Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

March 1917: Solzhenitsyn’s Modernist Masterpiece Captures Russia’s Unraveling

A Bolshevik demonstration in St. Petersburg, 1917 (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
March 1917 (Book 2), Node 3 of The Red Wheel, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Marian Schwartz (University of Notre Dame Press, 728 pp., $39)

Like the griffins of myth, The Red Wheel is a synthesis of living parts. Solzhenitsyn’s multivolume “epopee” (his preferred designation) of World War I and the Russian Revolution is a historical novel, docudrama, film treatment, and academic treatise. It deconstructs and recombines these genres in a manner that can only be described as modernist: John Dos Passos’s trilogy USA, sections of which Solzhenitsyn read in the Gulag, was an acknowledged influence. March 1917, Book 2, covers the three days of the February Revolution, which is shown as an immense national unraveling that corrupted public morality and destroyed social cohesion, often with sadistic brutality, and that inevitably led to the Bolshevik takeover eight months later. This historical catastrophe, Solzhenitsyn believed, was due to the fecklessness of the imperial elites all the way up to the terminally mediocre Czar Nicholas II; the revolutionaries’ blind lust for destruction; and the estrangement of the bulk of the people from God and country. Book 2 ends with Nicholas’s abdication, as the czar weeps at the enormity of what he has done and reels before “the whirlwinds of Judgment Day.” Russia’s apocalypse is at hand.

The book traces the clash between two new centers of power, the democratically minded provisional government, established by the elected parliament, or Duma, and the Petrograd Soviet of Deputies, a revolutionary talking-shop-cum-gangsters’-den. They compete against each other in the name of liberty and fraternity as they dismantle every institution of state, including the army fighting on the Eastern Front, and thereby ensure the nation’s doom. Most of the action takes place in St. Petersburg (Petrograd) and its environs, though there are historical vignettes set in Moscow, in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, at Nicholas’s General Headquarters (GHQ) at Mogilev, and on the ships of the Imperial Russian Navy.

Like the rest of the saga, March 1917 features reliable and unreliable character voices, graphic descriptions, and hallucinatory reveries, as well as an elaborate hierarchy of metaphors at the apex of which stand the (Christian) Cross and the (satanic) Wheel. Refracted across the epic’s many narrative layers, each glyph generates sometimes explicit and sometimes coded meanings. Thus, the boutonnières worn by the revolutionaries become imaginatively transformed into “large, torn red scrap[s], . . .  as shaggy as fire, . . . revolving around the pinning point in angles, tears, and wisps.” The passage occurs in one of the “screens,” or mock film scripts, the saga’s most conspicuously experimental element, which intertwines its historiographical, symbolic, and surreal strands. Also present in Book 2 are documentary interpolations, mostly extracts from the newspapers of the period, as well as popular proverbs, set in caps and centered at the end of several of the chapters, as punchy commentary on the events described. “A hero’s beard, a conscience of clay,” for example, serves as a folksy assessment of the imperial authorities’ lack of moral courage. In Solzhenitsyn’s book, with its dozens of hirsute generals, politicians, and conspirators, the revolution is a festival of beards.

Marian Schwartz’s translation hews faithfully to the original. It renders Solzhenitsyn’s signature neologisms, archaisms, dialecticisms, grammatical complexities, and syntactical inversions into careful English prose, while retaining the idiosyncratic authorial diction and conveying the wicked delight he takes in lampooning the historically clueless, irresponsible, and immoral.

The Red Wheel confirms Nietzsche’s warning that “madness is rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” Solzhenitsyn also seconds his point that revolutions are a “gruesome farce,” as when the diehard monarchist Vasili Shulgin singlehandedly storms the Peter and Paul Fortress under “a little red flag,” “Minister Bark [is] arrested by his own servant, who mocked him,” and a deserter equipped with three officers’ swords plus a rifle bites General Ivanov, the portly “dictator” sent by the czar to crush the revolution, on his pudgy hand. Solzhenitsyn was a devout Christian, but he valued the author of Zarathustra as a psychologist of modern culture and a critic of the sacred cows of Western civilization.

Contrary to Tolstoy in War and Peace, Solzhenitsyn means to demonstrate that, at the decisive “nodal” moments of history, the action or inaction of a single individual may have a decisive impact on the course of events. In March 1917, for example, Nicholas II, Aleksandr Kerensky, the future head of the provisional government, and Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, are the most important characters, though plenty of attention is paid to the doings and sayings of other prominent personalities from the theaters of war, politics, and culture, such as General Mikhail Alekseev, chief of the imperial GHQ; Pavel Milyukov, the foreign minister of the provisional government; and Maxim Gorky, the allegedly proletarian writer who supported the Bolshevik cause. All three are depicted as, historically, beside the point, with Gorky, an old Solzhenitsyn bête noire (or rouge), making an appearance in a state of nocturnal deshabille: “Behind several women stood Aleksei Maksimovich in a terry robe, stooped, displeased, wrinkling his broad-spread, duckish nose, his yellow moustache hanging to his chin.” The Red Wheel features a gallery of prominent noses, some of which are so anatomically bizarre that they make one think of Hogarth’s caricatures or the tales of Nikolai Gogol.

