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The wheel turns
Review of November 1916: The Red Wheel/Knot II by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts
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Nearly sixteen years after its publication in Russian and more than a decade after it appeared in a French translation, the second knot of The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyns multivolume epic on the events leading up to the revolutionary cataclysm of 1917, has at last appeared in English. Though the work as a whole remains unknown in this country, a consensus has developed, in sharp contrast to its enthusiastic critical reception in France, that The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyns great literary and intellectual endeavor of the last thirty years, is a failure, and a failure of monumental proportions.
Many critics are thus predisposed to pronounce it dead on arrival, following the lead of Solzhenitsyns most recent biographer, D. M. Thomas, and the even more authoritative Michael Scammell, whose ostensibly balanced 1984 biography played a critical role in undermining Solzhenitsyns reputation in elite, liberal, and academic circles in the United States. In Invisible Allies (1995), Solzhenitsyn himself dates his breach with the secular Russian intelligentsia to the publication (of the first version) of August 1914 in the West in 1972; at a stroke the heroic, anti-Stalinist Nobel Laureate became suspiciously conservative and was ridiculed for patriotic and Christian sentiments unbecoming a genuinely modern thinker and artist. While neither the original 1972 version of August 1914 nor the augmented version (published in English translation in 1989) was as critically well received as Solzhenitsyns classic novels of the 1960sThe First Circle and Cancer Wardthe coup de grâce for Solzhenitsyns reputation in the West was undeniably his June 1978 commencement address at Harvard, A World Split Apart.
Even though one would never have discerned it from press or scholarly accounts of that now infamous address, Solzhenitsyns efforts in that speech to separate the necessary and salutary defense of the spiritual traditions and free political institutions of the West from the anthropocentric humanism of the most radical (and self-conscious) currents of the Enlightenment have been the hallmark of the greatest conservative-minded political philosophy of the twentieth century. Instead of forthrightly confronting Solzhenitsyns arguments, it was easier and undoubtedly more pleasurable to caricature them. Solzhenitsyn thus became a legend, at worst an anti-Semite and apologist for Tsarist despotism, at best an illiberal crank yearning for an agrarian utopia and the supposed spiritual contentment of the Middle Ages (calumnies recently revived by George Steiner in The New York Times Book Review). It became obligatory to call Solzhenitsyn a pan-Slavist nationalist and Slavophile even though the author and his fictional hero in The Red Wheel, Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev, are unremitting critics of what Solzhenitsyn has called the messianic exclusiveness to which the pan-Slavists and even the great Dostoevsky were prone. In November 1916, Solzhenitsyn writes about the gradual marginalization of D. M. Shipov, the great zemstvo (local, self-governing councils of the late Tsarist period) leader who sought to avoid a deadly confrontation between state and society. Shipov believed that Russia must find her own path to liberty, prudently melding constitutionalism and Russias distinctive spiritual heritage. Like the author of The Red Wheel, Shipov was routinely called a Slavophile, although he did not recognize either the divine origin of absolutism or the superiority of Orthodoxy to other forms of Christianitybut it had become the custom half a century earlier (and remained so half a century later) to call anyone who chooses to deviate from direct imitation of Western models a reactionary, a Slavophile.
November 1916 is not a book for everyone, not even for those who have faithfully followed Solzhenitsyns major works to date. The knots of The Red Wheel are what the author calls narrative(s) in discrete periods of time and are intended to capture certain crucial moments that reveal the nature of the approaching revolutionary juggernaut. They are huge, sprawling books, novelistic only in a qualified and idiosyncratic sense. They are polyphonic works (to use Solzhenitsyns own description) which allow dozens of characters (including those Solzhenitsyn clearly has no sympathy for, such as Lenin) to speak from their own points of view, although the author doesnt hesitate to speak in his own voice, particularly in the more historical chapters. The volumes of The Red Wheel lack the compactness of Solzhenitsyns best known novels and the movement from historical-political analyses to the fictional representation of its heroes such as Sanya Lazhenitsyn (a thinly disguised version of Solzhenitsyns father) and Vorotyntsev will undoubtedly distract those who have no real interest in the political and spiritual fate of Russia or in the Bolshevik revolution. But for those who truly share Solzhenitsyns desire to understand the underlying causes and ultimate meaning of 1917, for those who are not just looking for another entertaining novel to read but have the discipline to confront an artful, Thucydidean mixture of politics, philosophy, and literature at the service of historical truth, this book has the force of a revelation.
