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.