[12 Nov 1999] Psalm 23
[11 Nov 1999] The Mechanical Demon
[10 Nov 1999] Prisoner's Dilemma
[9 Nov 1999] Conviction of E. German Chief Upheld
[8 Nov 1999] Four Gates to the City
[5 Nov 1999] Worst Crimes of the Millennium
[4 Nov 1999] When the Killing Stopped

Translator's note to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle, Harper & Row (1968).

Translator's Note


The word "sharashka" as it occurs in this story derives from a Soviet slang expression meaning "a sinister enterprise based on bluff or deceit." By 1949, the time of the novel, it meant, particularly, a special scientific or technical institute staffed with prisoners--or, in Soviet slang, "zeks." The sharashka in which much of the action of this novel takes place is located on the outskirts of Moscow. It is called the Mavrino Institute, and the 281 zeks who are employed there are inmates of the Mavrino Special Prison, which is housed in the same complex of buildings.

The Soviet State Security organ charged with the functions of security and counterintelligence--in other words, the Soviet secret police--has had various names since it was established in 1917, and has been known in different periods by the Russian initials of its contemporary official title.

From December 1917 until 1922 it was the Cheka (with the accent on the last syllable), from two of the initials of "All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counterrevolution and Sabotage."

The Cheka contributed the name "Chekist" to Soviet secret police officers and employees, a label which has lasted right up to the present time. In 1922 the Cheka was renamed and reorganized as the GPU (pronounced Gay-Pay-Oo), from the initial letters of the Russian words for "State Political Administration." That same year the GPU became the OGPU (Oh-Gay-Pay-Oo), when the Russian word for "consolidated" or "unified" was added to its name, but both names were used almost interchangeably until 1934.

In that year the OGPU was merged into the NKVD (En-Kay-Vay-Day), Peoples' Commissariat for Internal Affairs. This administrative entity had supervision over the ordinary police as well as the secret police, and it was this organization which, under the direction of Commissar Yezhov, carried out the horrendous purge of 1937-1938, known also as the Yezhovshchina.

Shortly before World War II, with Lavrenty Beria now in charge of secret police affairs (following Yezhov's execution), the secret police functions were taken from the NKVD and turned over to the smaller NKGB (En-Kay-Gay-Bay), Peoples' Commissariat of State Security, as its exclusive responsibility.

In 1946 the NKGB was renamed the MGB (Em-Gay-Bay), Ministry of State Security. And in that same year Victor S. Abakumov was named Minister of State Security. This, then, was the organization exercising supervision over the Mavrino sharashka in December 1949, the period of this novel. Abakumov, whom we meet in these pages, was removed from office some time in 1951 or 1952 by Stalin and arrested, apparently on charges of malfeasance. He was shot--or at any rate his execution was announced--in December 1954, more than a year and a half after Stalin's death, on charges of having framed a group of Soviet leaders in the "Leningrad Case" of 1949 and 1950.

There are two other Soviet agencies concerned with police work whose names are found frequently in the text. The MVD (Em-Vay-Day) was the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which existed from 1946 on and was the linear descendant of the NKVD. It supervised the ordinary, as distinct from the secret, police, but sometimes performed State Security functions, particularly in the area of prison and camp administration. SMERSH was the wartime Soviet counterintelligence agency operating with the army at and behind the front, and its name was derived from the Russian words meaning "Death to Spies!"

All the zeks of the Mavrino sharashka belonged, though they were not at the time in hard-labor camps, to the realm of GULAG--the Chief Administration for Corrective Labor Camps. This organization kept its identity through all the rechristenings of its parent organization. It ruled most of the Soviet northland and Siberia, and it had more inhabitants behind its barbed wire and "zones" than some of the prosperous middle-sized European countries.