March 1917: The Red Wheel: Node III: Book 1 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (tr. Marian Schwartz). University of Notre Dame Press. 688pp, $39.00.
Earlier this year, China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution came out. In the words of one of its reviewers, what he wanted to do was “write an exciting story of 1917 for those who are sympathetically inclined to revolution in general and to the Bolsheviks’ revolution in particular.” Note the title’s presumption in that definite article. There are many stories of the Russian Revolution, and while Russia itself may not be paying it too much attention one hundred years on, there is keen interest in the West. This may speak not only to ongoing analysis of past events that shaped a world but to contemporary upheavals—the Crimea, Syria-ISIS, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Brexit, North Korea, globalization, and a hunger for the impeachment and overthrowing of Donald Trump’s Republican Administration—that crowd screens and newspapers, swamp social media, affect notions of citizenship and the division between the haves and have-nots, and determine responses to violent vehicular attacks. It’s an anxious time throughout the world where there are few certainties; or rather, we perceive that the large number of uncertainties is more pronounced than before.
In 1972 an English version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 appeared. It is the first node (then called a “knot”) of a sequential novel with the overall title The Red Wheel. In 1989 an expanded and freshly translated edition came out in English, but it took until 1999 for the second volume, November 1916, to be published. Since then other books by Solzhenitsyn have reached English readers, most recently Apricot Jam: And Other Stories (2011), but we have had to wait until now to start reading the first book of four comprising March 1917, which will be followed by the two books that make up April 1917, thus bringing this mega-novel to a close. The books share common approaches—fictional characters mingling with historical figures, the use of actual telegrams, transcripts of State Duma debates, and newspaper accounts (when applicable, as newspapers weren’t always published), and an impressionistic screenplay treatment of mob movements—and the attempt to recapture for a wide audience (but foremost, one suspects, for Solzhenitsyn’s countrymen) the multitudinous events that culminated in the Revolution. Yet there is never one definitive story, one perspective, or one inevitable outcome.
The realms of Emperor Nikolai II and his wife Alexandra (also known as Alix and Sunny), the Duma politicians, the government, the revolutionaries, the soldiers, and the citizens, share in a profound absence of knowledge about what will occur next. This is foreshadowed on the very first page when the Emperor (also called the Tsar, depending on circumstances) has this thought on the death of Rasputin:
When on 30 December, at GHQ, during a military council with the supreme commander about the plan for the 1917 campaign, the Emperor was handed a telegram about Rasputin’s disappearance and possible death, he was, in a sinful way, privately, actually rather relieved. After all the anger that had built up, he was tired of listening to the endless warnings, revelations, and gossip—and now, all of a sudden, this object of public hatred had himself vanished, in some fatalistic way, without the Emperor having to make any effort whatsoever, without an agonizing conversation with Alix. It had all passed—of its own accord.
“It had all passed—of its own accord” could be the Romanov motto, such is their antipathy toward action, and despite the Emperor’s belief that he is someone who “bears his divine burden and full responsibility for all final decisions.”
The novel’s events take place in Petrograd/St. Petersburg (both names are used for the same place) from Thursday, 8 March, to Monday, 12 March. When the narrative reaches the last day, the action has the feeling of being followed minute by minute. A supposed bread shortage—due to snow, trains bringing grain to the city are delayed—agitates the civilians, and when soldiers are asked to take up arms against fellow Russians they refuse. The domino effect is exacerbated by inaction and error-ridden commands. Anyone expecting a Great Man thesis or to find Solzhenitsyn, in William Gass’s stupid and mean-minded description of him in Tests of Time, as “still in the pay of the czar,” will be disappointed. The further one reads of Nikolai II’s dithering—he prefers to play games, visit shrines, or communicate via letters and telegrams with the Empress when away—while the nation is at war and when there are conflicting reports reaching him about St. Petersburg, and of his poor judgment of who to put in charge of what, the more one comes to feel that he and his entire brood seem less and less deserving of life with each passing minute. Of course, that’s not Solzhenitsyn’s argument, but the case he presents will lead readers to various conclusions. Again, there’s not only one story here.
