had to be persuaded to surrender the fortress to Kerensky without a fight and themselves withdraw to Kronstadt? Why? Because the sailors would have stoned, say, Grishka Zinoviev. Because you had to know how to talk to the Russian people.

'The October Revolution had been another reckless venture, but it had come off. Good. Full marks to Lenin there. Nobody knew what would follow, but for the time being, good. Commissariat of Nationalities? Very well, then, I don't mind. Draw up a constitution? Why not? Stalin was sizing up the situation.

'Surprisingly for a year the Revolution looked like a complete success. Nobody would ever have expected it, but there it was. That clown Trotsky even believed in world Revolution and opposed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. In fact, Lenin, too, believed in it. Pedants! Fantasists! Only an ass would believe in a European Revolution. They had lived there for years and learned nothing. Whereas Stalin had travelled across Europe once and understood it completely. They should thank heaven that their own Revolution had been a success. And sit quietly. Pause for thought.'

[One can see why Solzhenitsyn liked Harry Willetts as a translator! - PB]

'Stalin looked around with a sober and unprejudiced eye. Thought things over. And saw clearly that these phrasemongers would ruin this great Revolution. Only he, Stalin, could steer it in the right direction. In all honesty, in all conscience, he was the only real leader among them. He compared himself dispassionately with those poseurs, those mountebanks, and he saw clearly his own superiority, their instability, his own staying power. What set him apart from all the others was his understanding of people. He understood them at the point where they touched the ground, at the base, understood that part of them without which they would not stand on their feet and remain standing: Everything higher than that - all the pretences, all the boasts - was "superstructure" and of no importance.

'Lenin, of course, could soar like an eagle. He could amaze you: turn around overnight and say "Let the peasants have the land!" (we can always change our minds later), think up the Brest-Litovsk treaty in a single day (even a Georgian, let alone a Russian, suffered when he saw half of Russia handed over to the Germans, but Lenin felt nothing!). As for the New Economic Policy, it went without saying, that was the neatest trick of the lot; nobody need be ashamed to learn from such manoeuvres. Lenin's greatest gift, the most remarkable thing about him, was his ability to hold the real power tightly in his own two hands. Slogans changed, the subjects of debate changed, allies and opponents changed, but all power remained in his hands and in his hands alone!

'But the man could not really be relied on. He was storing up a lot of grief for himself with his economic policy; he was bound to trip himself up with it. Stalin accurately sensed Lenin's volatility, his reckless impatience, and worst of all his poor understanding, or rather total lack of understanding of people. (He had tested it himself: Whichever side of himself he chose to show was the only one that Lenin saw.) The man was no good at infighting in the dark - in other words, real politics. Turukhan (66º latitude [where Stalin was exiled in 1913 - PB]) was a tougher place that Shushenskoye (54º [where Lenin had been exiled, 1897-1900 - PB]), and Stalin felt himself that much tougher than Lenin. Anyway, what experience of life had this bookworm theoretician ever acquired? Lowly birth, humiliations, poverty, actual hunger, had not been his lot: He had been a landowner, though a pretty small one. He had been a model exile and never once run away! He had never seen the inside of a real prison; indeed he had seen nothing of the real Russia. He had idled away fourteen years in emigration. Stalin had read less than half of his writings, not expecting to learn a great deal from him. (He did of course, sometimes produce remarkably apt definitions: "What is dictatorship? Unlimited sovereignty, unrestrained by laws"  Stalin had written "Good!" in the margin.).' (pp.113-116)

c) 'Stalin' on Holy Russia

And on Orthodoxy, and Russia:

'This was the one doubt that sometimes insinuated itself into Stalin's mind.

'On the face of it, the facts had been proven long ago, and all objections refuted.

'All the same, there was some obscurity.

'Especially if you had spent your childhood in the church. If you had gazed into the eyes of icons. If you had sung in the choir. If you could chant "Now lettest thou thy servant ..." right now without a slip.

'Just lately these memories had for some reason become more vivid in Josif's mind.

