Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

August 1914
Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

August 1914

By Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Published by Bantam Books, 1974

Where does one begin in reviewing a time-honored piece of Russian literature? By eulogizing the author or diving right into the work itself? After long deliberation I chose the path of remembrance, for without that past history the purpose of August 1914 is somewhat lost in the translation.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Ukraine in December 1918, a product of both the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, which had its roots in that month. His mother was the daughter of a Kuban estate owner, while his father was an officer of the Imperial Russian Army and a native of the Caucasus region. Solzhenitsyn's father was killed in an accident before his birth, leaving his up-bringing to his mother and an aunt. By the mid-1930s, the Civil War and Josef Stalin's collectivization program had swallowed the Kuban estate. Mother and son had survived the years by hiding the father's imperial connection. Solzhenitsyn's well-educated mother encouraged her son's literary and scientific endeavors as well as seeing to an exposure to the Russian Orthodox faith. It was during his studying at Rostov State University that he began developing August 1914. After graduation in 1940 he began a short military career as the commander of a sound ranging battery. In 1945 he was arrested over comments made in personal letters about both the conduct of the war and Stalin and was sentenced to eight years in the labor camps. Before his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn never questioned the integrity of the Soviet Union's leadership or its direction in domestic or world politics. That attitude changed in the prison camps, as is evidenced in another one of his later books entitled Gulag Archipelago. From those experiences he gleaned the basis for his other works, which were rewarded by winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Solzhenitsyn died in 2008 in Russia.

August 1914 was to be the beginning of a huge work which would deal with Russia's part in the Great War, continue through the Revolution, and end with the Civil War. In this first volume, Solzhenitsyn weaves a story around the Battle of Tannenberg. He begins calmly enough by displaying a picture of life among the estate owners in the Kuban area during the first weeks of the war. None of his characters see the war as lasting longer than a few months, and, therefore, they see it as having little impact on their lives or the social structure. It was the author's intention to show these people as industrious yet useless to society as a whole. Zakhar Tomchak, the patriarch of the estate, is a man of innovation investing in machinery to modernize his estate's farming practices while his son, Roman, wants to throw off the country demeanor for the bright lights of Moscow and beyond. Roman's sister, Xenya, depicts the generation that had become useless: she wants to drop her university studies in agronomy for a course in barefoot dancing. From there the author takes the reader to the East Prussian battlefield where the main character Colonel Georgii Vorotyntsev is introduced as a General Headquarters staff officer sent to Alexandr Samsonov's Second Army to ascertain how well the invasion is going. Vorotyntsev is a cut above other officers of his own rank and superiors. Through his eyes and those of Samsonov, readers see the incompetence of the Russian Army's leadership in those early weeks of the war.

Solzhenitsyn was well versed in the happenings around the Battle of Tannenberg. The book contains minute details of unit placements, their movements, and an accurate description of the battle's hourly development. A reader could use this book as a source document for creating a non-fiction work. However, it is a novel and in that regard the author becomes the narrator of the personal dilemmas that commanders and soldiers go through during the fateful days of 13–16 August (old style dating; 27–30 August, western calendar). The character analysis that the author portrays through dialogues and expressing inner, unvoiced thoughts is very believable. General officers try to avoid responsibility at the expense of their own safety or second-guess their decisions to sacrifice lives which causes garbled or vague orders. Mid-level officers become the leaders because of their superiors' indecision or lack of direction only to falter when superiors refuse to affirm their actions or reinforce their gains. As a result, the Russian offensive becomes a rabble of units acting individually. Finally, the author gives voice to the soldiers who wonder why they are sacrificing their lives. Through these many chapters, the author has in fact set up the three tiers of society which will exist in the Revolution and the Civil War.

August 1914 is a book of monumental proportion to the scholars of the Great War's Eastern Front and of Russian history at the beginning of that war. There are cliches throughout the book that a reader must deal with and discard as a sign of Soviet rhetoric. Solzhenitsyn attempts to help the reader in seeing the fallacy of the state's concepts. Estate owners are shown as innovative and industrious, sharing with their workers in the profits instead of exploiting them. Russian generals are shown as incompetent, but German organization in artillery, transportation, and logistics gets as much credit for the defeat at Tannenberg as stupidity does. At times the reading becomes tedious (my copy had 714 pages), but the book is well worth the effort.

Michael Kihntopf

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