Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel

A New Part--March 1917, Book 3--Is Now Available in English

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s multi-part grand historical novel is The Red Wheel. It might also be called a history presented in novel form, and particularly for English readers, it presents historical material and detail not available elsewhere. It consists of the following five books translated into English so far:

1.) August 1914 (Note: there are a bazillion copies of the incomplete 1972 version out there, but you should only get the H.T. Willetts translation, first released in 1989.)

2.) November 1916

3.) March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 1

4.) March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 2

And the just-released-this-week volume,

5.) March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 3

Do note that all of the March 1917 books concern what according to the Western Calendar, we have called the “February Revolution.” You might also note that the page count for all five of those books so far is around 4,000 pages! But wait, we’re not done…what’s already out in Russian, and I think in French also, are the remaining volumes:

6.) March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 4

7.) April 1917: The Red Wheel, Node IV, Book 1

8.) April 1917: The Red Wheel, Node IV, Book 2

9.) Quoting Daniel Mahoney here: “An Epilogue, going through 1922 (the Civil War) and then a brief description of unwritten knots!” (“knot” = node.)

So, we’re looking at around 6,500-7,000 pages total, and had Solzhenitsyn lived longer, there would have been more! A one-man Mahabharata!

Most potential 21st-century readers will look at page-counts like that, and pass. But I have read the first three volumes, and am obliged to report that among all the works I’ve ever read that qualify as novel, November 1916 is in the top five of my favorites, and that the other two volumes, 1) and 3) on the list above, are also very much worth the time to read them.

I’ll say more about them in a moment, but first, let’s note the event that is this week’s release of March 1917, Book 3, beginning with a video interview with the translator Marian Schwartz, with Solzhenitysn’s son Stephan, and with, no surprise, my friend and Solzhenitsyn scholar Daniel Mahoney.

Mahoney has a review out today, at Law and Liberty. Focus especially on his point about which 1917 revolution, February or October, was the real one, and the key one for Solzhenitsyn.

What struck me most about the first of the four parts on the March (i.e. February) Revolution, is that it was the most compelling portrait of the confusion and uncertainty that often comes with a Revolution that I had ever read. By employing a cast of around twenty-five major characters, and thus at least that many view-points of the unfolding events, Solzhenitsyn shows that no-one, not in the government, not among the revolutionary radicals, not among the bourgeois “liberal” protestors, nor among the soldiers in Petrograd who mutinied, had a clear picture of the unfolding events, let alone a coherent strategy for steering them. Other books on revolutions I’ve read, such as Tocqueville’s essential Souvenirs, his eye-witness account of the revolution of 1848, translated into English in couple of editions titled Recollections, bring more order to events than perhaps they should, because they either give them to you through one witness, or give you an after-the-fact historical reconstruction. But March 1917: Book 1 gives you both the God’s-eye reconstruction any reader of history wants to some degree, and the confusion inherent in the as-it-happened reality of the multiple views of the revolution’s events, and thus also, of the multiple decisions that shaped these.

As Stephan says above (around 40:30), whereas Tolstoy shows you grand historical forces in action, Solzhenitsyn shows you “little people in action,” in situations where, contrary to Tolstoy and to Marxist or Marxisant theoreticians (including Theda Skocpol in the 1970s), history was not destined, due to larger social forces or structures. Solzhenitsyn highlights a number of could-have-gone-either-way moments or events.

I do not know if books 2 and 3 of March 1917 feature an altered narrative strategy for presenting Russia’s developments; but what initially leaps out about book 1, is that the way in which August 1914 and November 1916 highlight the story of one Colonel Vorotyntsev, a fictional character, even as they dip here and there into those of dozens of others characters, is completely dropped. Vorotyntsev appears in only a couple chapters and is placed outside Petrograd where the events unfold, such that the Red Wheel enters a season in which it does without “central” characters who connect the various threads. As Tocqueville might put it1, as Russia’s story enters the democratic moment of mass Revolution, the story of Solzhenitsyn’s Vorotyntsev, i.e., of the might-have-been aristocratic shaper of events, has to drop to the side. Events now run away from the decisive influence of any “Plutarchan” figure.

I bet we get a similar approach in books 2-4 of March 1917, but I’m falling behind the publication pace, so I don’t know! Schwartz notices that women characters increasingly play a greater and more active role as the March books move forward, and indicates that in the yet-to-be-published book 4, a major section is given over to the story of the famous sexual-revolution pioneer and highest-ranking female in the Bolshevik government, Alexandra Kollontai.

I’ll give you more about March 1917: Book 1 in another post, but here I want to get to the other two books of The Red Wheel I’ve read. In all of them, Solzhenitsyn from time to time interrupts the flow of the novelistic chapters with historical sections—these are in a smaller print. We regularly switch, that is, from Solzhenitsyn-as-a-Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn-as-a-Livy. It’s immensely effective. These sections often give us original documents, collage-like assemblages of newspaper headlines, but also, Solzhenitsyn’s own judgments on various political parties, figures, and decisions, which in certain places become meditations of political philosophy. Since in the novelistic chapters, he mixes accounts of his cast of fictional characters with accounts of non-fictional characters, most notably in November 1916 with Lenin—the chapters excerpted as Lenin in Zurich—, it is not the case that his presentation of historical material is confined to the explicitly historical sections. And again, a good deal of that material is original in terms of its research and analysis, or is one of the first summarized accounts of what the specialist historians of the period have discovered.

