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The Russia That Might Have Been : AUGUST 1914 The Red Wheel / Knot I by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn translated by H.T. Willets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $50, cloth; $19.95, paper; 846 pp.; 0-374-10683-5)

August 13, 1989|Maura Reynolds | Reynolds is a graduate student in Soviet affairs at Columbia University's W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union. This summer she is working as an intern on The Times' editorial pages. and

Russians have always had a predilection for projects of monumental proportion. Notable achievements in this category include the Trans-Siberian railway and Tolstoy's "War and Peace." But sometimes Russians' strivings for sheer bigness have actually undermined the project's ostensible purpose: The world's heaviest cannon and largest bell, for instance, sit idle in the Kremlin, both rendered useless by weight.

In this grand tradition, Alexander Solzhenitsyn set out in 1937 to write the complete history of the Russian Revolution through literature. And in this tradition, the reader is left unsure whether to be awed by the project's proportion, or disappointed by its result.

"August 1914" is the first installment in a cycle of novels Solzhenitsyn has named "The Red Wheel." Its intent is to probe what he calls the "knots" of Russian history, those condensed periods of time where historical forces converge and future events begin their dizzy rush to reality. The premise of the book is that in the history of this one month the reader will encounter the forces that spun the "red wheel" of revolution to the cataclysm of October, 1917, watching as it bounces from August, 1914, to October and November, 1916, to March, 1917, to April, 1917--the other "knots" of Solzhenitsyn's cycle.

Although Solzhenitsyn calls it a novel, "August 1914" is both history and literature. This nexus between history and literature has many precedents in the Russian cultural tradition, starting with Russia's ancient chronicles and including epics like "War and Peace." Although Solzhenitsyn is obviously aware that he is following in Tolstoy's tracks, he is far less adept than his predecessor and allows his history to overwhelm his literature, something Tolstoy was able to avoid. The reader is confronted with an awkward tangle of history, fiction and autobiography whose wayward strands continually threaten to unravel his "knot."

"August 1914" was first published in 1971, before Solzhenitsyn was exiled to the West. Since that time the author has been able to conduct additional archival research, and expanded the book so extensively that this new edition and new translation are being treated as a new work. The earlier edition was concerned almost exclusively with the Russian army's ill-fated invasion into Prussia in the first few months of World War I. Although this section is largely intact, the new edition has added two major sections: an intricate examination of the assassination of Russian Prime Minister Peter Stolypin and a lengthy and personal account of Czar Nicholas II's entry into the war.

Solzhenitsyn's wheel and knot metaphors are good structures for his project. But, instead of concentrating on the revolutionary forces rising to the top, the author spends most of his time describing the forces that were receding: the autocracy and the autocracy's last best hope for reform, Stolypin. It is clear that as the wheel of revolution spins forward in the novel, Solzhenitsyn's eye is trained backward, seeking ways in which the wheel's momentum might have been thwarted.

The Stolypin section, based largely on material gathered from the archives of Stanford's Hoover Institution, is by far the most interesting. Stolypin wanted to dissolve the peasant commune and raise up a class of small, proprietary farmers who would serve as a stable, conservative foundation for the Russian autocracy. "Stolypin's idea was one of shining simplicity," Solzhenitsyn writes, "yet too complicated to be grasped or accepted. The repartitional commune reduced the fertility of the land, took from nature what it did not return, and denied the peasant both freedom and prosperity. The peasant's allotment must become his permanent property." Stolypin did not have the chance to fully implement his reforms before he was struck by an assassin's bullet on Sept. 14, 1911.

Solzhenitsyn's account of the assassination is fascinating and complex. He gets inside the minds of the characters--the assassin, the police and security officials, the czar and Stolypin himself--and travels with them through the victim's last several days and final moments. "Perhaps, then, he had done all that he was meant to do," the dying Stolypin muses. "It is not given to any single individual to do so very much. One man cannot change the whole course of history." Yet clearly Solzhenitsyn believes that if there was one man who might have, it was Stolypin.

Solzhenitsyn overestimates Stolypin's historical potential. By the time of his death, Stolypin had been discredited within the government and was thoroughly out of favor with the czar and the bureaucracy.

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