Nerzhin vs. Sologdin

In “The First Circle”, Solzhenitsyn contrasts the world view of an agnostic and a Christian through the lives of two men, Nerzhin and Sologdin. Both are prisoners in the Gulag trying to make sense of their lives.

Disenchanted with Communism, Nerzhin has retreated into skepticism. Although he is a scientist working on a top secret project for Stalin, he wants to quit his mind-wearying work and return to hard labour so that he can focus his mental energy on finishing a book that he had started writing in secret.

Sologdin, on the other hand, is a Christian.  Solzhenitsyn describes him in the following way:

“He was a non entity, a slave without rights. He had been inside for twelve years, but because he had been sentenced to a second term, there was no knowing when, if ever, his imprisonment would end. His wife had wasted her youth waiting in vain for him. To avoid dismissal from her present job, as from so many others, she had pretended that she had no husband and had stopped writing to him. Sologdin had never seen his only son – his wife had been pregnant when he was arrested. Sologdin had gone through the forests of Cherdynsk, the mines of Vorkuta, two periods under investigation, one of six months, one of a year, tormented by lack of sleep, drained of his strength, wasting away. His name and his future had long ago been trampled into the mud. All he possessed was a pair of well-worn padded trousers and a tarpaulin work jacket, kept at present in the storeroom in expectation of worse times to come. He was paid thirty rubles a month-enough for three kilos of sugar-but not in cash. He could breathe fresh air only at stated times authorized by the prison authorities. And in his soul there was a peace that nothing could destroy. His eyes sparkled like those of a young man. His chest, bared to the frost, heaved as though he were experiencing life to the full.”

The two men volunteered to cut wood for the camp because they believed that it was good for the soul. In between their sessions pulling on the handles of a whipsaw, they spoke about God and the meaning of life.

Nerzhin sighed.

“You know, I don’t even mind acknowledging a Creator, some sort of higher Reason in the universe. I’ll even say that I feel it to be so, if you want me to. But supposing I found out that there is no God, would I be any less moral?”


“I don’t think so. And why do you have to insist, why do all of you always insist, that we must recognize not just God in some general sense but a concrete Christian God, plus the Trinity, plus the Immaculate Conception? Would my philosophical deism be the least bit shaken if I learn that not one of the Gospel miracles ever happened? Of course it wouldn’t !”

Sologdin sternly raised a hand with an admonitory finger.

There’s no other way! If you begin to doubt a single dogma of the faith, a single word of the Scriptures, all is lost! You are one of the godless!”

His hand slashed the air as though it held a saber.

“That’s what repels people! All or nothing! No compromises, no allowances made. But suppose I can’t accept it in toto? What can I be sure of? What can I rely on? I keep telling-the one thing I know is that I know nothing.”

Socrate’s apprentice took hold of the saw and offered the other handle to Sologdin.

“Another time then,” Sologdin agreed. “Lets cut wood.”

A. Solzhenitsyn – The First Circle


Solzhenitsyn was exactly right that the dogmatism of Christians is what repels many.  Christianity is an “all in” proposition. Faith does not deal in probabilities.  From this perspective, faith might be viewed as restrictive but what is the alternative?   Apart from Scriptures, what do we know? Do we know that God is One? Do we know that God is Love? Do we know that sin is a corruption of what is good? Do we know that we are created in the image of God?  Do we know that life is sacred? Do we know that there will be a resurrection and a final judgment? What do we know of the Atoning Sacrifice? Do we even have a word for holiness? Do we know of the sanctity of marriage? Do we know about Christ and the future Restoration of all things? Do we have hope? Does anything remain of what we love and cherish?   No.  All we are left with is the gods of the Greeks and Hindus.

Christians are not far removed from skepticism.  We never bought into the promise of scientific positivism embraced by Enlightenment thinkers before the time of Europe’s Troubles.  We can pretty much agree with Nerzhin when he said, “The one thing I know is that I know nothing.”   We know nothing… apart from faith.  It is faith that makes the difference.

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