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God and the Devil

August 1914: The Red Wheel/Knot I

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 854 pp., $19.95 (paper)

It has become the fashion to write off Solzhenitsyn as a has-been, an old fuddy-duddy, still lamenting in voluminous pages at longer and longer intervals the disappearance of Holy Russia, and castigating now not so much the Soviet regime as the new-style Russian intelligentsia, both those in exile and those still in their own homeland. Intellectuals like Andrei Sinyavsky, who used to smuggle his books out to the West to be published under the nom de plume of Abram Tertz, make no secret of the fact that they find Solzhenitsyn’s attitudes and personality decidedly uncongenial, even though they admire his past work, and particularly his first short, brilliant tale from the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Sinyavsky has suffered trial and imprisonment under the same tyranny as Solzhenitsyn himself, and has shown the same courage and steadfastness, but his satirical fantasies, and particularly his recent free-wheeling memoir, Goodnight!, could hardly be more different in style and outlook from Solzhenitsyn’s sober traditionalism.* The same goes for Sinyavsky’s friend and fellow-sufferers Yuli Daniel, Vladimir Voinovich, and Alexander Zinoviev, as well as other contemporary Russian creators of imaginative fictional polemics. As with their western counterparts, new techniques incline them to present the whole of history, and organized social life in general, as a bad joke, with the Soviet establishment representing just one particularly ripe source of black humor. Their glee may be more spontaneous and more good-natured, more generously and traditionally Russian than that heard from writers in the West, but it is essentially of the same kind.

Solzhenitsyn is a writer of a different vintage, a throwback to the heavy earnestness of the nineteenth century, to the days of Darwin, Marx, and Tolstoy. It is now routine to depreciate his “Tolstoyan” characteristics, which in August 1914 are certainly invoked with a heavy hand, but when all is said some of Tolstoy’s greatness as a writer does seem reborn in Solzhenitsyn’s pages. You cannot have one side of Tolstoy without the other: the universal crank, the solipsist and religious dogmatist were, so to speak, feeding the titanic and almost involuntary artist who could reveal the nature of life and humanity with such sureness and on such a scale. As prig and crank, obsessed with his own diagnosis and his own solution, Solzhenitsyn can seem almost a parody of his great predecessor, but the quality of artistry goes with the parody nonetheless.

This appears again and again in August 1914, and with Tolstoy’s sort of seeming inadvertence. After the Battle of Borodino Pierre meets up with some soldiers, and goes with them through the night till he finds his own friends looking for him. The soldiers watch with kindly paternal interest the meeting of their new friend with his former acquaintance, and after a few farewells disappear into the dark. In August 1914, after the disastrous battle of Tannenberg, remnants of an infantry platoon set off for home through the East Prussian forest, carrying their dead colonel with them. The handicap on their strength and speed is very great, but they blunder on with dogged perversity, refusing to put the body down. Neither scene is in the least emphatic, but both contain in mysterious abundance that sense of existence at its most profoundly casual which great artists like Titian or Shakespeare possess.

But the bad news is still to come. Despite such moments, and they are by no means infrequent, the dogmatist and the artist in Solzhenitsyn do not invisibly support each other, as they do in Tolstoy, but get fatally mixed up. It is as if Tolstoy had insisted on going on with War and Peace and Anna Karenina, adding long didactic sequences, fresh expository chapters, puppet characters to take sides in an unceasing rigged debate. Solzhenitsyn’s art never knows when it has done enough: his Russian contains many oddities but his style is not really polyphonic. It has space though, and in a sense this spaciousness, this Russian shirokost, has its own impressiveness, especially in an age when novels tend to be self-consciously ludic performances on a miniature scale.

But the price paid is far too great. It is too obviously the result of fixation. In 1937 the youthful Solzhenitsyn had already determined to write a kind of War and Peace about the Russian Revolution, an ambition commonplace at the time among zealous young practitioners of Socialist Realism. His views on the Revolution were already forthright and independent, although by no means so implacably hostile as they were to become over the long years of his imprisonment and persecution. But Solzhenitsyn’s mind and heart were probably even then of the kind which Yeats describes in “Easter, 1916”:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.

After his arrest in East Prussia in the first days of 1945 for making critical remarks about Stalin in a letter addressed to a fellow-officer serving on another front, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his head and memorized, for in jail he had nothing to write with or on, a remarkable narrative poem in Pushkinian meter, published many years later with the title “Prussian Nights.” (Pushkin wrote a lighthearted fragmentary poem called “Egyptian Nights.”) This described his experiences as an artillery captain in the intoxicating days of the Russian advance into East Prussia as the German army crumbled. Though its verse is frankly pastiche it is full of gaiety and pride in the army’s ability to mount its lightning campaign, pride in his own men, too, and his own technical abilities. The poem is full of brilliant glimpses of action and killing, together with a rather unconvincing, even priggish, show of pity toward the civilian victims of Stalin’s krov za krov (blood for blood) policy.