August 1914 is the best novelistic portrayal I’ve read of a battle, in this case the very-early WWI battle of Tannenberg, a key German defeat of the Russians. (However, I’ve never read the widely-praised Killer Angels novel on Gettysburg, so that’s a judgment I might have to revise.) The battle is the main fare of the book, unified by the perspective of the Tsarism-defending and yet militarily/scientifically rather modern Colonel Vorotyntsev, and in the main indicating that the Russians could have won that battle, or at least not have lost it so decisively, had they had a less corrupt and hidebound class of top officers, that is, a group more willing to listen to men like Vorotyntsev. In any case, you consult the battle-map in this book quite a lot! This main course is interspersed with very interesting pictures of the Russian homefront at the time, and extended historical material on a.) Pyotr Stolypin, prime minister of Russia 1906-1911, and b.) the more upper-class sorts of the leftist Russian revolutionaries.

Here’s a bit of what Mahoney says, in his essential Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology, 2001, on the importance of Stolypin:

…in Solzhenitsyn’s view, the decadence and decrepitude of the Russian old regime in no way suggests that Russia was predestined to experience communist totalitarianism.

…Stolypin had “three favorite lines of policy,” that defined his “liberal conservatism” as Solzhenitsyn calls it. He was committed to “advancement of the peasant” through his liberation from the traditional commune, he supported the zemstvo or local self-government as their best means to promote civic-consciousness among the people, and he encouraged patriotism or “Russian national awareness,” although not imperialism or pan-Slavism. These policies remain pillars of Solzhenitsyn’s own practical political agenda…

So not only could Russia have won the battle of Tannenberg, and thus likely avoided he prolonged WWI situation which led to the Revolution, but had Stolypin not been assassinated by an anarchist revolutionary in 1911, he well might have steered the Russian Tsarist regime further down the path of reformist constitutional monarchy, and decisively weakened the appeal of revolution in 20th-century Russia.

One Solzhenitsyn lover’s (Carrie-Anne Brownian’s) bookshelf:

November 1916 is a portrayal both of the growing weakness of the Tsarist regime as the war drags on, and a meditation on what measures might have halted this slide towards the precipice of Revolution. This is done primarily by following Vorotyntsev as he uses an extended leave to explore whether he might connect with various center or right-of-center political figures, such as the shadowy Guchkov, in order to help save Russia. Through this narrative means, many new characters’ threads are woven in, and we also pick up ones established in August 1914; so overall, in this book Solzhenitsyn gives us his most comprehensive portrait of Tsarist Russia, albeit just as it is entering its death throes. A common response to either the film or novel Dr. Zhivago is to become fascinated by the turbulent and romantic social life of pre-revolutionary Russia, particularly that of the aristocratic class Zhivago belonged to, but in November 1916, the reader gets all of that refined and dramatic world, plus much more of the whole of Russia: worker’s stories, peasant’s stories, mid-level engineer’s stories, Jewish stories, women’s stories, schoolmaster stories, and so much more.

He joked with one interviewer that unlike with revolution-focus in the March 1917 books, or the battle-focus in August 1914, that in this volume “nothing happens.” But the opposite is true—it is his chance to closely display all the various forces driving Russia towards ruin, taking us into many fascinating corners. It is the Solzhenitsyn book that has the most of the Whole Situation and the Big Questions in it. It is, we might say, Brothers Karamazov-sized. Arguably larger! There is an authoritative and most-moving take-down of the Tolstoyan case for (putatively Christian) pacifism, a recounting of the horrors of the “Eastern Front,” multiple displays of “Society’s” longing for Revolution, anathema-to-Western-patriots foreign-policy discussion of why it would have been right for Russia to have made a separate peace with Germany circa ‘15 or ‘16, the unforgettable portrait of Lenin and his methods, the dismal one of the Victorian sentimentalism of Tsar Nicholas and the empress, an in-passing presentation of the best political philosophy case for monarchy/Tsardom in modern times, reconsiderations of Dostoyevsky’s theories of revolution and modernity, Solzhenitsyn’s most profound historical ruminations on the bankruptcy and leftward-tendency of Russia’s dominant “Kadet” style of “liberalism,” reflections which in several details feel disturbingly applicable to our times, and what is a surprise, multiple reflections with different characters on how marital and love-life difficulties secretly shape the tenor of society and the power of key individuals—as in Zhivago, the main character falls into a stirring love affair,—which brings to mind yet another passage from Tocqueville2:

In Europe, almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth, not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men conceive their scorn for natural bonds and permitted pleasures, their taste for disorder, their restlessness of heart…

Solzhenitsyn’s meditations on eros and revolution do not reduce merely to those Tocquevillian assertions, but they are worth investigating, and do constitute a major theme of the book. Finally, as Mahoney has said, it is perhaps the Solzhenitsyn book in which there is more discussion than in any other of Christianity, repentance, and Russian Orthodoxy.

All the Red Wheel books, of course, are written in the shadow of GULAG Archipelago and of Solzhenitsyn’s other works, which display what the Soviet regime really was. That is the reason the reader is so taken with the earnest Vorotyntsev, drawn into rooting for his quest to somehow rescue his Russia from the disaster he dimly foresees; and that is the reason the reader’s horror grows event-by-event in March 1917, Book 1, as barrier after barrier is broken, each of which will make the revolution that much more unlikely to be reversed or moderated. I again recommend the abridged version of GULAG for those who have not yet undergone that literary experience like few others, and which is properly first in order with this author.

As for The Red Wheel, I’m now around 1400 pages behind this unfolding event in English-language literary/historical publishing, and lest you let all these big page counts dissuade you from missing one of the great feasts of literature (and history), I encourage you to jump in soon, starting from any three of the novels I’ve discussed here. All three should work well-enough as stand-alone novels, although that isn’t, I think, going to be the case from here on in.



Democracy in America, II, Pt. 1, chap. 20, on the respective characteristics of historians in aristocratic and democratic eras.


Ibid., I, 2.9, sect. 5, para. 6.