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In Dubious Battle

August 1914

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Michael Glenny
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 622 pp., $10.00

Although this is a long novel, it is only the first volume of a work of many parts. In his brief Foreword the author tells us that the whole work “may take as long as twenty years” to write and that he probably “will not live to finish it.” We are obviously dealing here with an extremely ambitious project—an account in epical novelistic form of the events, including the October revolution and its aftermath, that have shaped Russia’s destiny in the twentieth century.

Clearly, Solzhenitsyn has for many years been haunted by the question of how Russia had come to find itself in its present disheartening condition. A long inquiry into history was required to discover the answer, and he decided to start with the Russian defeat in the battle of Tannenberg, which occurred during the first month of World War I, and specifically with the encirclement and destruction of General Samsonov’s Second Army, which invaded East Prussia at the beginning of August. Solzhenitsyn evidently regards this initial defeat as momentous, the decisive portent of the repeated Russian failure to halt the German advance, signifying the beginning of the disintegration of the Russian army, if not of the regime itself.

The defeat is the subject of this first volume which, freely mixing fictitious with historical characters, attempts at once to represent the battle in full detail and to elucidate the causes of its catastrophic outcome. Of course no complete judgment of Solzhenitsyn’s immense undertaking can be formed until the novel as a whole becomes available. Still, this first volume does provide us with some indications (even if only provisional ones) of the novelist’s approach to his material, his characteristic literary devices as well as his ideological position and outlook.

In spite of the efforts of the Soviet regime to stifle him we have for some time now been reading quite a bit of Solzhenitsyn, and this new novel only reinforces our conviction that he is by far the most gifted of living Russian writers and that he has the moral and intellectual stamina to continue to write powerfully in defiance of malevolent political persecution. The regime may yet kill him but so far it has been unable to silence him.

Critics have often compared him to Tolstoy, and rightly, for his manner is on the whole Tolstoyan. Yet his relationship with Tolstoy is complex and contradictory. Thus inevitably this new epic, even though unfinished, invites comparison with War and Peace; and, on the basis of my first impressions, I might as well say that Solzhenitsyn strikes me as superior to Tolstoy in his understanding of military strategy and tactics, quite as good as Tolstoy in his scenes of actual battle, but altogether inferior to him in his representation of private life (the theme of peace). Solzhenitsyn’s students, young ladies, businessmen, and “deep thinkers” are not particularly memorable when measured against such Tolstoyan characters as Natasha, Sonya, Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrey and his father. In their private and inner lives Solzhenitsyn’s people remain types whom he has not succeeded in converting into individuals. But the greater part of his novel, and certainly his most masterful scenes, of which there are many, pertain to war rather than to peace.

Solzhenitsyn’s narrative of the war tells us what happens both from the viewpoint of the rank-and-file and from that of the higher-ups, the commanders in the field as well as the staff officers in the rear. The result is a highly comprehensive view of war, and in this respect he truly reminds us of Tolstoy, who also endeavored to understand war from the vantage point both of the commanders and of the common soldiers.

However, at a crucial point the paths of the two novelists diverge very sharply. Whereas Tolstoy made every effort to idealize both the personality and the strategy of his commander-in-chief, General Kutuzov, Solzhenitsyn exposes nearly all of his generals, each of them based on the actual leaders of the Russian army, as incompetents and time-servers. His “ponderous and baffled” General Samsonov, who commits suicide after losing his troops, is treated sympathetically and is shown as the victim of the confusion and disorganization that prevail at General Headquarters.

Solzhenitsyn takes great pains to expose and analyze in depth the course of the catastrophe. Though undersupplied and underequipped, the Russian soldiers are shown to be brave enough, but time and again betrayed by the corruption, ineptness, and sheer lack of know-how of the military leadership. Because of outmoded methods of communication and confusing and contradictory orders, many divisions are needlessly sacrificed. Even as the Russian generals vainly seek to ascertain the disposition of the enemy forces, they are so stupidly incautious that they send uncoded wireless messages, which are of course regularly intercepted by the Germans. Sukhomlinov, the Minister of War, is a military ignoramus who owes his high position to intrigue and his flattery of the tsar. Some of the younger graduates of the Military Academy, known as the “Young Turks,” have been preparing themselves for years to introduce military reform only to be frustrated and put down by their seniors, whose smugness and conceit are boundless.

