The Red Wheel of Revolution

In this fourth novel in his series The Red Wheel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the three days culminating in Tsar Nicholai II’s abdication. In the previous volumes, the wheel evoked the traditional image of Fortuna. Here, however, the wheel’s turning accelerates, its revolution symbolizing the revolution of the Russian regime.

Although in one sense a historical novel—most of the characters are real people, and Solzhenitsyn deploys them not as mere cameos but as men and women in full—of all his novels so far, this one feels the most immediate, the most current. The freneticism, violence, confusion, and disorientation of Russians in Petrograd from March 15 through March 17 of 1917 can also be seen in minds and actions of Chinese in Hong Kong, right now. No one knows exactly what to do, although many suppose they do. And even if we didn’t know how the revolution did end, we can see it won’t end well. No one surpasses Solzhenitsyn in conveying a sense of what it feels to live at and near the center of this kind of vortex.

“All this human spinning was ungovernable,” one bewildered would-be revolutionary thinks. Because the novel initially seems to mime the near chaos it depicts, its design—along with Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of these events—emerges as slowly as the events speed. You’ll find your way (as the characters themselves cannot) by first noticing that this wheel of revolution has five spokes: the regime being revolutionized (consisting of the monarchic household, including the Tsar’s several uncles and cousins, the grand dukes); the military and civilian bureaucrats initially at the regime’s command, but increasingly restive; the popularly-elected lower house of the Russian legislature, which the Tsar has called into session, the fourth since the near-revolution of 1905; Petrograd’s Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, where the several varieties of socialists conspire against the regime, the legislators, and each other; and finally the people, common civilians and soldiers alike, rioting, cheering, killing, looting—free at last, but unsustainably.

Every one of these factions itself suffers inner conflict. The supposed ruler, the one who should rule, suffers from vacillation, wavering from resolving to fight for his throne to thoughts of, even longing for, abdication. Physically separated from his wife, whose counsels he longs for, his one consistent ruling intention throughout is simply to return to the Tsaritsa and their children, who are confined to the royal compound south of the city. Bearing grudges against the royal couple for past sleights and jealous of one another, the grand dukes jockey for the hoped-for Regency.

The few who had enforced the Tsar’s commands, high-ranking army and navy officers, divide along partisan lines, ranging from ardent monarchists like the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Front, Aleksai Evert and artillery expert General Nikolai Ivanov, to constitutional-monarchy men like the Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Front Nikolai Ruzsky and Chief of Staff of the Russian High Command Mikhail Alekseev to republicans like Minister of War Mikhail Belyaev and Baltic Fleet Vice-Admiral Adrian Nepenin. Unnoticed by many, there is also the civilian bureaucracy controlling the indispensable railroad and telegraph lines, without control of which no modern state can function. Its key actor is railroad expert Aleksandr Bublikov.

Hitherto a talking-shop, an institution intended to appease democratic sentiments by giving the people a voice if not a real say in rule, the Fourth State Duma is dominated by partisans of several regimes: monarchy (in the person of Vasily Shulgin); limited or constitutional monarchy (Duma Chairman Mikhail Rodyzanko and former Chairman Aleksei Guchkov); moderate republicans (former history professor Pavel Milyukov, head of the Constitutional Democrats or “Kadet” party). It is the Duma that fails to guide the regime change toward a moderate political settlement, its leaders having no experience in taking action, or even in consequential talking.

They are impeded partly by their leaders’ culpable vanity and understandable bewilderment, but also by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies—particularly its Executive Committee. Although severely factionalized itself, the Petrograd leftists scheme effectively against their ‘bourgeois’-republican enemies. The peripatetic and ubiquitous Aleksandr Kerensky leads the Menshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party; his Social Revolutionary Party rivals Nikolai Chkheidze and the brilliant Nikolai Himmer, would-be designer of ruling institutions, eventually will fail to outmaneuver him. The fanatically determined Bolshevik faction of the Social Democrats, led (in the absence of V. I. Lenin and Josef Stalin) by Aleksandr Shylapynikov and Ovskey Nakhamkes, wait, plot, and organize.

Finally, there are the many, the people, the crowds at Petrograd, and then Moscow, consisting of soldiers who’ve broken free of their officers, high school and university students joyously playing hooky, exulting in a holiday from laws and rulers—looting, burning District Court buildings and police stations, even invading the Duma’s Tauride Palace, where one hapless Kadet laments to himself, “This was so unlike a sacred, industrious people who had gained their sacred freedom.” Indeed: “In a crowd, a man ceases to be himself, and each man ceases to think soberly. Emotions, shouts, and gestures are picked up on and spread, like fire. Apparently, the crowd obeys no one. But it easily follows a leader. But then the leader does not belong to himself and might not recognize himself as leader, only stays afloat on a single surge for two minutes, then dissolves in its wake, becoming a nobody. Only a criminal, only a natural-born killer, only someone infected with vengeance leads and does not falter. This is his element.”

