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Solzhenitsyn’s Sweeping Tale of War and Revolution

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) wrote first for Russians, especially the young. “The recent history of our country is so little known, or taught in such a distorted fashion,” said he, that young Russians more than anyone needed resources to be able to think clearly about what their forebears experienced in the cataclysmic time of his birth.

In The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn challenged that history with a series of eight novels divided into four groups or “knots.” The image of the red wheel first comes to sight as the giant wheel of a locomotive—big enough to lean on but spine-twisting if it moves. In the first volume, August 1914, the red wheel appears as a mill that bursts into flames on a battlefield, the sun unpredictably piercing through the fog, and the traditional image of the wheel of fortune.

Like the locomotive wheel, fortune consists of solid, identifiable components; but also like it, you seldom know when it will move, or who will start the engine. V.I. Lenin, a major character in the first two volumes, a man infinitely confident in the predictive power of Karl Marx’s “scientific” socialism, foresees war among the imperialist powers while being taken by surprise by the onset of the Great War itself.

In the first two volumes of The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn identifies the wheel’s components: the ideas, the sentiments, and the characters of Russians great, near-great, and obscure (“We still hardly recognize how much great happenings in the history of nations depend on insignificant people and events”). These novels resemble the classic Russian novels of the previous century, with their impassioned dialogues on God and country. But in the volume translated by Marian Schwartz and recently published by the University of Notre Dame Press, March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book I, the wheel turns. The Russian Revolution begins, and the chapters become shorter, the rhythm no longer adagio but staccato. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t much care about the literary modernism of Western Europe, but he does imitate the kinetic pace of 20th century cinema.

The other ruling metaphor of The Red Wheel is the ax, as in, “Only the ax can deliver us.” This was the rash assertion of the 19th century liberal writer, Aleksandr Herzen (1812-1870), which Solzhenitsyn uses as his frontispiece. Solzhenitsyn thinks of axes as useful tools, but he looks for salvation elsewhere. In this he avoids what we would have to designate as the mirror image of Herzen’s illiberal liberalism: the apolitical pacifism of Leo Tolstoy. Although Solzhenitsyn often gets compared to Tolstoy, and does resemble him in the vast scope and ambition of his historical novels, he is really the anti-Tolstoy, whose notions he opposes on every level.

In the second chapter of August 1914, a peasant lad (the first in his family to be educated) becomes a Tolstoy enthusiast and makes a pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polyana to meet the sage. Solzhenitsyn’s Tolstoy intones, “Love is the only way!” But even the young disciple knows that “Evil refuses to know the truth,” and “Evil people usually know better than anyone else just what they are doing” yet they “go on doing it.” To which Tolstoy can only counsel patient teaching.

In the central chapter, the same young man, now a soldier, has come to regard Tolstoy’s indifference to the Russian state as “irresponsible” and “dishonest.” It takes his brigade chaplain to show him that Tolstoy isn’t a Christian at all, but rather “a regular product of our freethinking gentry class” who “simply creates a new religion”: “What Tolstoy wants to do is to save people without any help from God.” He can belittle the state and reject war because he fails to acknowledge human evil. But, as the chaplain observes, “War is the price we pay for living in a state,” which protects us from violence from our neighbors and from ourselves. Or, as Solzhenitsyn drily notes in his own voice:

We might look for consolation to Tolstoy’s belief that armies are not led by generals, ships not steered by captains, states and parties are not run by presidents and politicians—but the twentieth century has shown us only too often that they are.

For the Christian Solzhenitsyn, individuals and their souls matter, however disoriented they may be by the turns of fortune’s wheel.

This critique of Tolstoy surprisingly applies to those other, and decidedly nonpacifistic, admirers of history’s sweep, Marx and G.W.F. Hegel. For them, history proceeds in sharp, rationally understandable clashes of opposites—in a “dialectic,” a term these philosophers borrowed from logic and applied to History reconceived as the course of events, rather than as the story of that course. But, as the chaplain explains, the “dialectical leap” is exactly what an actual state cannot endure. The state needs to change with new circumstances, change slowly enough to enable statesmen to guide it.

Reason misconceived as Hegelian or Marxian dialectic “is to history what an ax is to a tree. It will not make it grow.” Herzen’s ax—power politics in the service of violent revolution—makes its Realpolitik devotees as apolitical as Tolstoy, which is to say as incapable of founding a just and practicable regime.