The poem might have been written by any high-minded young officer with literary talents, proud of his side’s achievements though careful to deplore the horrors of war. Solzhenitsyn’s sudden arrest, while German shells were falling a few yards away, and his conveyance back to the Lubianka prison in Moscow, are marvelously described in The Oak and the Calf, the lengthy memoir in prose of his experiences, written twenty years or so after the event. Written solely from the standpoint of his own experience of Soviet folly and tyranny, the account is a mordantly comic prelude to the world of the Gulag, and carries no trace of a divided or bewildered self which the poem of a young man still traumatized by his arrest rather touchingly exhibits. The poem breaks off with Solzhenitsyn’s sergeant major bringing him as war booty a German farm girl, who simply begs not to be shot.

Naturally enough there is none of this vivid immediacy in August 1914, even though its detailed survey of the armies’ movements on East Prussian terrain, and its sketches of commanders, like the Russian General Samsonov and the German von François, make compulsive reading, despite their often inordinate length. Solzhenitsyn reconstructs it all with the most painstaking labor and scholarship, greater even no doubt than Tolstoy’s over the War of 1812. But Tolstoy had the great advantage of celebrating what he saw as a communal Russian effort to drive out the invader, an effort in which ordinary people and aristocrats were united in a single purpose.

In the background of Solzhenitsyn’s accounts there is an invisible and unadmitted contradiction. The greatest achievement of the Soviet state, which can do no good in his eyes, was the total defeat of Hitler’s war machine after four years of desperate conflict, in which the author himself had an honorable part. The regime for which he feels such single-minded hatred beat a bestial enemy and won the war, while the old Russia to which he looks back collapsed into humiliating defeat. In 1905, when the Japanese captured Port Arthur, Tolstoy the patriarchal pacifist was very angry, and swore that he and his former artillerymen could have held out much longer. But Solzhenitsyn’s singlemindedness ignores this sort of contradiction, not even giving the Soviet state the credit for being able to wage successful war, or exploiting the irony that the system which can make a couple of million Kalashnikovs—the best automatic rifle now available—and export them to troublemakers throughout the world, cannot adequately feed and clothe its civilian population.

Like Tolstoy, and like many academic historians, Solzhenitsyn is obsessed with causes. What exactly brought about the revolution? He evidently believes he is sure to find this out if he can get at all the data available. He wrote the first (and surely the better) version of August 1914 while still in Russia, and the new version, appearing seventeen years after the original translation, was essential for his own purposes because it contains much material available to his researches after his exile to the West. One cannot but admire such obsessive dedication, and the impression it gives of a man who writes not to catch an immediate public but for the centuries to come. No haste, no deadlines. October 1916 and March 1917, running to four volumes and 2,800 pages, are already written, and a fourth long installment nearly completed; but they can wait—as can an indefinite number of later installments still to be written—while the first is reissued in a properly revised and perfected form.

Megalomania brings its own literary nemesis, and Solzhenitsyn’s many additions, together with the manner in which they are composed, have taken away much of the life of the original: the Red Wheel—standing for the revolution, the chaos of history, the locomotive juggernaut of armies and new movements—is a piece of heavy symbolism that never justifies itself. Lengthy dialogues take place between a young girl, Veronika, and her two liberal-minded aunts, representative of the weightless intelligentsia of prewar Russia which Solzhenitsyn despises as much as he does its modern equivalent. Lenin, the villain who has already appeared in a separately published section called Lenin in Zurich, is one of the few characters who are really alive, thus illustrating the old truth, so embarrassing in Milton’s Paradise Lost, that the devil and not God is always going to have the best tunes. The artist in Solzhenitsyn understands and responds to Lenin—his deviousness, his timidity coupled with the desperate boldness of a gambler, his “merry rascal” look, combining the old style of a Russian barin with the sharpness of an Armenian melon seller. But the man whom Solzhenitsyn worships, Piotr Stolypin (1862–1911), the strong reforming prewar prime minister, remains a pious ikon, and—worse—a stream of consciousness for Solzhenitsyn’s own views, dreams, obsessions.

Stolypin was certainly a remarkable man, one of the very few tsarist ministers who not only saw what should be done but had the will and personal courage to try to carry it out. In an age and society in which, to quote Yeats again, the best lacked all conviction and were paralyzed by the passionate intensity of the revolutionary theorists, Stolypin’s vision and policy remained both rational and practical. He was determined to give land to the peasants, to give them a stake and a share in the status quo, and his policy was so successful that in years before the war the percentage of small holdings in many parts of Russia had come to be larger and more productive than the old landed estates.

