In Dubious Battle

August 1914

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

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Solzhenitsyn; drawing by David Levine

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…

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