For Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, no literary form was ever sufficiently capacious. Three gargantuan works dominated his creative life. The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, on which his reputation mainly rests, chronicles in three volumes the history of Soviet forced labor camps. It earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 and forced exile from the Soviet Union in 1974, the first official expulsion since Leon Trotsky had been deported to Turkey in 1929. Solzhenitsyn himself regarded The Red Wheel, a series of novels about the Russian Revolution, as his major contribution to literature. These novels posed a question: Why and how did the unprecedented horror described in The Gulag Archipelago occur? The answers Solzhenitsyn arrived at shaped his third great project, four volumes of memoirs.
The Red Wheel is divided into four “nodes,”1 some of which contain more than one volume; each node focuses on a specific short period encapsulating important events that led to the catastrophe of Bolshevik rule. The first two nodes, August 1914 and November 1916, superb works that overflow the conventional form of historical novels, are followed by four long volumes devoted to the third node, March 1917, which recounts events from March 8 to March 31, 1917. The final node, April 1917, still untranslated, encompasses two more volumes. The third volume of March 1917, now available in an exceptionally fine rendition by Marian Schwartz, is especially riveting. It makes a splendid companion to the last volume of Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs, the recently translated second part of Between Two Millstones, which casts the Gorbachev years as an eerie repeat of 1917.
Taken together, the two volumes of Between Two Millstones describe Solzhenitsyn’s life from the time he was expelled from the USSR until his return in 1994. (After considering several places in Europe and North America, he eventually settled in Cavendish, Vermont, which reminded him of Russia and which afforded the isolation needed to work on The Red Wheel.) The title Between Two Millstones refers primarily to the surprising hostility to, and absurd mischaracterization of, his views that the author faced in the West. The same intellectual and press circles that had celebrated his courage when he was in the USSR now often became relentless critics because, Solzhenitsyn explains, he did not share conventional American left-leaning ideas but instead held positions that did not fit existing Western categories. He therefore found himself caught between Soviet and Western “millstones,” both vilifying him and attributing to him intolerant opinions he did not hold.
Solzhenitsyn identified in Western intellectual circles the same smug narrow-mindedness that he had discovered in liberal Russian intellectuals before the revolution. The core moment in these volumes occurs when, as Solzhenitsyn writes,
a leading [Canadian] television commentator lectured me that I presumed to judge the experience of the world from the viewpoint of my own limited Soviet and prison-camp experience. Indeed, how true! Life and death, imprisonment and hunger, the cultivation of the soul despite the captivity of the body: how very limited that is compared to the bright world of political parties, yesterday’s numbers on the stock exchange, amusements without end, and exotic foreign travel!
Solzhenitsyn had himself once celebrated the Russian liberals and socialists who ran the Provisional Government overthrown by the Bolsheviks, but Western archives—and perhaps his encounters with Westerners—led him to an entirely different view. The members of the Provisional Government and their supporters were so incompetent, self-satisfied, and willing to suppress any insufficiently progressive opinion that tyranny was bound to triumph. Solzhenitsyn detected the same mindset among liberal Russian reformers in the 1990s and feared another descent into authoritarian rule.
There were two Russian revolutions in 1917. In February (March by present reckoning) Tsar Nicholas II, one of the most foolish people ever to occupy a throne, abdicated. Mob violence, greeted by the educated with the naive ecstasy of “February fever,” unleashed the chaos that allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power in October (now November). Unlike the tsar or the Provisional Government that succeeded him, Lenin’s party did not hesitate to use extreme violence. The infamous Cheka (secret police, ancestor of the NKVD, OGPU, and KGB) was in operation before 1917 was over. The weaklings of the Duma proved as strategically inept as Lenin was brilliant.
Not all intellectuals allowed the excitement of revolution to blind them. In the recently translated volume of the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s interviews with the critic Victor Duvakin in 1973, Bakhtin recalled his reaction to the February revolution. Since it was still dangerous to express such views, he asked Duvakin not to record them, but Duvakin published Bakhtin’s comments anyway:
BAKHTIN: I’ll tell you this, but there’s no need to record it…
DUVAKIN: We can erase it later…. Or we don’t have to transcribe it, if you prefer.
