Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470
August 1914 is the first installment in a four-volume effort under the common title Krasnoe koleso (The Red Wheel). The first Russian edition was published in Paris in 1971 and in English in 1972; the second, enlarged edition appeared in Russian in 1983 and in English in 1989. The second volume, Oktiabr’ shestnadtsatogo (1984), appeared in English translation in 1999 as November 1916; the third and fourth volumes, Mart semnadtsatogo (1986-1988) and Aprel’ semnadtsatogo (1991), have yet to be translated.
Solzhenitsyn relied heavily on documentary material, obtained from historical archives, and on historical figures active in the first month of the war between the Russians and Austrians and their allies, the Germans. At the same time, he created fictitious characters who serve the purpose of commenting upon the war and expressing the author’s views, especially Colonel Vorotyntsev, who is to a large degree the author’s alter ego. Solzhenitsyn exchanges the masterfully depicted battle scenes with those of civilian life, all contributing to the reader’s understanding of the events. As was customary with him, he surrounds the main figures, such as General Samsonov, with a host of minor characters. The result is a huge, mosaic-like canvas of a historic event in the tradition of Tolstoy.
As in practically all of his works, Solzhenitsyn is primarily after the truth. His prime concern is magnified here by the simple fact that the events in 1914 directly led to the revolution in Russia and that the history of World War I was tailored heavily to reflect the views of the victors—the Bolsheviks. The ultimate truth of August 1914 is, as Solzhenitsyn saw it, that the czarist government was inept and corrupt and that its weaknesses, rather than the strength of the Bolsheviks, prepared the way for their eventual triumph. This premise is illustrated best at the end of the novel by the generals’ blaming Samsonov for the defeat, rather than admitting their own failures.
Solzhenitsyn also pursues his well-established thesis that the responsibility of the individual—that is, his or her dignity—is the ingredient that spells victory or defeat in the constant struggle for a decent life. The treatment of fellow human beings goes a long way toward determining how he or she will react; the better the treatment, the greater the chances for a success, and vice versa. Thus, Solzhenitsyn went beyond the mere writing of a historical novel; he used this book to establish some basic truths about how humans behave as social beings, which could then be used to understand the subsequent events in Russia.
The enlarged edition of August 1914 contains fifteen new chapters amounting to more than three hundred pages, all running consecutively. They do not change the basic premises of the first edition’s plot, but they do add considerable material pertaining to the machinations behind the front lines, as well as further historical background.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
August 1914 examines an extremely broad cross section of Russian society within the telescoped time frame of a few critical days at the beginning of World War I. A major battle (and with it, an entire army) will be lost, at a moment when “[i]t only needed two or three such defeats in succession for the backbone of the country to be put out of joint forever and for a thousand-year-old nation to be utterly destroyed.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s thesis is that Russia itself was destroyed when it was replaced by the Soviet Union. The strands of his novel come together to emphasize that the Soviet Union was born out of war—the original harsh experience that colors the country to this day.
The author opens the novel with protagonists from his...
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own preexistence. The models include his grandparents, Zakhar and Evdokia; his father, Isaakii; his elegant aunt, Irina, and difficult uncle, Roman; and his mother Taissia (“Xenya” in the novel). The family subplot, which recedes into the background of historical events, is precipitated by Zakhar’s disillusionment with his son Roman; resulting in an unprecedented effort at first to educate Xenya, then in an abrupt decision to pull her out of school so that she can marry and produce a grandson.
Very much in the foreground are events on the Russian-German battlefront. Colonel Georgii Vorotyntsev plays the key role of linking the scattered sites together, as he rushes on his horse from one to the next attempting to straighten out the colossal, irreparable mess that has developed. The confusion is overwhelming, and this latter-day Saint George, though intelligent and dedicated, is highly fallible. He lacks the intuition or instinct for making blind choices. His errors, and the sheer impossibility of his mission, gradually turn this George into a Don Quixote, with his peasant orderly, Arsenii Blagodaryov, serving as a dignified Sancho Panza. Blagodaryov has an instinct of uncanny infallibility. The two become bonded during a trench battle. Becoming aware that they have survived, they look up to see a windmill burning. Its arms slowly begin to turn, not from wind but from the heat—giving the reader a first, faintly ironic glimpse of the symbol that dominates Solzhenitsyn’s vision of Russian history (Krasnoe koleso, The Red Wheel, the title of the series of which August 1914 is the first volume).
While Vorotyntsev, other officers, and the wretched recruits do their best to save the situation, General Samsonov, the commanding officer of the Second Army, stands at the center of a quicksand pit: “His was the helplessness of high position.” Samsonov sees clearly that the extruding “arm” of Prussian territory must be struck “under the armpit,” sending troops southwest, whereas the General Staff is fatuously determined to strike “on the elbow,” sending troops in the opposite direction. In the struggle between Samsonov and the General Staff, Russian troops march and countermarch in fruitless zigzags, slipping into a void in which they are inexorably exterminated. The situation is aggravated by the Russians’ failure to encode the messages that they send over an unfamiliar new invention, the wireless radio. “Far outstripping every horseman, the strength of the Second Army was leaking away on those vulnerable, invisible radio waves in the impenetrable darkness of enemy territory.”
Samsonov, who identifies with his army completely, goes mad when it collapses; he dies with a medieval grandeur, which Solzhenitsyn links with the grandeur of Old Russia. In sharp contrast to Samsonov is the young Socialist, Sasha Lenartovich, who observes the benign, dying giant with pitiless eyes and thinks: “Just wait—there’s more coming to you yet!” Lenartovich, who joined the army to carry on propaganda (in which his platoon of peasants show not the slightest interest), is Solzhenitsyn’s prime representative of the whole range of radical youth, whose deeds are always described with mordant irony. Lenartovich “was not malicious but a young man with the sincerity and conviction that were the mark of the best Russian students.” He, too, is drawn into a circle of survivors led by Vorotyntsev and Blagodaryov, with whose help he escapes the final debacle.
A far more sympathetic youth, Sanya Lazhenitsyn, introduced early in the novel as a village lad with schooling, reappears late in the action. He and a friend are spending their last day in Moscow before innocently joining an army that is about to be cut to ribbons. They meet an eccentric intellectual, Varsonofiev, with whom they discuss fashionable theories of the day, such as Tolstoyanism and Hegelianism. One may surmise that the eccentric’s voice is that of his creator. Varsonofiev tries to guide the youths toward something deeper and more ancient: “Haven’t you noticed what delicate complexity of thought there is in a riddle?” Varsonofiev moves easily from the riddles of Russian folklore to an echo of Taoism (itself rooted in folklore): “There is a justice which existed before us, without us, and for its own sake.” The young men nickname this sage “Stargazer,” thus tying Varsonofiev in with the stars that rise over Solzhenitsyn’s hushed, blood-soaked battlefields at nightfall; and linking him also to Vorotyntsev, who will reluctantly answer his lover (in the next volume in The Red Wheel, Oktiabr shestnadtsatogo (1984; October 1916) that the only Russian author he can appreciate is Mikhail Lermontov, the soldier-poet whose line every Russian knows by heart: “The desert hearkens to God; and star with star converses.”