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...
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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 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...
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