One group that goes unmentioned—apparently a nonentity, now, in once-Holy Russia. Not one Russian Orthodox clergyman appears in the novel. Several characters think of God and one, the Tsar, ends on his knees, praying. But the Church as an institution, the clergy as a restraining voice, are nowhere to be seen or heard. By 1917, “St. Petersburg” had become “Petrograd.”

By now the government itself “wasn’t anywhere at all. It didn’t exist.” Whereas “the Romanov empire had stood for 300 years, and its officialdom had readymade, developed organizational forms and methods,” the revolution made everything “a blank slate of “unknown forms,” “unfound methods,” and “unformulated objectives.” Lenin titled one of his most famous pamphlets “What Is to Be Done?” Solzhenitsyn has his characters ask themselves that, with small variations, repeatedly and throughout. “Something had to be done!” a sweet, intelligent young librarian thinks. “But no one knew what.”

Most prominent among the unknowing, the Tsar/Emperor finds himself stranded in his railroad car, having left General Headquarters in quest of his family. To rule during such an uprising, he should of course return to Headquarters and confer with his generals—who, after all, are also directing Russian troops in Europe against the Germans. Instead he wants “peace and emotional repose” in his railroad car, followed by arrival at home, where he expects to “resolve everything as one” with his wife. When two generals intent on wresting an abdication letter catch up with him, he quite sensibly argues that “Russian society right now… did not have the elements to govern the country and capable of carrying out the duties of government.” They reply that the only alternative to rule by the legislature is military rule, the use of force against civilians. At this, he quails. Supposing the choice to be one of anarchy or cruelty, he chooses anarchy. “But who knows? Does all of Russia truly want my abdication? How can I find out?”

The quasi-republican generals and admirals who back the Duma equally find themselves in over their heads. Unlike international war, in this civil disturbance “there was no attack from anywhere, nor was there an advancing foe.” They don’t want to use military force against civilians any more than the Tsar does; “sending troops against their own Russians was unthinkable,” General Ruzsky thinks. One of the remaining monarchist generals asserts, “the main thing, of course, was to maintain order.” But there is no order to maintain. Soldiers defy, even arrest the junior officers, one of whom thinks, “On so many faces he had seen [a] bared, newborn cruelty—and couldn’t stop seeing it. Something new had come into the world.”

Duma deputy and monarchist Vasily Shulgin may glimpse the soldiers’ real motive, as he begins “to see what the soldiery was so happy about. They were hoping now not to go to the Front!” The Marxist Himmler sees opportunity in this: “Marx and Engels said that disorganizing the army was the condition for a victorious revolution and also its result.” The regime had depended upon a prudent and resolute monarch, backed by an equally sound military, but, as one junior officer sees, “the strength and weakness of a military hierarchy” consists of “invincible power when there is firm command at the top” and “limp dough when there isn’t.”

There isn’t. The constitutional-monarchist generals depend upon such Duma worthies as Rodzyanko and Guchkov. Any “armed struggle” against civilian rioters and looters “would only spoil the whole situation,” one general reasons, because it would interfere with the rapid restoration of civilian authority, reconstituted on more or less republican lines. But the Duma leaders are precisely the least reliable elements of Russian political society. When they manage to assemble a Provisional Government, they discover it has no secretary to record its doings, no law governing the abdication they and the generals want, and no real experience in governing anything beyond the legislature itself. What they do have are fantasies of power and glory. Rodzyanko imagines the Tsar will let him become the de facto monarch of Petrograd and Moscow, and Milyukov supposes that his unsurpassed negotiating skills will bamboozle the Duma’s rivals in the Soviet.

At the exact center of the novel Solzhenitsyn places Guchkov, no longer a member of the Duma (having been defeated at the polls), but always hanging on by hanging around, assuming that the collapse of the monarchy will leave the Duma as the sole power in Russia. But as he begins to see that the current Duma players “were forfeiting their ability to grasp the entire situation and figure out how to guide its main aspects,” and quite sensibly understands that he can do no better, he falls back on his habitual solution to all the country’s problems: Nikolai’s abdication and a Regency, a façade-regime in which he, Guchkov, somehow will “occupy the leading position in the patria, based on his political talents”—the very talents that brought him to defeat at the polls, one can only suppose. Guchkov in this way serves as the epitome of the Russian ruling and quasi-ruling classes: faced with the movement, the violence, the shouting, no one can think, and so each one falls back on habits, instincts, ambitions, and preconceived ideas. “That’s what revolution was”: the spin of the wheel, dizzying everyone and thus incapacitating them for reasonable action.

