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





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."


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.

"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.


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