Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Alexander Vasilich Samsonov

Alexander Vasilich Samsonov (vah-SEE-lihch sahm-SOH-nov), a fifty-five-year-old general in the cavalry. After a number of years of steady, but generally uneventful, service with the cossack regiments, he is called, only three weeks before the outbreak of war, to command the Russian Second Army on the Polish-German front. This responsibility makes him uneasy, because he has not seen serious operational duty for at least seven years. Samsonov attempts to fulfill his tasks with military professionalism, choosing subordinates on the basis of military records, not connections. He soon realizes that powers higher up are not aware of the situation near the front. His dealings with supreme commander Zhilinsky are plagued by erroneous or contradictory orders and a personal relationship that is not between military colleagues but between a “bullying cattle drover” and a powerless but ultimately responsible subordinate. Samsonov is pursued continuously by a fear of failing to act when necessities, not orders, demand. His frustration mounts as repeated miscalculations by the Russian High Command lead to the loss of thousands of Second Army soldiers. Unable to bear the weight of responsibility for disastrous military moves he has been obliged to implement, Samsonov commits suicide, giving the High Command an excuse to condemn him for “excessively independent” operations, running counter to orders.

Georgii Mikhalych Vorotyntsev

Georgii Mikhalych Vorotyntsev (geh-OHR-gee mih-KHAH-lihch voh-roh-TIHN-tsehv), a general staff colonel who, following duty in the Russo-Japanese war, had seemed content with gradual professional advancement and the security of marriage. Now, embroiled in the events of August, 1914, he is particularly conscious of the responsibility of commanding miserable peasants. He imagines that their reward, if they survive war, is simply staying alive. Vorotyntsev is perplexed over his position in life, not knowing what reward might be his if he survives the coming events. Throughout his life, Vorotyntsev has believed that people should do their best to assist their country. That belief turns to despair time and again as he witnesses the harmful effects of incompetence, especially in positions of authority. In a number of high-pressure situations during the August, 1914, campaign, Vorotyntsev shows resiliency and an ability to call on reserves of physical and psychological strength to salvage whatever is possible in the face of extremely adverse conditions.

Arsenii (Senka) Blagodaryov

Arsenii (Senka) Blagodaryov (ahr-SEH-nee blah-goh-DAHR-yov), a strong, rough-hewn, twenty-five-year-old peasant soldier. Although Senka is somewhat clumsy because of his size, he possesses a sharp intellect. He is appointed as Colonel Vorotyntsev’s orderly. In this post, he shows a remarkable ability to see the consequences of others’ decisions in advance. This ability, coupled with his willingness to accept dangerous assignments, earns him compliments from his commanding officer. Seen from Senka’s somewhat naïve perspective, the task of fighting is a grim but necessary reality that he hopes can be concluded at least by October 1, the traditional date of...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In August 1914, most of Solzhenitsyn’s characters are bathed in irony. This ranges from the gentle irony imbuing the Tomchak family and Vorotyntsev, to the mordant irony reserved for pompous generals and righteous radicals. Solzhenitsyn’s ironic character descriptions depend to a great extent upon his quoting of the character’s own favorite phrases and thoughts. Thus Sasha Lenartovich’s motives are described as he contemplates desertion: “Surrender was a sensible and practical step: [T]he important things—his life, his educated mind, and his political views—would be preserved.” The pompous, egotistical Roman Tomchak, who eagerly reads all the newspapers (which Solzhenitsyn gleefully quotes as a tissue of lies), contemplates the options open to him: “He might even have considered going in for socialism, if it had not been so closely akin to sheer robbery.”

Because the action is confined to three days, characters are drawn with broad strokes, and substantial psychological evolution is possible only for those who are put into a veritable pressure cooker, such as Samsonov. When the mad general is at his most ridiculous, Solzhenitsyn’s compassion lends Samsonov his greatest dignity as all irony is put aside.