I have something to share with you that I am not proud of but nonetheless I have the courage to stand up in this circle of friends and admit it to you and to myself. Call it something of an intervention. I am a fan of Solzhenitsyn.
Yes, that Solzhenitsyn. The guy with the ridiculous hobo beard who is so beloved of dragging his readers through vast tracts of Russian history over 900 odd words. As Mark Corrigan in Peep Show notes, “Although I can in no way compare my struggle reading it with that of the Red Army [at Stalingrad], it has been a very big read”.
I have been mocked for it before – literally, “you’re always reading about Gulags. Always Gulags”. And yes, I have been something approaching a completist, having tackled Ivan Denisovitch, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago, Matryona’s Place, For the Good of the Cause, An Incident at Krechetovka Station and both of his plays in script form.
So what is the attraction? Well, Solzhenitsyn is not a perfect novelist and sometimes both his characters and plots can be weak, especially where romance is involved. His view of women is usually positive and they usually end up being heroic characters (in some cases, they are literally deadly Red Army soldiers) but it’s very much an unreconstructed pre-1960s western view in that men are the prime movers of everything and women by and large need their men. Finally, Solzhenitsyn is the true heir of Dostoevsky in that he has a cloudy headed mysticism that seeps through into his moral lessons.
But then again, who said that you have to like the man to appreciate his novels? Having got some of the bad out of the way, let me explain why I enjoy them. The recurring theme of most of his works is the efforts of the individual to get through harsh times and preserve their individualism. If 1984 tells us how important individualism is by showing a man lose his identity (spoiler alert, I guess), Solzhenitsyn’s novels teach us the same lesson through someone making the choices and sacrifices needed to preserve their identity and what little freedom they have even in an oppressive system that make no sense on a human scale. Denisovitch, Cancer Ward and First Circle are his masterpieces and all share these themes. His characters could never be played accurately by hollywood actors as they are often worn and worse for wear from their experiences and yet people who have not lost their drive to express themselves and to work in some small way to get some of what they desire in life, be it political activism, love, scientific discovery, sabotage or even just to be warm and well fed.
Solzhenitsyn’s other strength is his structure by which he is able to draw wider metaphors about the nature of society and specifically the Soviet state. Even through translation, the culmination of these plot strands tends to shine through in final denouncing phrases such as “A man who is warm can never understand a man who is cold,” or (from a secret policeman making an arrest) “Don’t worry, we never make mistakes”.
To read Solzhenitsyn is often not the easiest read but that somehow works as to read his novels is often to experience by proxy the exertions of these characters to live, survive and prosper in a doomed and oppressive society.
So, on to August 1914 which is intended to stand as part one of a three part series about the historical period leading up to the Russian Revolution. It is historical fiction but with a strong historical element – by writing this Solzhenitsyn is really trying to tell history his way as surely as any non-fiction historian.
Though I had my doubts considering the book’s subject matter and historical objective, the book worked well. There are certainly areas in which certain details or chapters could have been cut to make the novel more concise and punchy but overall it works well and I was impressed at the intensity and structure of the drama. Some have been bogged down by the detail or sheer number of characters but I didn’t find that to be a problem and indeed the plot structure seemed to gloss over any confusion and lead you back to the central themes of the plot, so long as you have the heart for a 900 page historical novel.
The first thing Solzhenitsyn captures is the mood in Russia and the change in the air from a popular distrust of the state to a sort of jingoism. The first part of the novel focuses on a Russian youth who has strong anti-authoritarian and progressive views but cannot help but put these to one side and enlist out of a sense of compassion for his fellow students and for Russia in general. Solzhenitsyn shows how a passion for the Russian culture and people at this time was interwoven with the idea of Tsarism that people were unable to pull the two ideas apart as easily as they had done in peacetime. Some further chapters follow a richer family as the wealthy scion manages to dodge the draft through his connections. These early chapters work well but could have been linked more closely to the middle of the novel as they pretty much only crop up again at the end when they have been all but forgotten.
The main part of the book is like a Greek tragedy by which foolishness and hubris bring a man and his nation to its knees. The man who stands in for the Greek king is Samsonov, the General of the Russian Second Army which is tasked with encircling the Germans by advancing across the Polish border into Prussia and moving northward.
In fact the drama which the novel most resembles is King Lear and over the course of events, Samsonov is brought low by his decisions and by the treachery of the officers at headquarters, turned mad and meets his end. The character of Kent has his analogue in Vorotyntsev, a heroic colonel who strives unsuccessfully to avert the calamity.