BAKHTIN: I did not welcome the February Revolution. I thought, or I should say in my circle we believed that it’ll all certainly end very badly. We knew well, by the way, the leaders…of the February Revolution…. We were of the opinion that all those intellectuals were utterly incompetent to govern, they were incompetent to defend the February Revolution…. So, inevitably, the extreme left, the Bolsheviks would take over.2
The wisest fictional characters of March 1917 appreciate what is really going on: during a world war, with German armies advancing rapidly into Russian territory, revolutionaries were calling on soldiers to murder their officers. Mobs looted and killed as work came to a standstill. Such a power vacuum invited the most ruthless organized group to seize power. Solzhenitsyn imagines Lenin thinking, “There was a void in Petersburg…that was suckingly waiting, calling for—his force.”
Anarchy, starvation, and invasion loom, but the word “revolution” blinds most intellectuals. “Revolution! There was, after all, something attractive and inviting in that sound,” they think. “Revolution! The music of the moment!” “Universal brotherhood was now coming!” Instead of seeing reality, these intellectuals imagine themselves strutting on the stage of History. “How could you not light up at the thought that you were taking part in Russia’s moments of greatness!” the third volume of March 1917 begins. “This moment—dreamed of, longed for, by so many generations of the Russian intelligentsia…here it had come.” Almost everyone views events through a haze of romanticized parallels with the French Revolution. We must seize our Bastille, they feel, but what is it? Play “The Marseillaise”! Ludicrously, Mikhail Rodzyanko, the president of the Duma, decides that the revolution has gone far enough, and now must stop. But what is to stop it?
The novel’s fictional heroine, the historian Olda Andozerskaya, recognizes the radical difference between reality and newspaper accounts:
Every Petersburger had seen the revolution with his own eyes. But with the first newspaper page they were told about something quite different. There were vague mentions of “excesses” and “anarchy.”… Everyone knew that soldiers were going from apartment to apartment and stealing, but the newspapers wrote: “thieves and hooligans dressed as soldiers”—as if hooligans were some known social class, or it was so easy for lots of people to dress as soldiers.
Having proclaimed “the Revolution” bloodless, newspaper accounts even referred to the thousands of executed people “as ‘deceased’ rather than killed.”
“The lie became the principle of newspapers starting from the very first day of this unchecked freedom,” Andozerskaya reflects. When they reported that arrested officers—recently regarded as war heroes—had been magnanimously allowed to receive a bed in prison and food from home, it really meant that they weren’t being fed or given a place to sleep. Journalists and intellectuals had long demanded freedom of the press but now suppressed any publication deemed insufficiently radical.
In each Red Wheel novel, Solzhenitsyn explores the mentality leading educated people to conform to prevailing opinion even when it contradicts their most cherished principles. Before the revolution, Andozerskaya shocked her students by saying that a historian writes the truth even when it does not support progressive opinion. Now she reflects:
The newspapers were disgusting, yes, but that was because they spewed society’s vile epidemic: the fear of standing out from everyone else…. Now that the “police inspector was gone” and “we can breathe,” people’s greatest fear was standing out from everyone else…. The dictatorship of the current.
Lenin supposedly remarked that “when we are ready to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope,” but in Solzhenitsyn’s (generally accurate) account, capitalists were even more self-destructive. Wealthy businessmen and other well-placed people destined to be shot implored bloodthirsty revolutionaries to accept sizable cash contributions. Liberal generals and admirals, who immediately proclaimed their allegiance to the revolution and the new Provisional Government, were lynched anyway. Solzhenitsyn describes their pathetic confusion. Meanwhile Nicholas II, whom Solzhenitsyn portrays as a softhearted idiot, reasons that “in [good] weather like this, no evil deed could take place. God would not allow it.” Only Bolsheviks grasp “the unusual nature of revolutionary situations” and the dynamics of power.