'His mother, as she lay dying, had said, "It's a pity you didn't become a priest." He was the leader of the world's proletariat, the unifier of Slavdom - and in his mother's eyes a failure.

'Just in case, Stalin had never spoken out against God; there were plenty of orators without him. Lenin might spit on the cross and trample it; Bukharin and Trotsky might mock. Stalin held his tongue.

'He had given orders that Abakadze, the inspector of seminaries who had expelled the young Djugashvili, should not be harmed. Let him live his life out.

'And when, on July 3, 1941, his throat had dried up and tears had come into his eyes - tears not of terror but of pity, pity for himself - it was no accident that the words that forced their way from his lips were "brothers and sisters". Neither Lenin nor any other others could have uttered those words, intentionally or otherwise.

'His lips had spoken as they had been accustomed to speak in his youth.

'Nobody saw him, nobody knew, he had told no one, but in those first days he had locked himself in his room and prayed, prayed properly, except that it was in a corner without icons, prayed on his knees. The first few months had been the hardest time of his life.

'At that time he had made a vow to God: if the danger passed and he survived in his post, he would restore the church and church services in Russia and would not let believers be persecuted and imprisoned. (It should never have been allowed in the first place; it had started in Lenin's time.) And when the danger was over, when Stalingrad was behind him, Stalin had done all that he had vowed to do.

'Whether or not God existed only God knew.

'Most probably he did not. Because if he did, he was extraordinarily complacent. To have such power ... and put up with it all! How could that be? Leaving aside the deliverance of 1941, Stalin had never noticed anyone but himself making things happen, never felt anyone at his side, elbow to elbow.

'But suppose God did exist, suppose he had power over souls ... Stalin must make his peace before it is too late.. In spite of the heights he had reached. His need, in fact, was all the greater because of that. Because there was emptiness all around him - no one beside him, no one near him, the rest of mankind was somehow far beneath him. So that God was, perhaps, nearer to him than anybody. And also lonely.

'It had given Stalin real pleasure in recent years that the Church  in its prayers proclaimed him the Chosen of God. That was why the Monastery of Saint Sergius was maintained at the Kremlin's expense. No great power's prime minister  got such a warm reception from Stalin as did his docile and doddering Patriarch; he went as far as the outer door to meet the old man and put a hand under his elbow when he took him in to dinner. He had even been thinking of looking perhaps for some little property, a little town house of some sort, and presenting it to the Patriarch. People used to make such gifts, to have prayers said for their souls.

'Stalin knew that a certain writer was a priest's son but concealed the fact. He had asked him, when they were alone once, whether he was Orthodox. The man had turned pale and lost his tongue. "Come on, cross yourself! Do you know how?" The writer had crossed himself, thinking that he was done for. "Well done!" said Stalin, clapping him on the shoulder.

'There was no getting away from it; in the course of a long and difficult life, Stalin had occasionally overdone things. It would be nice to get together a splendid choir and have them sing over the coffin, "Lord now lettest thou thy servant ..."

'In general, Stalin had begun to notice in himself a curious predilection not just for Orthodoxy. Now and again he felt the tug of a lingering attachment to the old world, the world from which he himself had come but which he had now spent forty years destroying in the service of Bolshevism.

'In the thirties, for purely political reasons, he had revived the word "motherland", obsolete by then for fifteen years and almost obscene to the ear. But as the years went by, he had begun to take genuine pleasure in using the words "Russia" and "motherland." It had helped to put his own power on a firmer basis. To sanctify it, so to speak.

'In earlier days he had carried out Party policy without counting how many of those Russians were expended. But gradually he had begun to take more notice of the Russian people and to like them, a people that had never betrayed him, had gone hungry for as long as it was necessary, had calmly faced all difficulties - even war, even the camps - and never once rebelled. They were devoted; they were pure in heart. Like Poskryobyshev [Stalin's private secretary and gatekeeper - PB], for instance. 'After the victory Stalin had said quite sincerely that the Russian people had a clear mind, strength of character, and staying power.

'In fact, as the years went by, Stalin's own wish was to be taken for a Russian himself.' (pp.145-148)