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 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?

Another Russian writer, Vasily Grossman, debates this question in his recent novel Forever Flowing.* He ponders the paradox that runs throughout Russian history, the paradox that there exists in the same people a “meekness and readiness to endure suffering…unequaled since the epoch of the first Christians” together with a “contempt for and disregard of human suffering” as well as a certain subservience to abstract theories on human welfare. He contends that the great Russian writers, the radicals no less than the reactionaries, idealized Karatayevism as singularly Russian and noble and therefore vastly to be preferred to the mushy liberalism of the West.

Grossman concludes that in “the Russian fascination with Byzantine, ascetic purity, with Christian meekness, lives the unwitting admission of the permanence of Russian slavery. The sources of this Christian meekness and gentleness, of this Byzantine, ascetic purity” are also discernible in the “Leninist passion, fanaticism, and intolerance.” It is clear that this trend of thought is completely alien to Solzhenitsyn, who sometimes seems to accept uncritically the Russian tradition even while contradicting it in advocating efficiency and modernization so forcefully. Looked at purely as a novelistic character, Blagodaryov is truly admirable, but what he represents is a profound attachment to the Russian past, which is obviously at odds with the technocratic and practical bias that pervades the novel.

August 1914 makes plain that its author is above all a Russian rather than a Soviet patriot. His Russianism, as I have mentioned, is of a very traditional sort, so much so that at times one feels that his position might be described as quasi-Slavophile. In this sense he has really more in common with Dostoevsky than with Tolstoy. His manner and tone in this novel are Tolstoyan, to be sure; he in no way shares Dostoevsky’s obsession with pathological and criminal states of mind, nor is he drawn to the famous Dostoevskyan “lacerations.” Yet ideologically, mainly because of his mystical, religious populism, he is closer to Dostoevsky than to Tolstoy, who, after all, was a stanch pacifist and whose version of the Christian doctrine transcended every form of nationalism. Solzhenitsyn is a Christian believer of the Orthodox variety but he is no pacifist. He is also a passionate nationalist. This fact emerges in many passages of the novel, as, for example, in the following speech of the engineer Ilya Isakovich to a group of revolutionary young people:

“The country one lives in is in trouble. So which is right: to say, ‘Go to hell, I’ll have none of you,’ or to say, ‘I want to help you, I belong here’? Living in this country, one must make up one’s mind once and for all and stick to one’s decision. Do I really belong to it heart and soul? Or don’t I? If I don’t, then I can smash it or leave it, it makes no difference which I do…. But if I do belong to it, then I must adapt myself to the slow process of history, by work, by persuasion and gradual change….”

Ilya Isakovich and his guest the engineer Obodovsky are the civilian counterparts of Colonel Vorotyntsev, and they are rather more explicit than he is in declaring their contempt for the radical traditions of the intelligentsia. Obodovsky argues that

“…anyone who has created something with his own hands knows that production is neither capitalist nor socialist but one thing only: it is what creates national wealth…. Along come a bunch of arts students and they explain to the workers that they are earning too little, and that that little engineer over there in spectacles is earning God knows how much, and that it’s sheer bribery. And these simple, uneducated people believe it and they are indignant….”

“I believe,” Obodovsky says, “the Union of Engineers could easily become one of the leading forces in Russia. It’s more important and more constructive than any political party.” He promises, “Give us ten years of peaceful development and you won’t recognize Russia industry—or Russian agriculture for that matter.” This technocratic mystique is one of the dominant motifs of the novel, and it is clear that the author is fully in sympathy with it.

To my mind there is something profoundly unpolitical in this mystique of technocracy. Where, in what country, have engineers ever seized power or even aspired to do so? In the United States as in all other Western countries of high technology the corporate elite is firmly in control and the engineers they employ knuckle under. They invariably carry out the decisions of their bosses, who are far more interested in financial manipulation than in the specific skills their engineers possess. After all, it is the communists who finally succeeded in industrializing Russia, while the Russian engineers worked under Lenin, Stalin, and now Brezhnev and Kosygin with the same docility that their Western counterparts exhibit in servicing the big corporations. His new books shows that Solzhenitsyn is in no sense a Marxist; he is a nationalist and a patriot, a belated narodnik whose mystic-religious populism oddly accords with his technological and pragmatic inclinations. There is an inherent contradiction, and a rather bizarre one at that, in trying to combine the two positions—of which, surprisingly enough, Solzhenitsyn appears to be quite unaware, at least in the first volume.

In addition to Vorotyntsev and the two engineers, there is another fictional character in the novel, Varsonofiev, who is presented as a “deep thinker” and whose sole function seems to be that of voicing the author’s philosophical views. In an argument with two radical students Varsonofiev expresses approval of the war, for, as he puts it, “When the trumpet sounds, a man must be a man, even if merely for his own self-respect.” Russia’s backbone must not be broken, “and for that, young men must go to war.” So much for Lenin’s program of revolutionary defeatism! Varsonofiev asserts, “Do not be so arrogant as to imagine that you can invent an ideal social order, because with that invention you may destroy your beloved ‘people.”‘ In his view “history is irrational… It has its own, and to us perhaps incomprehensible, organic structure.” The worst mistake one can make is to believe that history is “governed by reason.”