Almost without exception, the members of the Provisional Government could do no more than assume revolutionary poses and make speeches inspiring to intellectuals but beyond the comprehension of workers and soldiers. The “paramount principle” to which Prince Lvov, the first head of the Provisional Government, adheres “was belief and trust. Belief in people, all people, our holy people.” To the suggestion that police should put a limit to anarchy and murder, he replies, “Why does a free state need police at all?” Lvov recoils at the very idea of resolute action. “Ah, ‘decisive measures,’ that’s not our language,” he thinks, “it is unworthy of a free alliance of free people. My dear fellows, why so ominous?”
The radical Aleksandr Kerensky, intoxicated by his own voice, supposes he can defeat anarchy and Bolshevism by sheer charisma. Only Vladimir Nabokov, the progressive politician (and father of the novelist) who was murdered by monarchists in 1922 in Berlin, acts competently. He wonders that his colleagues “had no idea how to operate, how to translate thoughts and votes into legislation…. A decision was approved before it had any text, unaccompanied by any figures or budget,” and orders were given that made no sense or could not be implemented. Politicians neglected “the most fundamental act,” establishing their authority in the provinces.
Solzhenitsyn writes so harshly about the liberal Kadets (Constitutional Democrats) and non-Bolshevik socialists of the Provisional Government because he himself had adhered to the common assumption—still predominant in the West—that the February revolution represented Russia’s great hope instead of a stage leading directly to Bolshevism. He began writing The Red Wheel, he explains in Between Two Millstones, under the spell of such ideas, “and they were scattered throughout [his novel] First Circle, for example, and the first edition of Archipelago.” It was only in the mid-1970s, when he consulted archives preserved in the West, that he recognized his mistake. The slide from February to October was a continuous process and Bolshevism its natural outcome. The Red Wheel, he decided, would narrate “the inglorious, six-month-long story of how the ‘victorious’ democracy (fabricated, in Russia, by the educated types) foundered, helpless, of its own accord.”
Solzhenitsyn wanted to leave readers with little alternative to accepting his conclusions. He wanted “to provide proof, rather than impressionistic daubs, which convince no one. A historical epic is not some diversion for the pen—it only has substance if it is truthful all the way through.” He therefore included revealing documents in the text. Several chapters consist entirely of actual newspaper extracts. The result was a work of immense length and formal idiosyncrasy unprecedented even in the Russian tradition of formally idiosyncratic works. Solzhenitsyn employed structural anomaly not as an end in itself, as the Russian Formalists had advocated, but to convey the direct sense of what was really happening.
Most historians trace a coherent narrative of past events, but Solzhenitsyn renders the confusing impressions of participants who had no idea where events were leading and pieced together scraps of shifting evidence and unreliable information. To portray the historical process, Solzhenitsyn explains in Between Two Millstones, one must render “the color of the successive, changeable, momentary opinions” and perceptions. Hundreds of short chapters, shifting between historical and fictional figures, convey the throb of events almost hour by hour.
The section in the third volume of March 1917 devoted to Friday, March 16, for instance, includes chapters 354 to 407. Scenes shift quickly between the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich and other generals and telegraph and railway employees, fictional characters representing types of people common at the time, and the novel’s main fictional heroes, all interspersed with newspaper extracts, a chapter of “Fragments from the day,” and the attempt of Tolstoy’s former secretary to intervene on behalf of imprisoned sectarians. One brief chapter depicts what the table of contents describes as “a new daily life for the Executive Committee [of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies].—The Romanov dynasty’s fate.—Start the Streetcars.” If this is difficult for the reader to follow, it was even harder for actual participants in the events.
One newspaper instructed:
Naïve people fear that with the elimination of the monarchy, Russia’s state unity might falter. But it is free political institutions that will strengthen Russian state unity. The new government arose not through self-appointment: on it rests the will of the people.
