Although the complete text of Solzhenitsyn’s first full-length novel, “The First Circle,” has been published in Russia, the only version available in English so far is an abbreviated text that Solzhenitsyn “lightened” in the vain hope of getting it past Soviet censors. The “lightened” version opens in December, 1949, as Innokentii Volodin, a Soviet diplomat, tries to caution a doctor he knows against sharing an experimental drug with Westerners. In Solzhenitsyn’s original opening, which follows in its first English translation, Volodin has learned that a Soviet spy in New York is about to be given classified information on atomic-bomb technology. An insider, no longer able to deny that he operates within a totalitarian regime, Volodin faces a moral dilemma: should he warn the U.S. Ambassador?
The filigreed hands pointed to five minutes past four.
The bronze of the clock was lustreless in the dying light of a December day.
A tall window looked down on bustling Kuznetsky Most. Maintenance workers trudged doggedly to and fro, scraping up the fresh snow that was already caking and turning brown under the feet of pedestrians.
State Counsellor Grade Two Innokentii Volodin surveyed all this unseeingly, lolling against the embrasure and whistling something drawn-out and elusive. His fingertips flipped through the pages of a glossy foreign magazine, but he had no eyes for it.
Volodin State Counsellor Grade Two—the diplomatic-service equivalent of lieutenant colonel—was tall and narrow-shouldered, and wore a suit made of a silky material instead of his uniform; he looked more like a well-off young drone than an official of some importance in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was time to switch the lights on or go home, but he stayed where he was.
Four o’clock was the end not of the workday but only of its daytime segment. Everyone would now go home, have something to eat, and take a nap; then, at 10 P.M., the thousands and thousands of windows in forty-five All-Union and twenty Union-Republican ministries would light up again. A certain individual, ringed by a dozen fortress walls, could not sleep at night, and he had trained all of official Moscow to stay awake with him until three or four in the morning. Knowing the peculiar nocturnal habits of their lord and master, all sixty-odd ministers kept vigil, like schoolboys awaiting a summons from the headmaster. To fight off sleep, they would call in their deputies, and then the deputy ministers would rouse the department heads; the research officers would erect ladders and swarm over card indexes, the clerks would charge along corridors, and the stenographers would break the points of their pencils.
Today was no exception. It was Christmas Eve by the Western calendar, and all the embassies had fallen silent and stopped calling two days earlier, but the ministry would be sitting up through the night just the same.
They—the Western diplomats—had two weeks of holiday ahead of them. Trusting babes! Stupid donkeys!
The young man’s nervous fingers leafed through the magazine hastily, mechanically, while hot waves of terror welled up inside him, then subsided, leaving him cold.
Innokentii flung the magazine away and began pacing the room, shuddering.
Should he call or shouldn’t he? Did it have to be now? Would Thursday or Friday be too late over there?
Too late . . . There was so little time to think about it, and absolutely nobody to ask for advice!
Surely there would be no way of finding out who’d made a call from a phone booth. If he spoke only in Russian? If he didn’t hang around but walked away quickly? Surely they wouldn’t be able to identify a muffled voice over the telephone. It had to be a technical impossibility.
In three or four days’ time he would be flying there himself. It would be more logical to wait. More sensible.
But it would be too late.
Oh, hell! His shoulders, unused to such burdens, hunched in a shiver. It would have been better if he had never found out. Better not to know.
He scooped up all the papers on his desk and carried them to the safe. His agitation grew and grew. Innokentii lowered his brow onto the dull-red painted iron of the safe and rested there with closed eyes.
Then, suddenly, as though he felt his last chance slipping away from him, without calling for a car, without so much as putting the lid back on his inkwell, Innokentii rushed for the door, locked it behind him, turned in his key to the guard at the end of the hallway, raced down the stairs, passing the usual gold-braided personages, dived into his overcoat, planted his hat on his head, and ran out into the damp twilight.