Incompetence and inefficiency run throughout the book, from the smallest actions—delaying telling the Emperor vital news because it’s Sunday—to the most significant, alongside and sometimes coupled with spontaneous decisions. When the Grand Duke Mikhail Vladimirovich, Nikolai II’s only surviving brother, comes up with the idea of “dispersing the crowds with water cannons” he’s told that “there was a ban on summoning firemen because pumping water would only rile the crowd.” As the saying goes, for want of a nail the kingdom was lost. At one point Colonel Kutepov, an officer loyal to the Emperor, is ordered to defend the Winter Palace, but he considers that strategy a mistaken use of his few soldiers: “No matter what kind of crowd it was, disorganized, certainly, it was simply foolish to withdraw and go on the defense rather than attack it.” In the political sphere, when the Emperor dissolves the Duma as an emergency measure, the politicians are taken by surprise:
On that foggy, frosty, modest Petersburg morning, no events somehow were forecast or desired. The humiliating news landed on their doorstep, one learning from the next: the Duma members no longer existed as a body. No matter how rude they had been to the authorities over the last two weeks, and before that all those autumn months, nonetheless they had not expected such decisiveness from the bewildered and frightened government!
Further: “Even the leftists themselves, Chkheidze and Skobelev, felt that all had been lost and only a miracle could save them.” (Religious language in the mouths of leftists is amusing.) Everyone is making it up as he or, in rare cases, she (most often Tsaritsa Alexandra) goes along. A General remarks that “[f]or the time being, you had to sit here and pretend you were steering events.” That’s not so different from “It had all passed,” the belief that underlies everything from the first to the last page, where we are shown the Grand Duke’s escape from gangs trying to break into the Winter Palace. On his way to freedom he walks through the Hermitage by the light of a single candle held by a footman:
Now they were walking through the picture galleries. As they went, and to the lantern’s light, he could not see a single one properly, let alone remember; Mikhail mixed up these halls and all he could see on the walls were huge still-lifes, animals, stalls with game, fish, fruits, vegetables—an outsized, monumental, screaming abundance that does not at all gladden a pinched soul.
In the middle of the halls were porphyry vases and porphyry floor lamps.
With his two free hands Mikhail covered his face and made a washing gesture.
Each new room, each row of paintings crammed with dead game, dead fish, and insensible fruits blocked out the dear domestic part of the palace he’d left, where his unforgettable father had lived and where his mother now no longer returned.
And he wondered why had they collected all this. Why hadn’t they lived more simply?
This is as close to elegiac as the narrative allows.
Most of the male characters desire power. With the people and soldiers revolting, the dissolved Duma nervously rebrands itself as a Provisional Committee while the Bolsheviks quietly organize a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies meant to steal power when the time is right. Generals refuse to fight, soldiers change their loyalties, and death comes suddenly: “At the Anichkov Bridge, a young man wearing a student cap pulled something out from under his coat, knocked it against his boot—and threw it under the mounted police, in their midst. A deafening crack—and the horses were blown to bits and the riders thrown on their backs.” As events seem to be moving in favour of the radicals, Duma member Kerensky has the idea to arrest enemies of the state and this seizure of people and power quickly gathers momentum. One politician “recalled Kerensky’s ‘revolutionary law.’. . . [W]hat kind of ‘revolutionary law’ could there be in two hours? Up until that moment, this had been called terror.” Young people join in the marches and destruction of prisons, stores, and other property, delirious at the history they are, at last, part of rather than subject to. “They were aware that it was coming now, a new era was coming on. Now all men would be brothers, everyone equal, and everyone happy.”
Solzhenitsyn makes the tension as tangible as the cold and snow that hinder and coat the actions and the actors. “It is easy to read about historic events as if they’d been readied. But when they’re happening, it’s anything but easy to work out the simplest plan of action.” You wait for the smash you know is coming, but how exactly it will happen is still a mystery. After providing us with a view of hapless officials meeting to decide what to do about city unrest, in a rare instance of hindsight, the narrator, who slips and slides inside characters and scenes, states: “It would be very close to the truth to say that on this deceptively quiet evening of 9 March, capital authorities had already lost the February revolution.”
