Speechless Before the Court: The First Circle and the Soviet Public Discourse on the Gulag

Camp literature constitutes a peculiar example of twentieth-century literature motivated by factors that are of a clearly ethical nature. Its most fundamental purpose—to “testify before the world” on behalf of those who perished, to symbolically compensate for their annihilation by engraving their presence in cultural memory — has been traditionally identified by writers-survivors as their moral obligation (Sarah Berkowitz, Primo Levi, Terrence Des Pres, Eugenia Ginzburg, Aleksandr Solženicyn, Nadežda Mandel′štam). Realizing this moral obligation (“bearing witness”) assumes a special kind of faith in history and language (Wiesel). “Witness” is a legal metaphor. It requires the presence of a judge and the law—an audience capable of and willing to listen and a language of representation and moral evaluation shared by the writer-survivor and the audience-judge. In this context, both Nazi and Soviet camp literature deal with two common areas of problems. (1) To many writers and critics, the extreme experience in question seems to defy language and its conventions (George Steiner, Varlam Šalamov, Anatol Krakowiecki). (2) As Nietzsche said, “life must feed on oblivion” — the suppression of traumatic memories in cultural discourse seems to be a condition of going about the daily business of living (Cicero, European peace treaties, Levi, Wisława Szymborska). What makes the Soviet camp literature peculiar is a third area of problems, which it does not share with its Nazi counterpart. Unlike the Nazis, the Soviets have created and maintained for seventy years a public discourse in which the camps are presented as a morally positive or at least historically justifiable phenomenon. This discourse monopolized all public references to these subjects in Soviet society and influenced Western public discourses on the Gulag. Literary works about Soviet camps tend to be strongly influenced or even decisively motivated by the anxiety caused by the prospect that the historical judgment of the Gulag would be possible only on terms set by the perpetrators themselves. Solženicyn’s camp prose (The Greenhorn and the Slut, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovič, The First Circle, The Gulag Archipelago) is profoundly motivated by this anxiety, making the unraveling of this Soviet discourse a necessary condition of conveying the extreme nature of the experience of the Gulag. I will discuss this as exemplified in The First Circle. My discussion will focus on the theme of language and communication and the motif of speechlessness. Using analytical tools of reader’s response criticism I will briefly characterize official Stalinist and Xruščevian literary discourse on the Gulag (Belomorkanal, Georgy Šelest, Boris Djakov, reviews of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovič), and show ways in which The First Circle strives to unravel this discourse.