Rapid motion brought him some relief.
His low-heeled French shoes, worn fashionably without galoshes, sank into the slush.
As he passed the Vorovsky Monument in the ministry courtyard, Innokentii looked up and shuddered. The new building of the Great Lubyanka, which looked out on Furkasov Passage, suddenly acquired an added significance for him. This gray-black nine-story hulk was a battleship, and the eighteen pilasters loomed like gun turrets on its starboard side. And Innokentii’s tiny craft was being helplessly sucked into its path, under the bow of the swift, heavy vessel.
Or no: he wasn’t a helpless, captive canoe; he was deliberately heading toward the battleship like a torpedo!
He could hold out no longer! He turned right onto Kuznetsky Most. A taxi was about to pull away from the curb. Innokentii grabbed it, and told the driver to head quickly downhill, then turn left, under the newly lit street lamps of the Petrovka.
He still couldn’t decide where to make his call from—where he could be sure that no one would be hovering impatiently, distracting him, peering through the door. But if he looked for a single phone booth in some quiet spot he would make himself more conspicuous. Wouldn’t it be better to pick one in the thick of it all, as long as it had soundproof brick or stone walls? And how stupid he had been to chase around in a taxi and make the driver a witness. He dug into his pocket, hoping not to find the fifteen kopecks that he’d need for the call. If he didn’t find them, he could obviously put it off.
At the traffic light on Okhotny Ryad, his fingers felt and drew out two fifteen-kopeck pieces simultaneously. So that was that.
This seemed to calm him down. Whether it was dangerous or not, he had no alternative.
If we live in a constant state of fear, can we remain human?
Without intending it, Innokentii now found himself riding along the Mokhovaya, past the Embassy. Fate was taking a hand. He pressed his face against the window, craning his neck, trying unsuccessfully to make out which windows were lit up.
They passed the university, and Innokentii motioned to the right. It was as though he were circling his target in order to position his torpedo correctly.
They sped up to the Arbat; Innokentii gave the driver two notes, stepped out, and crossed the square, trying to moderate his pace.
His throat and his mouth were suffering from the dryness that no drink can relieve.
By now the Arbat was all lit up. Before the Khudozhestvenny Cinema there was a long line for “The Ballerina’s Romance.” A faint bluish mist clouded the red “M” above the metro station. A woman with a dark southern complexion was selling little yellow flowers. The doomed man could no longer see his battleship, but his breast was bursting with desperate resolve.
Remember, though: not a word in English. Let alone French. Mustn’t leave the smallest clue for the tracker dogs.
Innokentii walked on, erect and no longer hurrying. A girl eyed him as he passed.
And another one. Very pretty, too. Wish yourself well out of it!
How big the world is, and how full of opportunities! But all that’s left for you is this narrow passage.
One of the wooden booths outside the station was empty, but seemed to have a broken window. Innokentii walked on, into the station.
Here the four booths set in the wall were all occupied. But in the one to the left a rough-looking character, not quite sober, was finishing his call and hanging up the receiver. He smiled at Innokentii and started to say something. Innokentii took his place in the kiosk, carefully pulled the thick-paned door closed, and held it shut with one hand; the other, still gloved, trembled as it dropped a coin into the slot and dialled a number.
After several prolonged buzzes, the receiver was lifted at the other end.
“Is that the secretariat?” Innokentii asked, trying to disguise his voice.
“Please put me through to the Ambassador immediately.”
The answer came in very good Russian.
“I can’t call the Ambassador. What is your business?”
“Give me the chargé, then! Or the military attaché! Please be quick!”
There was a pause for thought at the other end. Innokentii put himself in fate’s hands: if the request was denied—let it go at that, don’t try a second time.
“Very well, I’m connecting you with the attaché.”
He heard the connection being made.
Through the thick glass he saw people passing, within inches of the row of phone booths, hurrying, pushing past one another. One person peeled off and stood impatiently waiting his turn outside Innokentii’s booth.