Every one of these statements proved false. Another newspaper reported:
More than 800 prisoners were released from the local prison (two of them politicals, the rest criminals). Immediately upon release…the courthouse was burned to the ground…. Pogroms, robberies, and murders rained down on the entire city.
A newspaper in the city of Tver described how the governor, seeing a mob heading for his house, phoned the bishop to make confession. One socialist newspaper published a curious “appeal”:
Comrade thieves, wheeler-dealers, robbers, picklocks, swindlers, blackmailers, double-dealers, sots, marauders, pickpockets, cat burglars, vagrants, and other brethren…we have to meet in order to choose representatives to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies…Unite, comrades, for in unity is strength!… [Signed] Group of conscientious businessmen.
Solzhenitsyn also includes what he calls “screens”: directions for how a scene might be filmed. Frame by frame, chapter 418 depicts how a mob murders the surprised liberal admiral Adrian Nepenin (“He hadn’t expected this treatment!”). The equal sign, Solzhenitsyn explains, means “cut to”:
The whole time we see up ahead—
we see large and up close the admiral’s face,
not yet disenchanted even now,
how he trusted and hoped.
But there, behind, sailor hands are pushing officers aside, dragging them off….
= Trampled snow on the street down which they are leading
= the admiral with the lively, open face, who so believed in these heroes in black.
Yet another perspective appears in the brief proverbs and sayings Solzhenitsyn places in large print between chapters to evoke folk wisdom that’s beyond the reach of the participants: “FOR THE TSAR’S SIN GOD WILL PUNISH THE ENTIRE LAND”; “SOMEONE ELSE’S FOOL IS A JOKE, YOUR OWN FOOL A CALAMITY.” Solzhenitsyn grasped that this piling on of evidence taxes readers’ patience: “And yes, I do understand that I am overloading the Wheel with detailed historical material—but it is that very material that’s needed for categorical proof; and I’d never taken a vow of fidelity to the novel form.” This comment recalls Tolstoy’s explanation about the formal oddities of War and Peace, which contains documents, a map, and nonfictional essays. Like March 1917, it depicts events not according to an overall narrative but in all the confusing immediacy with which they were experienced. “What is War and Peace?” Tolstoy famously asked in his essay “Some Words About the Book War and Peace”:
It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wished to express and was able to express in that form in which it is expressed. Such an announcement of disregard of conventional form in an artistic production might seem presumptuous…. But the history of Russian literature since the time of Pushkin not only affords many examples of such deviation from European forms but does not offer a single example of the contrary. From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House…there is not a single artistic prose work rising at all above mediocrity, which quite fits into the form of a novel, epic, or story.
Such unconventionality itself became a conventional mark of Russianness, a sort of literary patriotism. Russians wrote what Henry James called “large, loose, baggy monsters” because of their conviction that “truth” was more important than harmonious form.
All the same, Solzhenitsyn considered his differences from Tolstoy more important than any similarities. August 1914, the first novel of The Red Wheel, begins with the fictional Sanya questioning Tolstoy about his uncompromising pacifism and his insistence that love is the only proper response to evil. “But are you sure…that you don’t exaggerate the power of human love?” Sanya asks.
You say…that evil does not come from an evil nature…but out of ignorance…. But…it isn’t at all like that, Lev Nikolaevich, it just isn’t so! Evil refuses to know the truth…. Evil people usually know better than anybody else just what they are doing. And go on doing it.
The novels to follow, especially when depicting Lenin and the Bolsheviks, illustrate how right Sanya is. Nicholas II, the Provisional Government, and even the generals refuse to use force, “just so there is no bloodshed,” they think. The main reason the Bolsheviks won was precisely that they took advantage of this tenderheartedness.
The essays concluding War and Peace outline a determinist theory of history at odds with the book’s preceding narrative. Both the essays and the narrative itself reject the view that “great men” affect historical events, whose outcomes actually depend on the hundred million imperceptible decisions of ordinary people. Solzhenitsyn, for his part, rejects both deterministic and “great man” views of history. Time and again, he shows us characters who recognize that if only generals had deployed military units early enough, the slide toward Bolshevism could have been arrested. Far from inevitable, the outcome of the revolution resulted from the cowardice and indecisiveness of crucial leaders. That is why so much of March 1917 is devoted to tracing how people in authority think and react (or fail to react) to events.
