When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn embarked on the writing of The Red Wheel at the age of eighteen in 1936, he did so from a committed revolutionary or Bolshevik point of view. Red October was understood to be both the telos of universal history and the centerpiece of his imagined literary and historical epic. When the mature Solzhenitsyn turned to The Red Wheel once again in the 1960s and 1970s (he would complete the work in 1992), his historical novel (and work of dramatized history) had dramatically changed focus. Not only was Solzhenitsyn now the most determined and vigorous opponent of the Bolshevik enterprise one could imagine, but the focus of the work had shifted considerably. In his youth, his focus was steadfastly on the October Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that ensued after the forced Bolshevik seizure of power. But that would change.
As Solzhenitsyn tells the story in his Journal of The Red Wheel, 1960-1991, which has yet to appear in English, he initially had little interest in the “bourgeois” February Revolution or the last days of old Russia precisely because he dogmatically associated them with an antiquated “Right,” with a world that the progressive march of History had left behind. The aspiring Russian writer still thought like an ideologist; at that point, he remained imprisoned by the historicist framework at the heart of the Marxist-Leninist vulgate. But after the scales of ideology had fallen from his eyes as a result of his imprisonment in Soviet prisons and camps, he came to realize that Red October flowed inexorably from the earlier misnamed “liberal” Revolution. The February Revolution (or March Revolution to use the Gregorian calendar that revolutionary Russia would soon adopt) created the necessary preconditions for the world’s first experiment in the totalitarian subjugation of a great people and nation.
It is that revolution that Solzhenitsyn painstakingly chronicles in the four books of March 1917, the third node or knot (exploration in narrative form of “discrete periods of time”) of Solzhenitsyn’s larger masterwork, The Red Wheel. March 1917, Book 3, coming in at 642 pages, has just become available from the University of Notre Dame Press in a vivid and eminently readable English translation by Marian Schwartz. The reader once again finds himself or herself in medias res, caught up in dramatic revolutionary events which have now spread out from Petrograd the capital to the whole of the Russian empire. Russian “society,” as it had called itself for more than a half century to distinguish itself from an allegedly repellent Tsarist state order, is at once hypnotized and inebriated by a revolutionary spirit that sees no good in the passing order, confuses freedom with the absence of all hierarchy, authority, and order, and that above all sees no enemies to the Left. If wild and reckless street scenes dominated the first two books of March 1917, the revolutionary self-enslavement of civil society is the dominant note in the third book which covers the days from March 16th to March 22nd, 1917, although the streets do remain restless and chaotic. What Freud called “the reality principle” is almost nowhere to be found in the consciousness of the principal actors under discussion. Revolutionary inebriation abounds.
Things Fall Apart
The new Provisional Government, dominated by liberals and socialists from the old Duma and anti-Tsarist forces from civil society, is pathetic in its weakness, powerlessness, and pretensions of grandeur. The Socialist Revolutionary Aleksandr Kerensky, the new Minister of Justice, provides a parody of the revolutionary man of action, giving the impression of exercising authority by jumping from place to place, hectoring friends and foes alike, and parroting tiresome revolutionary clichés. With a barely concealed Napoleonic complex, he presents a figure that is menacing and ludicrous at the same time. Prince Georgi Lvov, the first Prime Minister of the new government (soon to be succeeded by Kerensky) has no sense of the requirements of what one might interchangeably call civilized order or ordered liberty. At one meeting of the council of ministers, he muses about removing and abolishing “the governors, city governors, and all the police” as the Provisional Government essentially went on to do. Everything about the old order was intolerable, in his view, and a “people’s militia” could surely take the place of the old governing authorities and forces that once maintained law and order. “Why do we need any police at all? Why does a free state need police at all? Does a conscious people really need that?” Channeling the antinomian reveries of the older Tolstoy, the religious rebel and heretical prophet, Lvov concludes that “all misfortune stems from authority. We need no authority.” Lvov is a well-intentioned fool.
Some members of the cabinet, in particular the War Minister Guchkov and the Foreign Minister Milyukov, still maintain contact with reality. They understand that Russia remains at war and that authority needs to be soberly exercised and maintained. But they are undermined at every turn by the revolutionary windbaggery of Kerensky and the utopian effusions and pathetic inertia of Lvov, as well as by an ever more assertive and radical Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (already a strong and effective parallel government). And yet even those ministers in touch with reality were blind about the wisdom of a near mortally wounded Russia continuing the fight as a belligerent in the First World War.
