(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Fans of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn waited long for the appearance of the second installment of what he promised would be a trilogy explaining the causes of the revolution that paved the way for Vladimir Ilich Lenin and his henchmen to impose Communist rule on Russia and its neighbors. Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971, rev. 1983; August 1914, 1972), the first volume, which detailed the defeat of the Russian Army at the Battle of the Tannenberg Forest, had been acclaimed by Western audiences when it appeared in translation in 1972. The second “knot,” as Solzhenitsyn calls each novel in his trilogy, was begun in 1971 and occupied the author for more than a decade. Although he secured copyright to the novel, Oktiabr’ shestnadtsatogo, in 1984, it would be fifteen years before an English translation appeared, giving Solzhenitsyn the wide readership outside the Soviet Union that he so desperately wanted for all his works.

Unfortunately for him, in the decades between inception and publication of November 1916, one of the most significant events of the twentieth century took place: the fall of Communism and the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Hence, a work intended to explain the causes of a destructive yet still vigorous ideology to an oppressed people in Russia and a sympathetic audience in the West lost much of its political impetus. What had begun as a novel using history to rationalize politics had become merely another historical novel.

What is even more curious is that Solzhenitsyn had chosen to write about the causes of the Russian Revolution by focusing not simply on events involving open warfare, terrorism, or coups d’état. He had done so to a certain extent in August 1914. By contrast, in November 1916Solzhenitsyn chooses to concentrate on a period significantly less tumultuous. “The interval between 27 October and 17 November 1916 contains relatively few events of historical importance,” he tells readers in the author’s note preceding his story. He focused on this rather uneventful month, he continues, because “it encapsulates the stagnant and oppressive atmosphere of the months immediately preceding the Revolution.” Like many writers of historical fiction, Solzhenitsyn is less concerned with momentous action (in this case, considerably less so) than he is with helping to capture the intellectual, social, political, and military milieu of the time. Because, as he acknowledges, historical records of prerevolutionary Russia are sparse, he resorts to fiction to give himself wider latitude not only to tell his story but also to re-create the atmosphere of the age.

Were he not so serious about his work, Solzhenitsyn might have adapted Mark Twain’s famous adage about looking for a moral inAdventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to describe the story line ofNovember 1916: “Persons looking for a plot will be shot.” There is no single narrative thread that binds together the disparate parts of Solzhenitsyn’s story. Instead, Solzhenitsyn weaves together more than a dozen major vignettes of individuals whose lives are touched by the war, interspersing fictional accounts with pages of history taken from records he found within Russia and in archives throughout the West. The effect is decidedly disjointed, and readers may find it difficult to recall details from the various real-life and fictional episodes that make up this thousand-page saga.

If there is one dominant character, it is the fictional Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev. Assigned to the front after years serving in staff positions, he has become resigned to completing his career in obscurity, carrying out his duty as a soldier. His wife Alina is even more disappointed than he that he has been sent to the front, because she has dreams of mingling within the best circles in Moscow. When her husband returns by way of Moscow on a visit to General Headquarters in St. Petersburg, she is initially elated, but her joy turns to bitter disappointment when she learns he can stay only a day. Though he...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)