By concentrating on the superficial quiescence of the period from October 27 to November 16, 1916, Solzhenitsyn allows his readers to see the mutually reinforcing corruption of Russian state and society as well as the absence of any statesmanlike figures who might have helped stem the revolutionary tide. In August 1914, Solzhenitsyn created a remarkable portrait of the statesman Pyotr Stolypin, scourge of the revolutionary left and reactionary right alike and the last best hope, according to Solzhenitsyn, for Russias salvation. In November 1916, the reader feels the gaping nonpresence of Stolypin (even Tsar Nikolai II seems momentarily to feel the loss of the great man and statesman). Those moderate and patriotic figures who, broadly speaking, shared Stolypins desire for reform without revolution, lack the judgment and finesse or a sufficient position of responsibility to make a real difference. The book is strewn with sympathetic figures, from the spiritually sensitive Sanya Lazhenitsyn to the army chaplain Father Severyan (who seems to speak for Solzhenitsyn when he criticizes Tolstoys Voltairian humanitarianism) to the profound but hapless Shipov, who shares many of Stolypins political ideas but lacks his fortitude and his nuanced appreciation of the limits of abstract moralism in politics. Above all, there is the fictional Vorotyntsev, demoted to an isolated front and still a colonel late in the war. As the readers of August 1914 will remember, Vorotyntsev had the temerity to defend General Samsonov after the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg when the regime was looking for scapegoats to blame for its generalized corruption and incompetence.
Vorotyntsev is the fictional hero of The Red Wheel, Stolypin its historical one. Vorotyntsev clearly represents the best of modern Russia. He is patriotic and religious-minded and a military strategist of some note, but with wide scientific interests and a keen appreciation of the need to reform radically a deeply sclerotic regime. Personally and intellectually, he blends tradition and modernity. During the time in question, he is on leave in Petersburg and Moscow and actively pursues the prospects with Guchkov, head of the Octobrist opposition party, of a palace revolution against the inept Tsar, a revolution aiming to save, not destroy, the monarchy and regime. In the process of his conversations and investigations he discovers to his consternation the multiplying signs of approaching revolution.
Vorotyntsev, speaking for Solzhenitsyn himself, has arrived at the conclusion that Russias continued involvement in World War I can only undermine the confidence of the Russian people in their ineffectual regime. He is increasingly sympathetic to the treasonous possibility of a separate peace with Germany. He is nearly desperate to act, to do something, anything to save his beloved Russia. But he is distracted by marital problems with his wife Alina and by a dizzying and life-restoring affair with the remarkable historian Olda Andozerskaya whom he meets at a Petersburg dinner party. Oldas striking blend of femininity and independent-mindedness (in the company of fashionable society she dares defend the superiority of constitutional monarchy, even law-abiding autocracy, over republicanism and socialism in all their forms) immediately wins Vorotyntsevs heart. But it also deflects him from the path of personal and political obligation. Vorotyntsevs infidelity, and the personal crisis that accompanies it, mirrors Russias spiritual and political crisis. In the penultimate chapter, his moving expression of regret for the deep harm he has caused Alina suggests the need that Russia has for spiritual healing on the eve of her confrontation with the abyss.
In its symbolism and sensibility, November 1916 is perhaps the most Christian of Solzhenitsyns books, though it is never didactic or sectarian. Sanya and Father Severyan do not hesitate to criticize the Orthodox Church for its complicity in the persecution of the Old Believers and Vorotyntsev is critical of the senseless oppression of the Jews. But Solzhenitsyn is convinced that the Church, freed from slavish attachment to the state, can play a particularly vital role in the spiritual regeneration of Russia. In the moving final chapter a forlorn woman, Zina, who has had a disastrous affair and a child out of wedlock, and whose self-preoccupation has contributed indirectly to the death of her child, finds herself drawn ineluctably to an Orthodox Church. There, through the act of confession, she begins to experience unconditional forgiveness. As the political philosopher David Walsh has suggested, the impetuous Zina seems to symbolize Russia herself in her agony and need for divine solace. In this book, Solzhenitsyn never loses sight of the spiritual nature of the crisis that continues to afflict Russia.
