Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The main theme of August 1914, arching over the obvious theme of war, is history itself, of which the sage Varsonofiev remarks: “History grows like a living tree. And as far as that tree is concerned, reason is an ax: [y]ou’ll never make it grow better by applying reason to it.” Looking back to Leo Tolstoy, his great predecessor in the genre of historical fiction, the theory of history, and the theory of warfare, Solzhenitsyn confronts him and his views.

Frequently, Solzhenitsyn’s characters are influenced in their conduct by the examples of literature. One of the most reprehensible generals in August 1914 models his career on that of the widely admired antihero Kutuzov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869; English translation, 1886). “His long military service had convinced the general of the correctness of Tolstoy’s views; there was nothing worse than sticking one’s neck out by using one’s initiative.” Solzhenitsyn’s would-be Kutuzov (General Blagoveshchensky) has been protecting his corps of soldiers by assiduously avoiding engagements, occupying deserted towns, and sending out dispatches announcing victories. He contributes in a crucial way to the final debacle.

Closely tied to the theme of war is that of treachery. In the final analysis, Solzhenitsyn harshly views the key to the Socialists’ success as having been their willingness to commit treachery. Bolstering the Socialists’ success, and adumbrating future developments, is the Russian intelligentsia’s already well-established herd instinct and penchant for bullying any dissidents. Despite their alleged aim to build a new society, Solzhenitsyn’s young Socialists find themselves at loggerheads with the real builders of the twentieth century: the engineers.

Until his death in 1910, one of the most influential gurus of the Russian radicals was Tolstoy, whose name runs like a red thread (or a railroad car) through this first volume of The Red Wheel. In applying the elegant ax of literature to Russian socialism, Solzhenitsyn hacks particularly at this thickest, most revered of its roots.