Solzhenitsyn is by no means the first to praise Stolypin’s achievements, and to deplore the jealous and treacherous attitude toward him of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and courtiers. But to present him as Russia’s potential Saviour (“He brought light to the world and the world rejected him”) strains credence too far. Stolypin was, on the contrary, the only Russian statesman to see politics as the art of the possible, in the western sense. His removal was unfortunate, but capitalism and land reform might well have continued in a more muddled way without him, and as Solzhenitsyn knows quite well, and shows in abundance, the closet revolutionaries of Lenin and his faction could never have come to power in Russia if it had not been for the insane disaster of the war. Stolypin was himself ruthless in running an autocracy; and as Tomas Venclova has pointed out there is a certain irony in the fact that right-wing elements in the Soviet Union today regard both Lenin and Stolypin with the reverence due to Führerprinzip.

Called to power to deal with the aftermath of the 1905 rebellion, Stolypin had a bare five years in office before his assassination in a Kiev theater in 1911. The murderer, Bogrov, was probably a double agent of the Okhrana, the tsar’s secret police, and the prime minister’s death may have been as welcome to the regime as to the revolutionaries, who hated and feared a man who had brought about a measure of Russian peasant prosperity. Solzhenitsyn certainly makes much of the fact that Bogrov came of a Jewish family, though a converted one, and that one of his motives may have been revulsion against the rising level of pogroms and anti-Jewish violence in South Russia. This was local police policy, not Stolypin’s: the prime minister was not in the least anti-Semitic, but persecution was naturally associated with him. To accuse Solzhenitsyn of himself showing anti-Semitism in his historical investigations makes no sense, however. Jews in Russia sided with revolutionaries for the same reason that Irish Catholics support the IRA, and the early Bolshevik movement contained a high proportion of them—indeed Lenin himself was partly Jewish. But Solzhenitsyn reserves his contempt and displeasure for revolutionaries and for the intelligentsia, not for Jews as such.

If only Solzhenitsyn’s alter ego in August 1914 were a bit more like Tolstoy’s Prince Andrew, or possessed the life and comicality of Pierre! Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev is a worthy but humorless professional, whose habit of being right about everything seems to go unnoticed by his creator. And the girls in the book are as dull as the boys, mostly doomed, like them, to pointing the moral rather than adorning the tale. Solzhenitsyn is determined to take issue with Tolstoy’s view of history as the inexorable and impersonal unwinding of vast dimly perceived forces, and to show how it is in fact determined very largely by individuals, their fortunes and fates; but though there is probably a lot of truth in this view of the matter, the individuals themselves—with the exception of Lenin—are not, in the artist’s presentation, up to the lively and dynamic role he demands of them.

Nonetheless one continues to read, fascinated. This is history as it used to be, with the historian’s character, his quirks and obsessions, knitted into the narrative as firmly as the facts, dates, personalities that already swarm there. Academic history in our time has become a bloodless affair, and historical narrative in novel form in most cases a mere free-wheeling fantasy, a field in which the novelist himself is sole creator. Solzhenitsyn would in any case probably ignore or brush aside impatiently any criticisms or reservations about his work that come from the West. His firm intention, and it is an intensely serious and honorable one, is to offer at last a true history of the revolution to the Russian reading public, a public which has been fed on lies and legends for generations, but which—paradoxically—has retained just for that reason an old-fashioned appetite for history and the historical novel. It is easy to see why Dr. Zhivago has now been allowed to appear in Russia, for a famous poet’s subjective view of his life and times is something easily accommodated in the new glasnost. Solzhenitsyn’s enormous, and determinedly subversive undertaking may prove another matter, although parts of The Gulag Archipelago have once been published in Novy Mir.

However that goes, I for one look forward with satisfaction and complacency to the prospect of many more volumes to come…an apparently endless good read. The poet Valéry, and many others too, have pointed out that a great writer creates a work that is unrecognizable by its intentions. If history is coming to an end, as intellectuals now claim in Washington and Paris, it is likely to survive all the more positively as literature. War and Peace has superseded Tolstoy’s dogged determination to set the record straight about the Decembrist origins in the war against Napoleon. But Tolstoy insisted that War and Peace was not a novel, and Solzhenitsyn is equally determined to avoid the term, describing his project as “a narrative in discrete periods of time.” Whatever the genre, will it survive as War and Peace has done, perhaps offering inspiration and relaxation in the wars and crises of the future? Or will it become an exotic event, a curiosity of literature, with a flavor like that of Carlyle or Scott, to be relished in time by only a few?

  1. *

    to be published in the US in December by Viking.

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