Miklyukov’s negotiations with the Soviet representatives prove especially instructive, if not to him. Dreaming of a rapprochement between Russian liberals and socialists that will “bring Russia political freedom,” he exclaims hope for “an alliance of constitution and revolution!” This alliance need not simply be a contradiction—the American Founders managed to accomplish both—but “unfortunately, the socialists’ intolerance had already destroyed this hope…many times,” and was about to do so again—calculatedly so. Happy for the moment to encourage his illusions, the Soviet negotiators extract key concessions that will ensure their complete freedom to propagandize in a new regime that will depend upon popular opinion. While the negotiations go on, the Bolshevik newspapers rip into Miklyukov, who, like future hundreds of negotiators with communists, prefers to ignore or explain away the attacks. Fundamentally, Milyukov and the rest of the Duma members fear the Soviet, whose members whip up the crowds. As he announces that he will head the Provisional Government, Milyukov finds himself interrupted by a heckler who shouts, “Who elected you?” It is a reasonable question. For its part, the Left wants no orderly transition to constitutional monarchy; it wants democracy, so long as it can manipulate ‘the masses.’

Not that the socialists entirely know what to do, either. Back in Zurich, Lenin initially assumes that no revolution is happening, sure that conditions could not be ripe for such a thing in historically backward Russia. In the midst of that revolution in Petrograd, Shylapnikov wants “to know and use the collective mind”; when he realizes there is no such thing, he decides to decide what it is—modeling future communist practices exactly. Worrying that Lenin might rebuke him upon returning from exile, he commiserates to himself, “Events and opportunities had opened up so expansively and so suddenly, just try to guess which one you should saddle.” He has one advantage over most of the others: he knows what he wants, namely, to knock out the Mensheviks, the Kadets, and the Tsar. That is, he knows what to negate, and since the insurrection itself is precisely a negation, with no established, coherent, and practical end, his strategy fits the circumstance. He writes a “Bolshevik Manifesto,” announcing “The red banner of insurrection is rising throughout Russia!” while thinking “It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t anywhere today. Tomorrow it will be. That was why we were writing, so that it happens.” Shylapnikov doesn’t need certain knowledge of unknowable facts; he guides himself by Marxist prophecy, an atheist prophecy to be made real by propaganda appealing to and directing the people on the streets.

More concretely, as the Bolsheviks would say, and also at least as effectively, the Soviet has already set up a food supply commission, and also aims at bringing the soldiers into alliance with the workers as new, if likely subordinate, members. Beyond tactics, the relatively sober Himmer wants to think about “how to construct a regime that corresponded to democratic interests” while advancing socialism internationally.” He proposes a temporary coalition with bourgeois democrats; its terms will enable socialists to discard the dupes once their utility expires. “In essence,” he tells his colleagues, “we must, under a bourgeois administration, establish the dictatorship of the proletarian classes!” This will give socialists time to establish “a solid network of class, party, professional, and social organizations”; then, with “freedom to agitate,” the “liberated masses will no longer capitulate to the propertied clique” and “the forms of a bourgeois republic will not take hold here, and the revolution will intensify.” But all of this turns out to be too clever by half; the Soviet members fail to vote on it. “Oh, it was his misfortune to be so smart!” he tells himself.

Under these revolutionary conditions, two (very unlike) people happen to be effective. One is the protean poseur, Kerensky, unthoughtful but supremely opportunistic, truly a man of this moment “in this new democratic guise.” “For him execution had always come faster than the decision itself,” as Solzhenitsyn comically exaggerates it. This is exactly the sort of man who thrives in semi-chaos, and he will eventually, briefly, lead a new regime—not the Duma-ites, not the generals. Precisely because he has no deliberative ability at all, and indeed wants none, he is by accident the most prudent ambitieux in town.

Save one: the railroad expert and Duma member Bulbikov. Despising the Duma talkathon (“the Duma leaders kept nattering on while undertaking nothing serious”), he recognizes that the railroad network, if coordinated with the telegraph network, constitute “a state within a state.” A state, moreover, that no one in the halls of power or the streets of the cities understands well enough to seize and control. With a hasty okay from the distracted Rodzyanko, who has no idea of what he’s authorizing, Bulbikov takes over direction of the railroads and stops the Tsar’s train, thus paralyzing the already irresolute and distracted head of the regime. He then uses the telegraph network to spread news of the Petrograd insurrection throughout the country, where years of war and ruling follies have prepared ears to listen. No socialist, Bulbikov wants most of all to modernize, to industrialize, Russia. That will happen, but on Leninist/Stalinist terms, not those prevailing in the Duma or the existing bureaucracy.

In all of this, Solzhenitsyn finds a few mustard seeds of common sense among ordinary Russians of several classes. There is an elderly woman who tells a revolution-loving medical student, “Russia is dying.” There is the father of a revolution-loving law student who tells her, “The most dangerous part is just beginning”; “revolutions have a perfidious quality of getting out of hand.” And there is the lawyer, Nikolai Maklakov, who laments, “Forgotten was the Holy Scripture, which says that the king is given the sword to punish evildoers and protect good people. From the Tsar’s love of peace and softness of heart, Russia was on its way to collapse.”