Though it’s possible the police receive the harshest treatment from the crowd—undefended by the Cossacks when attacked by civilians, and at the mercy of soldiers storming their own stations—no one emerges from or enters this novel as a virtuous figure. The Emperor is disliked by the nobility; Duma members, when legally assembled, are keener to debate theory than act on practical suggestions around the bread issue that has touched the nerves of citizens; every man believes that he alone can save Russia; the soldiers are brought out of the orderly life of the barracks to the chaos on the streets and provided little food and leadership; while the tired government ministers, many in ill health, hope the Emperor will give permission for them to resign en masse. The royal family is viewed by a member of the Duma—likely representative of many of his colleagues—in this way:
He felt his throat being choked by the danger of the Duma’s dissolution. After all, the Duma was the sole source of truth in Russia, the sole torch for its restless minds. The Duma deputies were the sole expressers of the people’s will. If this Duma was dissolved, who would maintain courage and fortitude in the country, especially given the military failures? In the event of the Duma’s dissolution, a profound gloom would ascend in the country, and the whole country would be handed over without oversight to [Interior Minister Aleksandr] Protopopov, the Tsaritsa, the Rasputin circle, and the German spies! The matter would certainly move along toward a separate peace and disgrace for Russia.
The array of characters, motivations, activities, plots and sub-plots fits in with a Tolstoyan objective to tell a complete story from as many angles as possible, and that requires many techniques. Commenting on William Faulkner’s “tell-all ambition,” Tom LeClair, in What to Read (And Not), states that his modernist methods include “time shifts, multiple narrators, various styles,” all present in each volume of The Red Wheel. Paradoxically, as Richard Tempest pointed out in “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, (anti)modernist,” the Russian writer “accuses modernism of being teleologically complicit in the national collapse of 1917, if not of actually causing it.” Yet “with its epistemological uncertainties, indeterminacies of meaning, formal experiments, linguistic tricks, and structural disjunctions that grow ever more textually conspicuous as one Knot succeeds another, The Red Wheel would arguably satisfy most academic definitions of what is a modernist novel.” That will not suit those who regard Solzhenitsyn, perhaps out of cultural distaste, perhaps out of a feeling inculcated by his harsh criticisms of the West, as a conservative writer, a reactionary, and old-fashioned in his opinions and methods. It might be eye-opening for them to read any part of The Red Wheel with an open mind.
Like some other Modernists, Solzhenitsyn doesn’t always succeed in creating viable fictional characters (at the end of March 1917 there is a useful Index of Names, as well as maps of Petrograd), or else they are, at times, clumsily handled, though never to the detriment of the entire novel. Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev, who appeared in the earlier novels in more active roles, here is indecisive when he has to choose between Alina, his wife, or his mistress Olda. This wavering connects him with Nikolai II and perhaps shows the breakdown of civil society in miniature—apart from continuing his plotline—but, to me, the writing in these chapters doesn’t maintain the same verve as other parts. Generally, the imaginative penetration of the inner lives of Protopopov, Duma President Mikhail Vladimirovich Rodzyanko, Nikolai Himmer, the Grand Duke, and other figures, of greater or lesser importance, is more supple and intriguing.
In this book, as in the previous volumes, Solzhenitsyn provides historical characters with seemingly-authentic voices and convincing personalities often based on fact, maintains suspense when writing of past events we may be familiar with, describes politics and affairs of state at the mundane and rarified levels, and rescues from oblivion events that, to many Western readers, are unknown and inaccessible. Above all, though, it is History, the great sweep of events that takes up everyone and everything in its embrace, that emerges as the most skillfully drawn character in this portrait of Russia on the eve of its transformation. The narrator comments on one particular source:
The many thick volumes of transcripts of the four State Dumas, for anyone who gets through them, make an incomparable impression out of the river of Russia’s public moods during its last eleven years. Even if we didn’t have a single other memoir, testimony, or photograph, these transcripts alone indisputably re-create all the shifting concerns and urgings, the collision of passions and opinions, and even the personalities, even the voices of the most frequent speakers, who numbered a couple of dozen.
The debates crackle with emotions, and when we dive into the lives of historical figures their thoughts provide grace notes of melancholy and complete bewilderment over the unfolding events. As readers, we witness the slow disintegration of an old order and the vacuum that momentarily exists before people compete to fill it with ideology. In that birth of the new, the characters, real and imagined, are permitted to be unknown, undetermined, and taken off guard, even though the crumbling of the Empire may have begun years previous. What we have, so far, of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s mega-novel The Red Wheel is correspondingly inventive, despairing, sharp, acidic, lyrical, and panoramic, with shafts of insight illuminating murky or forgotten corners.
Jeff Bursey is the author of two exploratory novels: Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), reissued in paperback by Verbivoracious Press (2017), and Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2016). Extracts from a lipogrammatic novel-in-progress appear in Verbivoracious Festschrift: Volume Six: The Oulipo (2017). His collection of literary criticism, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, came out from Zero Books in 2016.
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