In the kaleidoscopic Russia of March 1917, Tolstoy only has a cameo—a mention, really, and it is a comical one. When a political schemer thinks that a manipulable weakling will best serve him in the position of President of the Russian parliament’s lower house, he calls the cipher a “Tolstoyan.” By now, however, Tolstoyan weakness and folly have given way to the men of the ax, men less weak but no less foolish.

As it stands, tottering, the Russian polity is a monarchic regime scarcely ruling a democratized, resentful, fearful, angry uncivil society. The regime consists of the royal family; an administrative apparatus headed by a council of ministers; the military and police; and an ineffectual, talking-shop quasi-legislature, the Duma. Society consists of academic and other elites (for whose approval Duma pols vie), restive peasants, factory workers, university students, a few businessmen, and criminals. All have their own factions, beginning with the royals themselves, who have lost the respect of almost everyone among the rulers and the (mis)ruled.

Solzhenitsyn conveys the story largely from the perspective of his characters, and his treatment of the Tsar reveals an unsurpassed ability to combine sympathy and compassion with telling irony. Readers learn much of what they need to know about Nicholas II by watching him brought to tears while reading Little Boy Blue, a children’s story (based on the familiar nursery rhyme) by L. Frank Baum.

Baum (best known as author of The Wizard of Oz) has a poor shepherd boy fall asleep after spending the night caring for his injured mother. The cows get in the corn, the squire would dismiss him, but the squire’s daughter discovers what has happened and prevails upon her father to reinstate the boy and assist his helpless mother. “Little Boy Blue did more for his dear mother by falling asleep than he could had he kept wide awake,” writes Baum before delivering the moral of the story: “No one is afraid to trust a boy who loves to serve and to care for his mother.”

Somnolence well describes passive Nicholas’ mode of ruling Russia. He would love to believe that his subjects trust him as he is: a loving son to his own mother who ignores the need for the vigorous executive actions that would induce respect in those subjects. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t retell Baum’s story; he mentions the incident in passing, leaving it to them to read Baum and draw the real moral. He portrays Nicholas as a kind, tender-hearted Christian man suffering from what Niccolo Machiavelli supposed to be the fault of Christians generally: Their brains waver ineffectually between heaven and earth. A dupe of the German Kaiser and an enthusiast for worldwide disarmament, Nicholas is a very nice guy and a very poor monarch.

The Christianity of the much tougher Tsarina Aleksandra has its own vulnerability, seen in her imprudent attachment to the dubious healer-prophet, Grigori Rasputin. Although Solzhenitsyn doubts the more lurid tales of the wandering monk’s bedroom gymnastics, he does not fail to notice the man’s false predictions of Russian victory in the Great War and of future glory for the throne. Solzhenitsyn never attempts to adopt Rasputin’s point of view; the “holy” man remains a mystery, and this, in the novel, feeds damaging rumors of the royal family’s collusion with the hated Germans.

In August 1914 one man emerges as a genuinely prudent, genuinely Christian statesman: Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. Stolypin is Solzhenitsyn’s answer to Machiavelli and to Machiavelli’s latter-day followers major and minor—from Lenin to the timeservers in the State Duma. But by the action of the present novel, Stolypin is long dead at the hands of an assassin, and his few remaining admirers lack both his talent and his influence in the regime.

Most of the regime personages are conflicted embodiments of the dialectical clash between Orthodox Christian Russian tradition and Machiavellian modernity: scheming, self-serving administrators; lethargic but careerist military officers; self-important parliamentarians who’ve spent the last decade undermining the monarchy but now cannot understand its incapacity to put down the rebellion in the streets of the capital city. No one in the regime can gather accurate information about the fast-moving revolutionary uprising, and they can’t even communicate such intelligence as they do gather, or convey such commands as they can think to issue. They have long ago ceased talking with one another or trying to understand the Russian people.

The rebels, for their part, are equally clueless. Their underlying grievance is clear enough: Russia produces abundant food but its supply has been disrupted by the war against the Central Powers and by the incompetence of the Russian authorities. The city dwellers’ hunger, added to suspicions of treason in high places and the accumulated resentments of factory workers, causes the red wheel to shudder and begin its fatal turn. Crucially, police and soldiers alike now despise the regime, either joining the rioters or stepping aside as they maraud, loot, and kill.