The ideas expounded by Varsonofiev, who is allotted only one scene in the novel, are crucial to Solzhenitsyn’s view of the world. Once the premise that history is irrational is accepted, then not only Marxism but all other theories of history as well cease to make sense. Or does Solzhenitsyn suppose that only small, limited segments of history are open to rational analysis? Surely he must assume this, for otherwise I cannot see how he can reconcile the strenuous efforts of his hero Vorotyntsev to discover the causes of Russia’s defeat with the assumption, which he seems to endorse, that the historical process is wholly irrational and incomprehensible. If that assumption were correct, it would be futile for Solzhenitsyn to concern himself so deeply and seriously with Russia’s destiny, which, after all, cannot be exempted from the forces of history.

There is only one convinced Marxist among the many soldiers portrayed in this novel, and he is the young ensign Sasha Lenartovich, who is prepared to lay down his life any moment for the great cause of the revolution, and can think of nothing worse than “to die at the age of twenty-four defending autocracy.” He looks forward to Russia’s defeat, believing as he does in the Leninist policy of “the worse, the better.” Lenartovich seeks to escape the war by surrendering to the Germans and in that aim he fails. He will probably turn up in later volumes as an officer in the Red Army. It is to Solzhenitsyn’s credit that he manages to be scrupulously fair in his fictional rendering of this revolutionary type. But that he finds Lenartovich no hero is clear. The characters with whom he does seem to identify—Vorotyntsev, the engineers, and Varsonofiev—are patriotic to the core.

Solzhenitsyn is a hero of Russian intellectual resistance to the vicious cultural policies of the present Soviet regime. He is also a very fine writer of fiction whose work will surely become a part of the canon of Russian literature. I do not think that the impression of confusion and turbidity conveyed by his more general ideas should count much against him. Tolstoy’s ideas of history, presented so insistently in War and Peace, are equally open to criticism, yet we do not hesitate to accord that novel the very highest stature; nor does Dostoevsky’s reactionary obscurantism prevent us from appreciating his great importance as an imaginative creator; I for one have never been prepared to judge works of fiction by subjecting them to a political-ideological test, for to do so is inevitably to lose oneself in a maze of considerations that are beside the point of literature. To be sure, ideological awareness and political attention are by no means to be eschewed by the literary critic, but in the last analysis he cannot afford to permit his own bias, whether radical or conservative, to overpower his judgment and perceptions.

In my opinion, August 1914 is not Solzhenitsyn’s chef-d’oeuvre. However, let us keep in mind the fact that it is only the first volume of a much longer work. When complete, it may indeed turn out to be the masterpiece we have every reason to expect of him.

In Memoriam: Alexander Tvardovsky

There are many ways of killing a poet—the method chosen for Tvardovsky was to take away his offspring, his passion, his journal.

The sixteen years of insults meekly endured by this hero were as nothing so long as his journal survived, so long as literature was not stopped, so long as people could be printed in it, so long as people could go on reading it. But then they heaped the coals of disbandment, destruction and mortification upon him, and within six months these coals had consumed him. Within six months he took to his deathbed; and only his characteristic fortitude sustained him till now, to last drop of his consciousness, of his suffering.

Third day. The portrait over the coffin shows the dead man still only forty, his brow unfurrowed by the sweetly bitter burdens of his journal, radiant with that childishly luminescent trust that he managed to carry with him throughout his mortal life and that returned to him even when he was already doomed.

To that best of all music they bear wreaths, they bear wreaths—“From Soviet soldiers.”…And with reason. I remember how the lads at the front as one man preferred the marvel of his trusty “Tyorkin” to all other wartime books. And let us remember too how army libraries were forbidden to subscribe to Novy Mir, and how not so long ago men were hauled before the CO for questioning for reading the light blue journal.

And now the whole gang from the Writers’ Union has flopped onto the scene. The guard of honor comprises that same flabby crowd that hunted him down with unholy shrieks and cries. Yes, it’s and old old custom of ours, it was the same with Pushkin: it is precisely into the hands of his enemies that the dead poet falls. And they hastily dispose of the body, covering up with glib speeches.

They crowd round the coffin in a solid ring and think they have fenced it off. Just as they destroyed our only journal and think they have won.

But you need to be deaf and blind to the last century of Russia’s history to regard this as a victory and not an irreparable blunder.

Madmen! When the voices of the young resound, keen-edged, how you will miss this patient critic, whose gentle admonitory voice was heeded by all. Then you will be set to tear the earth with your hands for the sake of returning Trifonich. But then it will be too late.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

This Issue

October 5, 1972