For Solzhenitsyn, the inefficiency of the Russian command is in no sense a historical accident. It is a major symptom of the backwardness and incompetence of the tsarist regime, which “granted no power or influence to anyone not fortunate enough to be close to the throne.” Furthermore, as Solzhenitsyn sees it, the Russian invasion of East Prussia only a few weeks after the declaration of war was a grave strategic error, for the Russian army was ill prepared to carry through such a bold undertaking; the advance was much too precipitous and badly coordinated. Solzhenitsyn for the most part does not use generalizations to show what happened. In clear and vigorous narrative prose he describes dozens of vivid scenes taking place throughout the battlefield as the Russians stumble into the German trap, scenes that obviously have affinities with those in War and Peace.

But it soon becomes clear that the mentality of Kutuzov is anathema to Solzhenitsyn, and because of this he enters into a direct polemic against Tolstoy in passages of commentary as well as in the fiction itself. For example, in writing of the Russian defeat, he remarks that “there might appear to be some consolation in Tolstoy’s conviction that it is not generals who lead armies,…not presidents or leaders who run states or political parties—were it not that all too often the twentieth century has proved to us that it is such men who do these things.” And further on the polemic is continued in the sardonic portrait of General Blagoveshchensky, who “had read’ about Kutuzov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and at sixty years of age, gray-haired, fat, and stiff, he felt himself to be just like Kutuzov….”

Like Kutuzov he was wary, cautious, and cunning. And like Tolstoy’s Kutuzov he realized that one should never issue sharp, decisive instructions; that “nothing but confusion could result from a battle started against one’s will”; that “military matters go their own way, which they are fated to follow whether or not it corresponds to what men propose”; that “there is an inevitable course of events”; and that the best general is the one who “declines to participate in these events.” His long military service had convinced the general of the correctness of Tolstoy’s views; there was nothing worse than sticking one’s neck out by using one’s initiative—people who did so always got into trouble.

This is clear enough, and of course Blagoveshchensky’s “wise” Tolstoyan passivity, his determination not to stick his neck out, contributes to the catastrophe at Tannenberg. In fact throughout the book Solzhenitsyn seizes every opportunity to expose Kutuzovism, the very qualities of mind and character of which Tolstoy was so enamored and into which he read the essence of Russianism. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, is a military activist, an exponent of intelligence, skill, organization, and modernization. He advocates a kind of technocratic efficiency in military as well as civilian affairs. Hence, if the novel can be said to have a single hero, it is surely Colonel Vorotyntsev, a staff officer who turns up at every important juncture of the action, who admires modern German military methodology, and who refuses “to sit at General Headquarters as a pen-pusher…at a time when a hazardous maneuver of the utmost boldness was being put into effect in Prussia.”

Unlike the generals, Vorotyntsev appears to be Solzhenitsyn’s own creation and he is the intelligence of the novel. Perfectly aware of stodginess and sloth of the Russian generals, he is nevertheless a patriot who believes that Russia is “immeasurably strong, even if she is governed by a pack of fools.” Convinced of that strength, the consciousness of defeat, far from demoralizing him, compels him openly to denounce his superiors at a conference presided over by the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich himself, with the result that his career is cut short when he is ordered by the grand-duke to leave the room for overstepping “the bounds of what is permissible.” It is plain that this clear-headed colonel speaks for the author and that he will reappear in later volumes. Whether he will eventually join the Bolsheviks remains to be seen.

However, there is another side to the novel, which, in contrast to its bias toward the technocratic and the instrumental, is traditionally Russian and patently indebted to the Tolstoyan model. The peasant-soldier Blagodaryov, whom Vorotyntsev chooses from the trenches as his orderly and who accompanies him on some of his most dangerous missions, is directly reminiscent of Platon Karatayev, the peasant-soldier in War and Peace whom Pierre encounters in a French prison and from whom he absorbs the teaching that the supreme values of life are simplicity, truthfulness, and goodness. The very surname Blagodaryov (the root-word is blaga, which might be translated as gratitude or even beneficence) speaks for itself. He is cheerful, modest, and good, even when undergoing the worst trials. There is in him, we are told, “a great fund of simple humanity—a goodness that had nothing to do with rank, class, or politics but was the unspoiled simplicity of Nature herself.”

Moreover, the sturdy ideal qualities of Karatayev-Blagodaryov are associated with Solzhenitsyn’s admiration for another very Russian trait, as when he exultingly observes that “no disaster, no amount of bloodshed, is ever enough to galvanize Russians out of their passive endurance.” In this admiration of suffering in passive endurance Solzhenitsyn is clearly at one with both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He fails to perceive the extreme ambiguity of this conspicuous Russian trait. It is by no means the purely positive quality that Solzhenitsyn, like his great predecessors, takes it to be. There is something about it which one can only regard as insidious. For, after all, did not this Russian compliance and acquiescence in passive suffering make possible the emergence of both the tsarist and Stalinist autocracy?

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