Indeed, Solzhenitsyn argues, the tsar’s most able minister, Pyotr Stolypin, had almost reversed the trend to revolution with a series of far-reaching reforms, which included making peasants into proprietors who could own land individually, not just as members of a traditional peasant commune (obshchina). His assassination in 1911 by the terrorist (and possible double agent) Dmitri Bogrov diverted Russia from peace, prosperity, and the gradual extension of individual rights and respect for the rule of law. So important is Stolypin’s career, which took place before the beginning of The Red Wheel, that August 1914 includes a two-hundred-page flashback (in a section labeled “From Previous Knots”) about his career and death. The prudent but decisive Stolypin represented the Russia that might have been.
A patriot opposed to Russian imperialism and glorification of war, Solzhenitsyn eluded the usual categories of Russian or Western thought. His enemies therefore found it easy to assign him to one or another disreputable outlook that was more familiar. Those enemies included the KGB, liberal Russian émigrés like the writer Andrei Sinyavsky and the scholar Efim Etkind, extreme Russian nationalists, liberal Western journalists and intellectuals, and most members of my own profession, whom Solzhenitsyn disparages as “Slavists.”
In his foreword to the second volume of Between Two Millstones, which focuses on the book’s most controversial arguments, Daniel J. Mahoney—generally regarded as the world’s greatest Solzhenitsyn scholar—observes that absurd and contradictory charges were leveled at Solzhenitsyn. On the one hand, a Russian émigré journal accused him of “selling out to the Jews,” and a Russian publisher based in London insinuated he was really the Jew “Solzhenitsker.” On the other, the Jewish magazine Midstream called August 1914 a new Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Despite his exposure of Soviet forced labor camps in Gulag Archipelago, he was pronounced “an ally of the Kremlin,” perhaps even a secret agent. Solzhenitsyn recalled that the émigré Lev Kopelev called him “the leader of a ruthless party” devoted to
extreme Russian nationalism…more terrifying than Bolshevism. Kopelev went on to conflate me even with Stalin and the Ayatollah Khomeini, while “member of the [ultranationalist and violently anti-Semitic] Black Hundreds, monarchist, theocrat” were some of his mildest monikers.
Few Westerners regarded Solzhenitsyn as a Bolshevik agent, but many believed that his nationalism entailed imperialist and anti-Semitic views. After all, Solzhenitsyn considered himself a patriot. He objected that Westerners used the terms “Russian” and “Soviet” as synonymous when, in fact, “Russia and Communism had the same relationship as a sick man and his disease.” Solzhenitsyn’s thinking eluded received categories. Unlike others who wanted to see Bolshevism end, he rejected revolutionary violence and insisted on gradual change. And what sort of nationalist or imperialist insists that his country should give up its empire?
In Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals (1991), for instance, he implored Mikhail Gorbachev to grant the non-Slavic Soviet republics their independence. Indeed, if they didn’t want it, he insisted, Russia should secede from them. While Russia should try to persuade other Slavic republics to remain with Russia, he argued, they, too, should be allowed to leave without hindrance. Foreseeing the conflicts likely to arise eventually if Ukraine, with its large Russian-speaking population and its close cultural ties to Russia, chose to secede, Solzhenitsyn, who considered himself both Russian and Ukrainian, hoped to preclude the devastating conflict we see today. Far from wanting Russia to hold on to territory, this patriot—uniquely, so far as I know—even recommended returning the disputed Kuril Islands to Japan.
