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Book Review

Solzhenitsyn's Russia on the Edge of Revolt

The latest volume in a former exile's tetralogy pits soldier against war.

NOVEMBER 1916; by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn translated from the Russian by H.T. Willetts; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $35, 1,014 pages

May 10, 1999|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It came as a surprise and a disappointment: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn didn't like us very much. During those two decades he spent in exile in snowy Vermont (never able to leave Russia in his mind), he saw our weaknesses but was blind to our strengths. Perhaps willfully so. He viewed the Soviet regime as a positive evil and believed that it could, and should, be overcome only by positive good--courage, "spiritual strength and purity." Not by blue jeans and rock 'n' roll, fax machines and the Internet. Not by a capitalist system capable of spending the post-Stalin empire into obsolescence almost as an afterthought.

And then, in "August 1914," the first "knot" in Solzhenitsyn's tetralogy "The Red Wheel," came another surprise: his quarrel with Tolstoy. The Russian generals who led their troops to disaster at Tannenberg are described as being contaminated by Tolstoy's view, in "War and Peace," that the fighting spirit of the Russian army, not weapons or tactics, had defeated Napoleon. So they didn't bother to keep up with German military technology. Solzhenitsyn makes quite a point of knocking the old guy off his pedestal. Yet, of all 20th century writers, isn't he Tolstoy's truest heir, especially now that he has returned home?

Clearly his ambition is as grand. If "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "The First Circle" and "Cancer Ward" are long-suppressed cries of pain from the patient, the Russian people, the three volumes of "The Gulag Archipelago" are a history and anatomy of the illness, and "The Red Wheel" is an epidemiological study of how it all began.

In the second volume of "The Red Wheel," "November 1916," Solzhenitsyn describes "relatively few events of historical importance" but says this period "encapsulates the stagnant and oppressive atmosphere of the months immediately preceding the Revolution." Stagnation would seem an unlikely premise for a 1,000-page novel, but its real subject is this: Could the Bolshevik takeover have been prevented, even at that late date, if someone had divined that the catastrophe of World War I (Russia mobilized 12 million soldiers, of whom 9 million were killed in battle or by disease, wounded, captured or missing) was only a foretaste of the horrors to come? What could a tough, clear-sighted army officer--say, Col. Georgi Vorotyntsev, banished to the Rumanian front after his outburst over the high command's blunders at Tannenberg--do to save his country?

Vorotyntsev is convinced that Russia needs to get out of the war immediately, Western allies be hanged. He is also beginning to think that, to accomplish this, Czar Nicholas II may have to be deposed. After two years at the front, watching his men die, Vorotyntsev abruptly takes leave, visits his wife in Moscow, then goes to army headquarters and the salons of St. Petersburg, seeking kindred spirits among the Kadets, the moderate liberal party that would form the short-lived Provisional Government in 1917.

Meanwhile, city dwellers face food shortages, farmers struggle with government price controls, officials exhort rebellious workers to build better guns for the army, the Duma wrangles and (in chapters that Solzhenitsyn published separately in 1975 as "Lenin in Zurich") the Bolshevik leader plots his dizzying ascent to power.

On the northern front, Lt. Sanya Lazhenitsyn, a disciple of Tolstoy's, is still wrestling with the sin of having to kill Germans. An Orthodox priest, clearly speaking for Solzhenitsyn, argues that Tolstoy was "not a Christian at all"; that his radical pacifism had undermined church and state and left nothing in their place; that war, an inevitable byproduct of organized society, "is not the greatest of evils." Lazhenitsyn reluctantly agrees.

Vorotyntsev is soon disillusioned, then exasperated, by the Kadets, allowing Solzhenitsyn to deplore Russian liberalism's failure to be an "honest broker," its constant caving in to the left--a characteristic, he says, of "all the forms of democratic liberalism on earth." American liberals of the 1960s and '70s must have sounded the same to him. No wonder--strange as it seemed to us then--he felt more at ease with Jesse Helms.

Vorotyntsev talks to Alexander Guchkov, soon to become minister of war, who wants to arrange the kidnapping of the czar and force him to abdicate. He talks to right-wing generals who think all the country needs is a little vigorous repression. But the prospective co-conspirators he finds are working at cross purposes. None has Lenin's fanatical single-mindedness--and neither, it turns out, has Vorotyntsev himself. A funny thing happens on the way to his date with destiny: He falls in love, at one of those Petersburg salons, with Olda Andozerskaya, a history professor and fervent monarchist.

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