In the UK we are used to a popular history of the First World War which says that the Generals were to blame because they had no idea how to wage trench warfare with modern weapons without massive losses of life for little gain. This was best summarised by Alan Clark as the “Lions led by Donkeys” argument and found it’s popular home in Black Adder and other shows. It isn’t entirely historically respected as an argument but at least highlights the way we view that war and the way we coped with the huge numbers of casualties.
Solzhenitsyn’s view of the Eastern Front of the same war is very similar but with striking differences. Here, the Generals truly are to blame but it is not the horrific nature of trench warfare as the battles in 1914 are largely pitched, fast moving battles where land changes hands rapidly without the time for entrenchment. Solzehnitsyn labels his Donkeys with two major crimes, firstly careerism and secondly logistics.
The first is the social comment. The Generals of the Russian Army are portrayed as careerist noble socialites who have their place largely from Tsarist patronage and not ability. They are happy to concede defeats to the Germans so long as their own position is safe with regards to the court.
The second and more important point is the logistics of the army and the communication. Most of the Generals are cavalry officers who have in their heads a more heroic Napoleonic idea of warfare whereby you merely commit the men to the field and fight. Samsonov laments the passing of the day when a General could survey his whole army on teh width of a single field. The Russian army is equipped to fight but their communication structure is poor and Samsonov really has very little idea what is going on at different areas of the front. Sometimes Generals ignore orders and their real actions are not made clear for days. Additionally, the rigid command structure means that by the time certain orders are approved, it is far too late. By a series of Chinese whispers an imperfect plan is stretched and distorted and made far worse, working against the natural instincts of the troops and officers on the ground.
So as certain generals take acts tantamount to desertion of duty and the disposition of the army becomes more and more illogical and vulnerable, each of them writes their orders so that they do not seem culpable either to the Tsar or the history books. Throughout, as in the Lions-Donkeys myth, Solzhenitsyn shows the working and peasant class Russians to be stalwart, brave, full of spirit, blameless and cruelly slaughtered.
Vorontyntsev is a rather sketched-out character, less well defined than many of Solzhenitsyn’s heroes but the story works well nonetheless as he identifies many of the army’s problems and (as a colonel from headquarters) adventures up and down the line, trying to exert influence and make course corrections to the army’s iceberg-due path.
Much of the story is told through vignettes of Vorotyntsev or other one-off characters as they cope with the varied scenarios, absurd experiences and heated discussions between the ordinary men as they first advance without resistance into Germany and then are beaten back. The experiences in the towns with the locals, the temptation to loot, the mixing of men from different areas and the decisions made by ordinary soldiers as the command structure breaks down. Hints of Apocalypse Now appear as men are sent on forced marches to nowhere only to be forgotten or sent straight back and gains won without orders on initiative are cancelled out by orders to retreat. Often the book reads as a collection of short stories but the momentum of the army’s nemesis works as a through line. Occasionally, Solzhenitsyn breaks into home front reportage or even direct narratorial comment to knit together these threads.
The culmination of the book is the most satisfying element by which Vorotyntsev must argue to the high command that the commander of the European Armies Zhilinsky has acted in a way that doomed the men, as Zhilinsky and his cadre shift the blame onto others. This is a true “twelve angry men” scene – a satisfying denouement and conclusion to all that has happened to the seemingly hundreds of characters in the novel. Solzhenitsyn skillfully bookends the scene when before speaking, Vorotyntsev’s friend and ally reveals that on the Austrian front the army has won a pyrrhic victory in capturing a city at the expense of letting the encircled Austrians escape and will use the PR victory of the captured city to shift blame from the disaster in Prussia. As Vorotyntsev argues so well, you forget this hanging threat and gain hope until it begins to unravel. The commanding Duke’s loyalty to the Tsar can only permit so much criticism to the monolithic system that Vorotyntsev’s ire gets his speech thrown out and his military career ended. As it becomes clear that Zhilinsky will escape the blame and go on to waste more lives in the war, and as Vorotyntsev is removed, the messenger brings in the news of the captured city as the officers toast and praise God and the Tsar. Such weaving together of threads and dramatic timing is masterful and Solzhenitsyn yet again excels with the honest individual crushed under an unfair system.
As I mentioned there are two more parts to Solzhenitsyn’s history of this era by 1914 stands alone as the only military part of the trilogy. I am unlikely to read the others for now but will read the collected chapters on Lenin that he published separately.
Yes, Gulags and more Gulags or something of that nature.
More Solzhenitsyn discussion: here.