The novelist, understanding that while there may be lawlessness, there is never really anarchy, brilliantly captures what quickly rules Petersburg. As one smart young Leftist puts it: “the air in the streets” now rules—a ruler without rules, joyous, hopeful to the point of delirium. “Everyone knew, as one, that life would be very good and very bright very soon!” While their “situation was utterly catastrophic, according to the rules of conventional war”—a well-organized military force could still crush the rebellion—and “it was time to run away before they themselves were seized and hanged,” the fact is that “Revolution, she’s a hooligan,” and the rebel soldiers—fitfully directing pockets of workers, students, and the prisoners they liberate—overwhelm the much-diminished, dispirited regular troops.

“No one knew anything, and no one could decide on anything,” but unlike the regime they don’t need to. Their mass and their brio make them unstoppable by a regime paralyzed by faction. As the wheel turns, velocity takes over and it easily skips the tracks. Absent Lenin (stuck in Zurich, vainly attempting to revolutionize the Swiss), even the supposedly well-organized Bolsheviks can plan nothing. Only the shameless, protean demagogue Aleksandr Kerensky has enough improvisational skill to wow the crowd. He will boost himself to the head of the next, short-lived regime—a story for a subsequent novel. For now, Solzhenitsyn contents himself with rejecting the conventional view of Kerensky as a revolutionary hero.

Solzhenitsyn has made this mob of characters and passions, this kinesis of revolution, intelligible. For this his work deserves to be read not only in Russia but everywhere. The thoughts of the characters, their understandable confusion, their elation or despair, come through without any resort to moral relativism. In scenes that parallel one another, Solzhenitsyn gives us mind after mind, capturing the insights but also the illusions of each. When he intervenes in his own voice he speaks not with narrative omniscience, which he leaves to God, but with narrative judgment, which as a Christian he shares a bit with God, thanks to God.

The novelist is the one who has collected the perspectives and, this being a historical novel, he of course knows the outcome of all these humans’ strivings. Whereas Hegelian and Marxian dialectic aims at synthesizing opposites—combining opposites to produce a new thing, idea, or society—Solzhenitsyn’s dialectic is intuitive or noetic, yielding perception of what is, rather than aiming at some radically transformed, Oz-like “is” that will never really be.

Behind the kinesis of March 1917, the previous novels had described the underlying flaws of the Romanov monarchy, beginning with its founder, Peter the Great. A modernizer, Peter replaced the Russian parish—which was church-centered, populated by peasants who owned their own land—with the commune, lorded over by aristocrats required to collect taxes imposed by the newly centralized modern state. This regime required the redistribution of property, compromising peasant ownership; meanwhile, the much-touted emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Aleksandr in 1861 didn’t really emancipate. The serfs became overtaxed and resentful peasants, legally bound to remain in the commune—effectively, slaves.

It was Stolypin who saw these regime flaws and began to move toward their gradual correction. After the sobering, failed 1905 Revolution, the Tsar gave Stolypin his chance. Liberalize the regime, Stolypin urged, but do not imitate the institutions of Western liberalism. Peasants need to learn the habits of self-government before they can vote. Therefore, return their property to them, lighten their taxes; instead of solving the problem of production by chaining them to the land, let the most enterprising ones settle the rich lands of Siberia. (In this, Stolypin would have had them mirror one Western country, the United States: Go east, young peasant, go east—a policy previously urged by none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky.) “A state needed above all strong legs,” and in Russia that meant peasants who could become “independent citizens.”

The gentle, passive Tsar Nicholas came to fear Stolypin and his reforms with that hidden hostility of the weak man of great power. And the Tsarina couldn’t abide a prime minister who showed so little respect for the holy Rasputin, seeming healer of her hemophiliac son, heir to the throne. Solzhenitsyn understands, even sympathizes with and feels compassion for, the last Romanovs. The judgment he delivers carries all the more weight for that.

March 1917 ends with the melancholy brother of the Tsar trudging through the corridors of the Winter Palace, only hours ahead of the approaching mob. Passing the family portraits on the walls, he wonders, “Why hadn’t they lived more simply?”

In The Red Wheel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn produced a masterpiece, and proved himself a worthy companion of Dostoevsky and rival of Tolstoy.

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