While in August 1914 and November 1916 — the first two novels in the cycle — the fictional characters are at the center of the story, in March 1917 their presence recedes to the margins. Take Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev, the career military man with a complicated personal life, who is the closest the epic has to a main hero. The colonel is torn between his wife, Alina, a provincial belle with a cloying manner, and the analytical but sexy Olda Andozerskaya, a Petersburg academic who is a passionate monarchist. Though she knows a great deal about Russian history and culture, Olda does tend to go on like a professor at the lectern, so Vorotyntsev is relieved to leave her behind when he travels to Moscow. There he encounters the widow Kalisa, a voluptuous blonde beauty with whom he spends two days of erotic bliss, oblivious to the collapse of empire occurring outside the walls of their lovers’ nest: a holiday from history about which later he will feel guilty. Kalisa’s body becomes Mother Russia, “the dear, saving earth, only softer, warmer, and more expansive.” It is earthy Kalisa, rather than wifely Alina or sparkling Olda, who turns out to be the love of Georgi’s life. Sasha Lenartovich, the handsome lawyer from a family of radicals who is now an army officer, glories in the intoxicating promise of power that the revolution holds out. He is destined to join the Bolsheviks, the most extreme faction in this age of extremes. And Ksenia Tomchak, the young agriculture student and free-form dancer who is modeled on Solzhenitsyn’s own mother, is briefly enthused by the revolutionary fever sweeping Moscow before realizing that she has “landed in something that [isn’t] for her. And to what end?”

Chaos is in the air, and in the streets. “Gigantic bayonet hedgehogs raced and raced, snorting and wailing, overtaking each other and barely missing each other oncoming, and honking, warning, and turning and gnashing gears — a bacchanalia of great big hedgehogs!” This revolution will not be televised, but it is motorized. Like all great storytellers, Solzhenitsyn knows how to create a sense of place. Addresses and landmarks in Petersburg and Moscow are laid out with a cartographic precision, the better to fix the havoc of riots and pogroms in their urban locales. Solzhenitsyn gives us a guidebook to mob politics, which is undoubtedly informed by Gustave Le Bon’s classic treatise The Crowd, the foundational text of rabble studies (to coin a phrase). We are shown how a riotous assembly may accept or reject a claim to leadership advanced by this or that street orator or professional revolutionary. A speaker who looks and sounds suspiciously like the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky — he is described as “someone in a leather jacket, from the motor detachment,” where Mayakovsky was posted at the time — jumps onto a table to acrobatically harangue a group of soldiers, but to no effect. Kerensky, however, displays an ability to enthrall the same kind of audience, though his fans do not always grasp the political points he makes, taking his rhetorical flourishes — e.g., “I am prepared to die if need be!” — as the literal truth: “‘Live on!’ they shouted at him. Hands up front reached out to him.”

Throughout The Red Wheel, Lenin is the most vividly drawn historical figure, a Dostoevskian mixture of the cerebral, the nihilistic, and the mundane. In March 1917, Solzhenitsyn unfolds the Bolshevik chieftain from within. Lenin’s “head like . . . a block” houses “an apparatus for the instantaneous taking of unerring decisions,” i.e., a brain, though the socialist sachem worries that it has been infected by a sinister “mold.” He is beginning to experience the symptoms of the arteriosclerosis that eight years later will fatally ossify that decision-making organ. On the day that news of the February Revolution reaches him in Zurich, Solzhenitsyn’s antihero contemplates the city from one of the surrounding hills, longing for the picture-postcard view to be transformed into a scene of violent class conflict complete with artillery explosions and “the cries of a revolutionary crowd.” Moments later the Bolshevik boss encounters a mysterious woman on a sorrel horse: “Red, she emerged from the dark thicket, riding in the damp, pure, soundless evening.” A lovelorn Lenin sees this apparition as an image of his revolutionary mistress, Inessa Armand, but the reader may choose a different interpretation: “And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”

This article appears as “Russia’s Apocalypse” in the February 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Richard Tempest — Mr. Tempest is an associate professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Illinois whose current research focuses on the charismatic politics of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. His book Overwriting Chaos: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Fictive Worlds was recently published.

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