In Book 3, we see all the consequences of Tsar Nikolai’s imprudent and precipitous decision to abdicate on behalf of both himself and his young son Alexei, who was afflicted with hemophilia. As always, Nikolai, in truth more passive than authoritarian, puts family considerations above the oath he had sworn to God and Russia. At first, the comparative moderates in the Provisional Government hoped that the Emperor, Empress, and their son and daughters, could find refuge in England with an invitation from the Tsar’s cousin King George V. But the Soviets quickly got wind of such plans and demanded that the Tsar, who has done nothing to resist the new order, be placed under revolutionary arrest. The British Ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, is hardly helpful as he worries about what Left-Labourites would say about an act of simple decency on the part of the British monarchy and government. Perfidious Albion at work, perhaps. We are one crucial step closer to Yekaterinburg where the Tsar and his family were so coldly and cruelly murdered in July 1918 by Bolshevik thugs.
While all this is going on, the intelligent but weak and ineffectual Grand Duke Mikhail, the Tsar’s essentially apolitical brother, abdicates, listening to bad advice from members of the Provisional Government that coincided with his own predisposition to avoid any political responsibilities. The Romanov dynasty was now doomed to perdition. Power was now to be exercised by the least sober and responsible elements: sailors and soldiers drunk with rage and anger, the radicals within the Soviets demanding a truly “Red” revolution, the arbitrary arrest of hundreds, even thousands of people throughout the country who were in any way responsible for maintaining civilized order.
In the midst of this delirium, the Soviets unleashed Order No. 1 by telegraph to the armed forces. Officers were now to be elected or deposed by their men, salutes were a thing of the past, and strategy was to be determined in large part by revolutionary committees of sailors and soldiers. And this choice for military anarchy was imposed, almost as an afterthought, in the midst of war. Yet British and American officials still celebrated this revolution-cum-breakdown of order, deluding themselves that revolutionary Russia would be a much more trustworthy political and military partner than the Tsarist regime. Utopian illusions thus did not escape the circles around Prime Minister David Lloyd George or President Woodrow Wilson. Far from it. Giddiness about progressive revolution seemed to be a shared feature of the Western political class.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
March 1917, Book 3 introduces a new figure, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, the future Supreme Governor of the White government at Omsk during the Russian Civil War, who was brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks on February 7, 1920. Admiral Kolchak is clearly a hero of Solzhenitsyn’s, a patriot who sees past revolutionary illusions. He was “a decisive man in the extreme” who had been appointed to command the Black Sea Fleet in July 1916 at the age of forty-three. He had plausible and viable plans for taking the Bosphorus Straits from the Turks that a senescent and passive command could hardly fathom, not to mention act upon. Kolchak was not a political man, such as Pyotr Stolypin, the great conservative reformer, who was Solzhenitsyn’s model of effective, determined, moderate, but tough-minded statesmanship. But Kolchak knew the folly of overthrowing the Tsar—and the entire edifice of state authority—in the middle of a war. He wanted “a stable Russia,” not one riven by unrest, division, and violence.
In contrast, the commander of the Baltic Fleet, the progressive-minded Adrian Nepenin, was besotted with joy about the “Great Russian Revolution” that overtook the capital in February 1917. He made clear his unqualified sympathy and loyalty to the new revolutionary regime and his commitment—and that of his officers and sailors—to continue fighting the war with courage and determination. But Nepenin’s fleet was soon beset by insubordination, vicious assaults on officers, insolence from below, and a heartbreaking denouement where the thoroughly decent, if naïve, Nepenin was shot and torn to pieces by revolutionary sailors. The Provisional Government was already effectively without any authority and the treasonous Order No. 1 was the uncontested rule of the day. Solzhenitsyn conveys the assassination of Nepenin, and the events leading up to it, in a series of dramatic scenes culminating in the death scene described cinematically on his ship, as is sometimes the case in the multi-faceted artistic experimentation that defines The Red Wheel. Nepenin’s cold-blooded assassination reveals the effectual truth of a state without authority, a military without hierarchy and command, and a civil society inebriated by the desire to turn everything upside down and to undo the order that makes government, even or especially liberal government, possible.
Admiral Kolchak offers a sharp contrast to the tragic illusions and equally tragic end of Admiral Adrian Nepenin. Unlike Nepenin, he never applauds the Tsar’s (largely compelled) abdication. He knew that “the situation in Petrograd” was “catastrophic and at GHQ dubious.” The forces of subversion were alone displaying energy and acting in an effective if destructive way. At one point, Kolchak even recommended that the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, the Tsar’s uncle, make himself a “dictator” in the Roman sense, to restore a modicum of law and order to Russia. The supreme commander, whose political judgments matched Tsar Nikolai’s and Grand Duke Mikail’s in their tepidity and lack of discernment, was shocked by a proposal, which if carried out, might have saved Russia before it was too late.