Somebody with a thick accent and a well-fed, indolent voice spoke into the telephone: “Hallo. What do you want?”
“Is this the military attaché?” Innokentii asked brusquely.
“Yes, air attaché,” the voice drawled at the other end.
What next? Screening the receiver with his hand, Innokentii spoke in a low voice but urgently. “Mr. Air Attaché! Please write this down and pass it to the Ambassador immediately.”
“Just a moment,” the leisurely voice answered. “I’ll call an interpreter.”
“I can’t wait!” Innokentii was seething. He had dropped his attempt to disguise his voice. “And I will not talk to any Soviet person! Do not put the receiver down! This is a life-and-death matter for your country! And not only your country! Listen! Within the next few days a Soviet agent called Georgii Koval will pick something up at a shop selling radio parts. The address is—”
“I don’t quite understand,” the attaché replied calmly, in halting Russian. He, of course, was sitting on a comfortable sofa, and no one was on his trail. Animated female voices could be heard in the room around him. “Call the Canadian Embassy. They have good Russian speakers there.”
The phone-booth floor was burning under Innokentii’s feet, and the black receiver with its heavy steel chain was melting in his hand. But a single foreign word could destroy him!
“Listen! Listen!” he cried in despair. “In a few days’ time the Soviet agent Koval will be given important technological information about the production of the atomic bomb, at a radio shop on—”
“What? Which avenue?” The attaché sounded surprised. He paused for a moment. “Who are you, anyway? How do I know you’re speaking the truth?”
“Do you know what a risk I’m taking?” Innokentii shot back. Somebody seemed to be knocking on the glass behind him. The attaché was silent. Perhaps taking a long puff on his cigarette.
“The atomic bomb?” he repeated dubiously. “But who are you? Tell me your name.”
There was a muffled click and then dead silence, unbroken by rustling or buzzing.
They had been cut off.
There are establishments in which you suddenly come across a dull-red lamp over a door marked “Employees Only.” Or, more currently, it may be an imposing plate-glass sign: “Strictly No Entrance to Unauthorized Persons.” There may even be a grim security guard sitting at a little table and inspecting passes. As always, when confronted with the forbidden, your imagination runs away with you.
In reality, the door opens onto another unremarkable hallway, perhaps a bit cleaner. A streak of cheap red carpet, standard government issue, runs down the middle. The parquet floor has been more or less polished. Spittoons are stationed at fairly frequent intervals.
But there are no people. There is no movement out of one door and into another. And these doors are all covered with black leather, black leather distended with padding, pinned down by white studs and bearing shiny oval number plates.
Even those who work in one such room know less about what goes on in the room next door than they do about the gossip of the day on the island of Madagascar.
On the same gloomy frost-free December evening, in the building of the Moscow Central Automatic Telephone Exchange, on one of those forbidden hallways and in one of those inaccessible rooms, known to the superintendent of the building as Room 194 and to Department XI of the 6th Administration of the Ministry of State Security as Post A-1, two lieutenants were on duty. Not in uniform, however: they could enter and leave the telephone exchange with greater anonymity in civilian dress. One wall of the room was occupied by a switchboard and an acoustic apparatus—black plastic and shiny metal. A long list of instructions, on dingy paper, hung on the other.
These instructions anticipated and warned against every imaginable breach of or departure from routine in monitoring and recording calls to and from the U.S. Embassy, stipulating that two persons should be on duty at all times, one listening in continuously, never removing the headphones, with the other never leaving the room except to go to the toilet, and that the two men should alternate duties at half-hour intervals.
If you followed these instructions, mistakes would be impossible.
But such is the fatal incompatibility of officialdom’s perfectionism with man’s pitiful imperfection that these instructions had for once been disobeyed. Not because the men on duty were novices but because they were experienced enough to know that nothing special ever happened, least of all on the Western Christmas Eve.