One salient dimension of that crisis, on constant display in November 1916, is the moral and political corruption of the intellectuals. The Russian intellectual class might have played a salutary social role by contributing to the gradual liberalization and modernization of Russian state and society, but instead it largely became a subversive, even nihilistic, force. Solzhenitsyns unmistakable hostility to the juvenile leftism of the pre-Revolutionary Russian intelligentsia has greatly damaged his reputation among liberals in Russia today. In contrast to them, he believes that the first, ostensibly democratic, Russian revolution of March 1917 marks the crucial event in the spiritual and political decomposition of Russia. In Solzhenitsyns view, the liberals were incapable of governing or acting in a politically responsible way.
Several of November 1916s historical chapters offer probing and polemical analyses of Russian liberalism, especially the left-leaning Constitutional Democratic, or Kadet, party and the so-called Progressive Bloc within the last Duma, the Tsarist parliament. Seven chapters focus on Lenin, plotting and quarreling with Parvus and fantastically planning for the outbreak of proletarian revolution in that bastion of bourgeois repression, Switzerland! (Some historians, such as the great biographer of Stalin, the ex-Communist Boris Souvarine, questioned the historical accuracy of Solzhenitsyns portrait of Lenin while others, including Robert Conquest, applauded his skillful artistic rendition of Lenins monstrous attachment to revolution at all costs. These interpretations are, of course, not necessarily mutually exclusive.) Since these chapters have already appeared in Lenin in Zurich, let me conclude by highlighting Solzhenitsyns searing indictment of Russian liberalism, an indictment all the more important since the Russian liberals became the founders of the provisional government of 1917 and are the prototype of contemporary Russian westernizing intellectuals.
Solzhenitsyn never attacks the Kadets for being liberal per se. Instead, he criticizes them for being not in fact really liberal at all. In the great conflict between a reactionary state and the revolutionary left, the liberals always managed to caress the left, Solzhenitsyn notes. He continues: their sympathies always with the left, their feet are capable of shuffling only leftward, their heads bob busily as they listen to leftist argumentsbut they feel disgraced if they take a step to or listen to a word from the right. For Solzhenitsyn, it is clear that indulging the left is not a peculiarity or monopoly of Russian liberalism.
The Red Wheel establishes with great eloquence and luminous clarity (reinforced by H. T. Willetts superb translation) that Russia desperately needed a politics of the realistic and principled center to overcome the blindness of the imperial authorities as well as the nihilistic impatience and destructiveness of the revolutionary left. The conflict between state and society, marked by mutual distrust, animosity, hatred, was drawing Russia toward the abyss. Statesmen such as Stolypin and, to a lesser extent, Guchkov, who courageously supported the suppression of revolutionary terror even as they encouraged extensive land reform, a responsible system of representation, and the rule of law, were despised by the liberals who should have recognized in them Russias and liberalisms salvation. November 1916 is finally a defense of civic courage and moderation, of an authentic liberalism that can see enemies on the left as well as the right.
In one of the books most memorable formulations, Solzhenitsyn observes the difficulty of pursuing a middle line of social development, particularly in an age of ideological politics. The loud mouth, the big fist, the bomb, the prison bars are of no help to you, as they are to those at the two extremes. Following the middle line demands the utmost self-control, the most inflexible courage, the most patient calculation, the most precise knowledge.
Undoubtedly, the herd of independent minds will divide between those who dismiss this message as Slavophile and those who find it boring. It is, in fact, as old, and as universal in import, as Aristotles Politics. November 1916, a very Russian book, reminds us that the searching exploration of the particular provides the best access to universal truth. It shows us, quite palpably, that the destinies of Russia and the West inexorably intertwine.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 February 1999, on page 73
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