In an especially crucial chapter, 438, Solzhenitsyn has Kolchak ruminating on the necessary place of command and obedience in a decent society. A true leader knows how to obey “joyfully” in a “wise and well-ordered hierarchy.” Only “weak characters require the illusion of” complete “independence.” Kolchak saw that in the new Russia, power had in truth been conveyed to “no one.” Grand Duke Mikhail had shown neither readiness nor fortitude to assume his responsibilities. At that very moment, Kolchak received an encoded telegram informing him that Admiral Nepenin had been killed by sailors at Helsingfors. Kolchak had no choice but to do what he could to save the Naval Command and the Black Sea Fleet, despite the general erosion of military and political authority. He could only wait for “firm hands” to step forward on behalf of the honor and independence of a civilized and free Russia. Meanwhile, the Minister of War, Guchkov, who shared many of these concerns, fully appreciated that total chaos reigned, that the best officers were being picked off or arrested, and that he himself had no real authority to arrest even Nepenin’s killers. In effect, the Provisional Government had ceased to govern and in fact had not governed for two hours or even two minutes since its inception. Its reigning principle was a colossal self-deception, the pretense that it in fact constituted some kind of government for Russia, even for a fleeting moment.
Into this vacuum stepped the ever-more-radical Soviets. A deluded Lenin in exile in orderly and free “bourgeois” Switzerland imagined that the Tsarists forces were still exerting resistance, and that the Provisional Government was much stronger and effective than it in fact was. At once fanatical and vainglorious, he felt the need to return to Petrograd as soon as possible. He, the indispensable man, must “direct” and “intervene” and not a minute too soon. If he had to openly collaborate with the German “imperialists” to make this possible, then so be it. Fuming with hatred, but also with a certain tactical acumen, he turned his attention to writing his revolutionary “Theses” that would give direction to the forces committed to true revolution and not the play-acting sort. And in a portent of the tyranny and terror to come, freely channeling the theoretical blood lust of Robespierre, he tells his revolutionary interlocutors in Zurich, “If necessary, we will need to hang eight hundred bourgeois and landowners on lamp posts!” Still, Lenin mistakenly imagines that the army and the Tsar are a potent part of the revolutionary mix in Petrograd. He has no idea how much the old Russia he so despised had fallen already.
World Literature and Political Wisdom
The individual books of The Red Wheel generally conclude with memorable literary chapters that combine high art with dramatized history or a moment of great spiritual or intellectual insight. I am thinking, for example, of (the fictional) Colonel Vorotyntsev’s thunderous exchange with the mediocrities of the Supreme Command (GHQ) at the end of August 1914. These timeservers wanted to blame the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg entirely on General Samsonov who is not there to defend himself. There is also the beautiful and heartrending confession of Zinaida at the end of October 1916, and the sad ruminations of Grand Duke Mikhail as he walks through the Winter Palace for perhaps the last time at the end of the first book in March 1917.
The conclusion of March 1917, Book 3 does not disappoint in this regard. The Tsar, now under arrest with his family at Tsarskoye Selo, surrounded by rude and rebellious guards, is “produced for inspection” in the final two chapters of the book. Despite the humiliation, he comports himself with a sad if listless dignity. But at the end of the final chapter, 531, the former Tsar of all the Russias takes a look at the inspecting comrade, whose “eyes burned with hatred” and with “the vivid appearance of malice.” So much is conveyed in those words: infinitely more murderous displays of fury and fanaticism, of cruelty and bloodlust are bound to follow because of the events unleashed by this first Russian Revolution. With exile in England completely off the table for the royal family (an utterly powerless Provisional Government dare not offend the ever more assertive and dominant Soviets) their fate at Yekaterinburg and everything it represents is all but certain.
The American reader probably cannot imagine Red October, or its equivalent, in our immediate future. But essential aspects of the February Revolution—contempt for all authority and hierarchy, disdain for the past and a desire to repudiate it or negate it altogether, demands to abolish the police, intolerance of anything that smacks of conservatism or tradition—are all around us and are the hallmark of what it means to be “progressive” today. Rarely is such a long work as The Red Wheel so riveting, so exciting. If The Gulag Archipelago remains the book of Solzhenitsyn’s that means the most to me, that speaks with depth and light to my heart and soul, The Red Wheel, on each reading and rereading, grows greatly in my esteem. February, even more than October, conveys the crisis of authority that is coextensive with a certain decayed liberalism common to radical or late modernity in all its forms throughout the world.
In addition, Solzhenitsyn’s art in this work conveys deep truths, and opportunities lost, in a way that academic history, increasingly torn between ideology, abstruse methodology, and soulless reductionism can rarely if ever do. Art, dramatized history, wisdom about statecraft and the art of politics, and a deep, passionate but measured patriotism find elevated expression in the literary art of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A final word of advice to reader and critic alike: read the volumes of The Red Wheel before dismissing them out of hand as some, the lazy and the ideologically-minded among them, are wont to do. You will find a masterpiece of world literature and the most discerning political and historical wisdom.