One of them, the flat-nosed Lieutenant Tyukin, knew that he would be asked in his politics class the following Monday: Who are “the friends of the people” and how do they fight against the social democrats? Why did we have to break with the Mensheviks at the Second Congress, and why were we right to do so? Why did we reunite at the Fifth Congress, again acting correctly, then at the Sixth Congress again go our separate ways, yet again correctly?
Tyukin wouldn’t have dreamed of starting his reading on a Saturday, when he had little hope of memorizing anything, except that after duty on Sunday he and his sister’s husband intended to do some serious drinking. He would never be able to take in any of that crap with a hangover on Monday morning, and the Party organizer had already rebuked him and threatened to bring him before the Party bureau. The important thing was not answering in class but being able to present a written summary. Tyukin hadn’t been able to find time that week, and had been putting it off all day, but now he had asked his colleague to keep working for a while and had made himself comfortable in a corner by the light of a desk lamp, and started copying into his exercise book selected passages from the “Short Course.”
The two men hadn’t yet got around to switching on the overhead light. The auxiliary lamp by the tape recorders was on. Kuleshov, a curly-haired lieutenant with a chubby chin, sat with his headphones on, feeling bored. The Embassy had phoned in its shopping orders in the morning, and from lunchtime onward seemed to have fallen asleep. There hadn’t been a single call.
After sitting like this for some time, Kuleshov decided to take a look at the sores on his left leg. They kept breaking out again and again for unknown reasons. The sores had been dressed with “brilliant green,” zinc ointment, and a streptocidal preparation, but instead of healing they had spread under the scabs. The pain had begun to make walking uncomfortable. The M.G.B. clinic had scheduled an appointment for him with a professor. Kuleshov had recently been given a new flat, and his wife was expecting a child. And now these ulcers were poisoning what should have been a comfortable life.
Kuleshov removed the tight headphones, which pressed on his ears, moved to a spot in the light, rolled up the left leg of his trousers and his long underwear, and began cautiously feeling and picking at the edges of the scabs. Dark pus oozed out under the pressure of his fingers. The pain made his head spin and blotted out all other thoughts. For the first time the idea suddenly came to him that perhaps these were not just sores but . . . he tried to remember a terrible word he had heard somewhere: gangrene? . . . And . . . what was that other thing?
So he did not immediately notice the bobbins start noiselessly spinning as the tape recorder automatically switched itself on. Without covering up his bare leg, Kuleshov reached for the headphones, put one ear to them, and heard: “How do I know you’re speaking the truth?”
“Do you know what a risk I’m taking?”
“The atomic bomb? But who are you? Tell me your name.”
The atomic bomb!!! Obeying an impulse as instinctive as that of a man who grabs the nearest object to break his fall, Kuleshov tore the plug out of the switchboard, disconnecting the two telephones—and only then realized that, contrary to instructions, he had not intercepted the caller’s number.
The first thing he did was look over his shoulder. Tyukin was scribbling his summary and had eyes for nothing else. Tyukin was a friend, but Kuleshov had been warned to keep an eye on him, which meant that Tyukin had received similar instructions. As Kuleshov turned the rewind knob of the recorder, and plugged the spare recorder into the Embassy loop, he thought at first of erasing the recorded message to conceal his blunder. But he remembered at once that his chief had often said that the work of their post was duplicated by automatic recording in another place, and he dropped that silly idea. Of course the recording was duplicated, and for suppressing a conversation like that you’d be shot!
The tape had rewound. He turned the play knob. The criminal was in a great hurry and very agitated. Where could he have been speaking from? Obviously not from a private apartment. And hardly from his place of work. It was always from public phone booths that people tried to get through to embassies.
Opening his directory of phone-booth numbers, Kuleshov hurriedly dialled a telephone on the steps at the entrance to the Sokolniki metro station.
“Genka! Genka!” he croaked. “Emergency! Call the operations room! They may still be able to catch him!