Nationalism, as we usually envisage it, appalled him. “I note with alarm that the awakening Russian self-awareness has to a large extent been unable to free itself of great-power thinking and of imperial delusions,” he warned his countrymen. “What a pernicious perversion of consciousness it is to argue that we are a huge country ‘for all that, and we are taken seriously everywhere.’” As Japan renounced imperial ambitions and flourished, so should Russia: “We must strive not for the expansion of the state, but for a clarity of what remains of our spirit. By separating off twelve republics…Russia will in fact free itself for a precious inner development.”
Solzhenitsyn believed that during the preceding hundred years the Russian national character had been corrupted, and therefore the country’s most important task must be spiritual restoration. To Westerners unfamiliar with the language of spirituality so important in Russian culture, all this talk of renewing the soul seemed at best woolly, at worst mere cover for theocracy. The charge of anti-Semitism particularly offended Solzhenitsyn, who, as some critics conceded, defended Jewish dissidents and the right of Jews to emigrate in order to avoid religious and other persecution in the USSR. Accusers relied primarily on passages in August 1914 devoted to the assassination of Stolypin by Bogrov, who was Jewish. Since Stolypin had been Russia’s best hope, some thought, Solzhenitsyn must be blaming the Jews for its terrible fate.
Having written about the scourge of Russian anti-Semitism, I was puzzled to hear that the Bogrov passages were taken as proof by some Western critics of Solzhenitsyn’s hatred of Jews. I knew this novel well and had discerned no anti-Semitism. After these accusations were first made following the 1983 publication in Russian of the expanded version of August 1914, Solzhenitsyn demanded:
And what kind of reasoning is this?—if Bogrov was a Jew, and the death of Stolypin was a disaster for Russia and made it easier to start a revolution, then that means Solzhenitsyn blames the Jews for the 1917 revolution? In effect, they are demanding the censorship of history.
As Solzhenitsyn also observed, most Westerners making this charge had not even read the offending passages, since the novel had not yet been translated. When The Washington Post, which had published these accusations, commissioned John Glad to translate the passages suspected of being anti-Semitic, it “was obliged to mention that he had ‘found no grounds for accusing [Solzhenitsyn] of anti-Semitism.’” Still more telling, when a translation of the expanded August 1914 finally appeared, the accusers fell silent: “All those critics seemed, in an instant, to have lost their memory.”
Despite its relentless focus on political events, The Red Wheel paradoxically instructs that politics is not the most important thing in life. To the contrary, the main cause of political horror is the overvaluing of politics itself. It is supremely dangerous to presume that if only the right social system could be established, life’s fundamental problems would be resolved. Like the great realist novelists of the nineteenth century, Solzhenitsyn believed that, as he stated in Rebuilding Russia,
political activity is by no means the principal mode of human life…. The more energetic the political activity in a country, the greater is the loss to spiritual life. Politics must not swallow up all of a people’s spiritual and creative energies. Beyond upholding its rights, mankind must defend its soul.
In Between Two Millstones he repeated: “Political life is not life’s most important aspect…a pure atmosphere in society cannot be created by any juridical legislation, but by moral cleansing.” Commenting on The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn explains that “no matter what depths of evil the narrative has plumbed, this must not be allowed to warp the soul of either author or reader—you must arrive at a harmonious contemplation.”
The central passage of March 1917 concerns not a historical figure’s political ruminations but the fictional Varsonofiev’s assessment of his life, with all its irretrievable mistakes and erroneous judgments that seemed so right at the time. Remembering his fervent hopes for revolution and the republic that would make life sublime, Varsonofiev now asks rhetorically:
What could the daily political fever change for the better in the true life of men? What kind of principles could it offer that would bring us out of our emotional sufferings, our emotional evil? Was the essence of our life really political?… How could you remake the world if you couldn’t figure out your own soul?
The Russian word was previously rendered as “knot” in H.T. Willetts’s translations of August 1914 and October 1916 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989 and 1999). Both mathematical terms refer to a point on a continuous line. ↩
Mikhail Bakhtin: The Duvakin Interviews, 1973, edited by Slav N. Gratchev and Margarita Marinova, and translated by Margarita Marinova (Bucknell University Press, 2019), pp. 106. ↩