Toast of the TV in Russian Eyes: It's Solzhenitsyn

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

New York Times

February 9, 2006

MOSCOW, Feb. 8 — A grandfatherly figure, his bearded face wrinkled into a smile, peers down from billboards around town.

It is surprise enough that the man is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the once-exiled writer, Nobel Prize winner and, of late, octogenarian scold. It is even more so that the billboards advertise his adaptation — broadcast on state television, no less — of one of his fiercely anti-Soviet novels, "The First Circle."

Solzhenitsyn has been called the conscience of the nation, but his reputation has risen and fallen as tumultuously as Russia itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "First Circle" has once again placed him on the national stage, reaching an audience that would have been inconceivable to him four decades ago, when he smuggled the book out of the Soviet Union.

The show, a 10-part series that began Jan. 29 and ends Thursday, is part of an industry here catering to what seems to be a growing interest in adaptations of the great works of Russian literature, some of them books that were banned in Soviet times. It began with Dostoyevsky's "Idiot" in 2004, includes less familiar Soviet-era works like "Master and Margarita" and "The Golden Calf," and will reach a climax of sorts this spring with the broadcast of a Russian adaptation of "Doctor Zhivago."

The first episode of "The First Circle" was the most watched program in the nation last week, narrowly edging out "Terminator 3," according to TNS Gallup Media. By this week, though, it had slipped to fifth place, at least in Moscow — national figures were not yet available. But it was still attracting 15 million viewers a night.

Solzhenitsyn was greeted as a prodigal son when he returned from exile in 1994, only to see his later works — "Russia in Collapse," an apocalyptic political attack on society's ills in 1998, and "Two Hundred Years Together," on Judaism in Russia in 2004 — met with public indifference. He once had his own talk show, until it was canceled because of low ratings.

"This would-be prophet has played no significant role in Russia's political dialogue since coming back," a commentator for the official Russian Information Agency, Anatoly Korolev, wrote in August 2004.

Now, 18 months later, in the twilight of an immeasurably influential career, he is back before the public in a society that has not always known what to make of its most famous living writer.

"I assumed that bringing it to the screen would be possible in 300 years," the director, Gleb Panfilov, said in a television interview, recalling his desire to make the film after first reading "The First Circle" while it was still banned, some 30 years ago. "But it happened earlier."

The series is the first Russian film based on Solzhenitsyn's writings. In a country where attitudes toward the Soviet history remain deeply conflicted, it amounts to the popularization of some of the darkest episodes.

"The young people today say: 'Oh, he is not a good writer. Communism is over. He is not so interesting,' " the writer Viktor Yerofeyev said in a telephone interview. "In the history of Russia, he is in the first place."

"It is like Germany after the war," Mr. Yerofeyev added. "In two or three generations people really start thinking about what happened in their country."

Solzhenitsyn, now 87, is credited as the screenwriter and narrates long passages. He also served as a consultant during filming, advising the crew on how to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of the network of forced labor camps known as the Gulag, where he served eight years after criticizing Stalin in 1945. "There is not one drop of falsehood," his wife, Natalya, told Izvestia.

As reclusive as he was when he lived in exile in Vermont for 18 years, he has not discussed the series publicly, but Mr. Panfilov reported that he had tears in his eyes when he saw the edited version.

"The First Circle," first published in the West in 1968, chronicles three days in the lives of prisoners at Mavrino, a "special prison" set up in a country estate outside Moscow in the aftermath of World War II. The political prisoners there, chosen for their expertise, work on two projects: a secure telephone for Stalin and a method of voice recognition needed to identify a suspected traitor.

The title is a reference to Dante's concentric circles of hell in "The Divine Comedy." Mavrino is a fictionalization of the camp where Solzhenitsyn served his sentence, Marfino.

Boris N. Pasternak, director of the publishing house Vremya, which next month will publish the first of 30 volumes of Solzhenitsyn's complete works, said that Russians were still absorbing the banned literature of the Soviet era.

"I cannot say that millions of people have digested it profoundly," said Mr. Pasternak, who is not related to the author of "Doctor Zhivago," another famously banned work. "Now there is another means of making an impact on people's brains: the television serial."

The series — seven and a half hours in all, shown without commercial breaks — is appearing on Rossiya, one of Russia's two state-owned television networks. Given the Kremlin's influence over what is broadcast, many here have interpreted the production as a signal of a new willingness to examine Stalin's legacy critically, if not to embrace Solzhenitsyn per se.

"As my mother said, 'Stalin is shown like a bastard,' " Mr. Yerofeyev said. "It means the Kremlin's power is not, let's say, monolithic."

While the film scrupulously recreates the period, Solzhenitsyn altered at least some aspects of the story.

In the book, a Foreign Ministry official becomes ensnared by the M.G.B., as the K.G.B was then known, after trying to warn an old family doctor not to pass medicine to a colleague in France. In the film, the official calls the American Embassy to warn about a Soviet intelligence ploy to steal nuclear secrets, a less ambiguous betrayal.

Viktor A. Moskvin, director of the Russian Abroad Foundation, a cultural center created by Solzhenitsyn, said the screenplay amounted to a distinct new work by an author, born in 1918, whose life spanned the entire Soviet era and now the beginning of another, different one.

"It is an important work at the beginning of the 21st century," he said. "It will help develop democracy."

It has at least prompted debate. The Communist Party leader, Gennadi A. Zyuganov, denounced the series as "an absolutely sideways glance at Soviet history." Others drew unflattering parallels to more recent events, from the conviction of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the former owner of Yukos Oil, to political attacks on human rights organizations.

Ernst I. Cherny of the Citizens' Committee in Defense of Scientists likened the events depicted in the series to accusations against several scientists, including a physicist, Valentin V. Danilov, who was convicted in 2004 on charges of selling satellite technology to the Chinese that his lawyers said was publicly available. Today's security services, he said, have learned nothing from Solzhenitsyn's indictment of Stalin's capricious justice.

"They see nothing strange in what they are doing today," Mr. Cherny said at a news conference last week, "and in the way it was all described by Solzhenitsyn."

It remains to be seen whether the television version will ignite new interest in Solzhenitsyn's works. Book sales have skyrocketed after other television adaptations, including one in December of Mikhail Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita."

"He is really fascinating, but we are just not interested in things like that," Aleksandr V. Belonogov, 27, an insurance agent, said of Solzhenitsyn as he passed through the subway beneath Pushkin Square on Wednesday. "We do not exactly entertain ourselves by reading Solzhenitsyn."

Rachel Thorner contributed reporting for this article.