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

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

More damning to Solzhenitsyn’s thesis and Stolypin’s legacy is recent scholarship indicating that the agrarian program Solzhenitsyn seizes upon so greedily had little actual chance of success; even when Stolypin’s reforms were implemented and peasants were offered the opportunity to own their own land and farm outside the commune system, only a fraction of them took up the offer. And some who did acquire ownership of their land still chose to remain within the commune system and rotate their crops at the commune’s command.

“He brought light to the world and the world rejected him,” Solzhenitsyn laments in bold-face at the end of the Stolypin section. But no matter how visionary a bureaucrat, Stolypin could not have been a messiah for the autocracy.

Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of the unenviable Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov czars, is more accurate than his portrayal of Stolypin but less insightful. The woefully untalented ruler is shown as he struggles to steady himself against the shifting plates of global politics while his country disintegrates underneath him. Although until recently this Nicholas has been absent from Soviet histories, he is well known to the West. Ditto for Solzhenitsyn’s highly unflattering portrait of Lenin, a chapter the author withheld from the early edition for fear of government reprisals. “It was natural that Lenin’s followers,” Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin muses, “should carry out his instructions at the prescribed moment and with the prescribed speed, by whatever means and at whatever personal sacrifice. Natural, because all this was done not for Vladimir Ilyich but for the compelling power which manifested itself through him, and of which he was only the infallible interpreter, who always knew precisely what was right. . . .” Westerners have long known this arrogant Lenin and now Soviets themselves are making his acquaintance even in the official press.

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In a brief disclaimer before the Stolypin section, Solzhenitsyn writes that he “would not permit himself such a crude distortion of the novel form if Russia’s whole history, her very memory, had not been so distorted in the past, and her historians silenced.” Clearly his history is not intended for the West but is aimed at instructing his former countrymen in facts and events excluded from the official canon. But in this age of glasnost his revelations have far less currency, even for Soviets, than Solzhenitsyn seems to have assumed.

As literature, “August 1914" is dreadfully overburdened. The book is swollen with hundreds of characters, some fictional, many historical, even some members of Solzhenitsyn’s family. Many events and references confound even an informed reader. Many characters appear never to reappear. Others are so insufficiently developed that one wonders why Solzhenitsyn created them in the first place.

But the real problem is the unevenness of Solzhenitsyn’s voice throughout the work. This is undoubtedly partially because that Solzhenitsyn wrote the book in segments, often separated by long periods of time in which his views and attitudes altered. But much of the blame must fairly fall on the writing itself. The novel’s third-person narrative voice is omniscient, sometimes reporting events with journalistic precision, sometimes lamenting them at length. But Solzhenitsyn also uses the third person for his characters’ interior thoughts and consequently, the reader is often confused about just who is thinking what. This is a particular problem when characters make controversial statements, particularly about Jews.

And in the end the reader has to stop and think about just how probing his analysis is, after all. Although Solzhenitsyn presents his history in copious detail, he does so with less depth than one might have hoped. Unlike Tolstoy, who used history to probe the tender spots of the human soul, Solzhenitsyn seems unable to do much except rail at the course of history and the soulless participants who let it take that course.

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Not to take unfair advantage of a work that is both less and more than a novel, “August 1914" is an easy book to criticize. The work is enormously ambitious, and ambition tempts criticism. But devoting almost 900 pages to any subject does imply that the project will be in some way definitive. “August 1914" is not that. As history it is too subjective and uneven; as literature it is too erratic and thin. In the end it is no more and no less than a highly personal interpretation of Russian history by a man who considers himself, with good reason, one of its victims.


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