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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

November 1916, The Red Wheel, Knot II
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

November 1916, The Red Wheel, Knot II
by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999 (First American edition)

November 1916 is the second volume of The Red Wheel, which is a fictional representation of events leading from Tannenberg (Volume 1: August 1914) through the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Volumes 3 and 4: March 1917 and April 1917). Each of the volumes, a monument to Russian literature in size alone, is related to the others, but they stand alone and don't too heavily rely on their predecessors, although many of the characters are recurring. While volumes 1, 3, and 4 center around cataclysmic events, this second volume is unique. Solzhenitsyn was asked in an interview about the significance of the title November 1916 and what had happened then,to which the sage author answered: nothing.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
By this time General Aleksei Brusilov's summer offensive in Galicia had ground to a halt, counterattacks had been slowed by the weather, the devastating battles on the Somme and around Verdun had waned, and Allied demands for Russian action to draw German forces away from those battles had subsided. So why consider November 1916? Simply because by then the first Russian Revolution (Feb. 1917) was establishing its roots in the Russian psyche at home and at the front. And the author explains through his characters how this was being accomplished.

Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev (introduced in August 1914 as a staff officer who watched the disintegration of the Russian Second Army) has taken his first furlough since the war began. Beneath his announced plan to see his wife he has a hidden agenda: to get back to the Russian General Staff and tell them how bad the situation at the front really is. He is in command of a battalion in Galicia and has seen the false reports about morale and logistics that commanding generals have sent to the General Staff. He has also witnessed the defeatist attitudes that are spreading among the men because of the incompetent leadership.

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To all of these problems he has suggestions for improving the situation. The author skillfully follows the colonel through his trip to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in which he meets people of differing political viewpoints and also those who have information about things going on across the mother country, including graft, bribery, war profiteering, and general confusion. We are also made aware of the colonel's personal life, which nearly mirrors the overall state of Russia. In a nutshell, the colonel (representing the army) wants a divorce from his wife, who craves the cosmopolitan life of the bourgeoisie (the tsarist government) so that he can pursue a more traditional woman (peasant, free society). He is torn between the two women. One commands his loyalty as duty while the other promises freedom from a controlling, manipulating society.

Interspersed through the volume are chapters containing discussions by different political parties such as Bolsheviks, Kadets, and Mensheviks. At times dialogues become confusing unless the reader has a clear understanding of the complexity of Russian politics as well as its social mores. For example, two hundred pages, more or less, deal with political word bantering at a social gathering of liberal Duma deputies which dredges through not only the current political problems but also talks at length about the 1905 Revolution.

This book is not for the faint of heart. Solzhenitsyn clearly shows that there was never a question about whether a revolution was coming; rather it was how soon it would come and what shape it would take. Therein lay the rub. But this work is a must-read if you wish to grasp the confusion that was to follow the bread riots of February 1917 and the ouster of the tsar.

Michael P. Kihntopf

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review of a book that sounds like it's quite a demanding read. I appreciate this!