The Start of Russia’s Long Lent: An Appreciation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Red Wheel”


    With this year marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution, Lent serves as a good time to ponder the strange course history took in 1917. If Lent is a time of suffering, sacrifice, and readying for Easter, then Russia went through a “long Lent” throughout the twentieth century with its experiences with wars, revolution, famine, tyranny, and culture. While things are better between Russia and the West with the end of the Cold War, a new one could well be on its way. Russia might not have experienced its Easter quite yet and the “long Lent” may, in fact, be continuing despite the high hopes of a quarter century ago. 

     The great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn offers a profound and powerful meditation on the rise of the Bolsheviks in The Red Wheel. During his long years in the gulag as a political prisoner for making a joke about Stalin, Solzhenitsyn became a reflective Christian and a leading voice for the important role the church can play in the public square. The first two volumes of The Red Wheel, much of which were written during his exile in Vermont, are easily some of the most Christian books Solzhenitsyn wrote during his lengthy literary career. 

     Solzhenitsyn covers so many topics in these books that they are hard to summarize. Insisting the Communist regime launched some of the greatest evils in human history, Solzhenitsyn also has little use for the Tsarist regime which was too slow to reform, and the liberal revolution which toppled Nicholas II at the start of 1917. Covering many features of Russian life and culture during World War I, Solzhenitsyn presents a moving account of people making important decisions which led to Russia’s long nightmare. Even the best men and women Russia could produce–including Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev, who is the closest thing the series has to a main character–pose no match to the problems of the era. From all his studies and musings, Solzhenitsyn found only one path—the combination of economic reform and nationalism championed by Prime Minister Pytor Stolypin that could have saved Russia from the nightmares of the twentieth century. But, as Solzhenitsyn shows in a moving cycle of chapters in August 1914, even before World War I began, Stolypin had been killed and his policies forgotten. 

     The looming disaster hovers over the first volume of the series. Originally published in English in the early 1970s but, thankfully, better translated by H.T. Willetts in an edition released in 1989, August 1914 kicks off the epic Red Wheel as Solzhenitsyn tries to capture the coming of the Russian Revolution. As he opened his series with a look at the start of World War I, another man’s book was clearly on Solzhenitsyn’s mind. How can a Russian novelist write an epic on war and not confront Tolstoy and War and Peace? Tolstoy even makes a brief appearance at the start of the book and Solzhenitsyn is clearly not a fan. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn even paints Tolstoy’s watered down Christianity and call for pure pacifism as one of the weaknesses plaguing Russia as the war began. 

     Solzhenitsyn guides the reader through the disastrous Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914 and unveils a number of characters, some real and some imaginary. There are haunting portraits of the flawed generation of Russian leaders who bungled the entry of World War I, including a memorable take on the hapless Tsar Nicholas II and the tragic General Samsanov who led his army to defeat at Tannenberg. Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in World War II served him well here as his descriptions of combat are striking and capture the confusion of battle. 

     While a good deal of the book focuses on Tannenberg, Solzhenitsyn also guides the reader through the home front, showing how the tsarist government and society headed in two different directions.  Solzhenitsyn also offers unforgettable characters drawn from all of Russian society: a well off family at home, young officers connecting with the men, radical students, and gentle peasants serving as troops. 

     Despite offering an excellent narrative, Solzhenitsyn simply is not as strong when he attempts to mimic the “camera eye” technique used by John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy and other books like Midcentury. Nor does Solzhenitsyn quite succeed when he lists a number of headlines from the newspapers or offers detailed history in small print. But these are minor flaws that do not take away from the grand epic.

     If you read August 1914 in English, make sure you use the version translated by H.T. Willetts that was released in 1989. This is the translation available on Amazon’s Kindle and other online services. This translation, unlike the original, contains a scathing look at Communist leader Lenin as well as a detailed description of the rise and death of Stolypin, the one Russian statesman who may have been able to lead Tsarist Russia through the chaos it would succumb to during the war.

    November 1916 is the second volume of Solzhenitsyn’s epic and, unlike August 1914, focuses more on Russian society than the war itself. A number of the same characters return from the first book and Solzhenitsyn takes them, and the reader, to the parlors of St. Petersburg, the homes of Moscow, the trenches as Russia continued to struggle in the war, the schools, the factories, the farms, and the legislative assemblies. It is an astonishing work, capturing the mood in Russia before chaos consumed it.  Solzhenitsyn ramps up his look at the last days of a failing society, even as he shows how Christianity and faith can shore up a nation and the individuals who live in it.

     Solzhenitsyn continues to excel when his characters dominate the narrative. Above all, the powers of redemption and love flow through the book despite the chaos, despite the coming Soviet horror. There are scenes that remain with the reader: a priest and a young officer talking about faith in the trenches; a colonel who comes to St. Petersburg hoping to make a major political impact only to have it undermined by his attraction to a professor; a woman going to confession crying over her dead child; a writer on a train and his assorted notes and musings. This is an epic book to be sure, but Solzhenitsyn is truly incredible when he describes the intimate moments of daily life.

     Still, there are problems in November 1916. Solzhenitsyn continues to use the “camera eye” technique that he used in the first novel and, again, does not quite succeed with it. He is better in his use of newspaper headlines than he was in August 1914. Where Solzhenitsyn truly fails, though, is in the numerous essays he includes covering the history of political parties, legislative leaders, and even transcripts from the Duma debates. It is a bit too much and Solzhenitsyn is not particularly subtle in his contempt for progressives and society in these essays. Solzhenitsyn would have been better served to let his characters mull over greater events which is exactly what he did in key scenes, including peasants complaining about agriculture policies and an army officer talking about military operations at a dinner party. 

     Be warned. While November 1916 was translated in English almost two decades ago, the last two volumes in the series–February 1917 and March 1917–have yet to be translated. Thankfully, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute announced in 2014 that it would provide English translations of those books, though they have not been released yet. 

     Both of these books are massive undertakings. The names, battles, and events are unfamiliar, to put it mildly, to most readers. Even Solzhenitsyn himself concedes that fact in the introduction to the second book. Despite November 1916 going on for more than 1,000 pages and August 1914 just under that mark, these powerful meditations on history, society, faith, war, and culture can prove addictive. The first two volumes of The Red Wheel are not for everyone, but those who pursue them will find one of the greatest novels written in the last half of the twentieth century. 

By Kevin Derby