Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1413
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 village feasts. His dedication to Vorotyntsev’s and the army’s service is unconnected with any higher principles of glory or patriotism.
Sasha Lenartovich (leh-NAHR -toh-vihch), a twenty-four-year-old platoon commander who believes that Russia and the world will someday be transformed as a result of a great event. Earlier, he viewed the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia as a call to his student generation to join the oppressed classes’ struggle to break the chains of czarist tyranny. Thus, when he is drafted in August, 1914, Sasha is driven by an overwhelming despair that he should not be on the front but instead serve the real cause of revolution elsewhere. The ignorant troops...
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of his platoon appear to be completely unaware, not only of class struggle but also of their own fate as pawns “driven forcibly to fight against another and equally unfortunate mass of men.” He considers various routes of escape from the senselessness of his situation: court-martial and expulsion from the army as a political agitator, or even surrender to the enemy. While attempting to desert his regiment, Sasha ironically falls into the entourage of Colonel Vorotyntsev, who, no longer able to marshal an effective fighting force, is reduced to attempting to break through the German lines to seek safety for a heterogeneous body of loyal survivors.
Isaakii (Sanya) Lazhenitsyn
Isaakii (Sanya) Lazhenitsyn (ee-SAH-kee SAH-nyah lah-zheh-NIH-tsihn), the most intellectual of the characters. Isaakii is one of only two students from the steppe village of Sablya. He clings to the ideal of maintaining ties with traditional village values while cultivating new ideas as a student. The novelty of his ideas, especially on necessary social change in Russia, earns for him the nickname of Narodnik (stargazer). He is so inspired by the example of Leo Tolstoy that he travels to the latter’s estate, meets with the great writer, and professes his loyalty as an intellectual disciple. In spite of this high idealism, when the war breaks out and Russia is attacked, Sanya feels that he has a responsibility to go to the assistance of his country. With a fellow student and covolunteer on the way through Moscow to join the army, Sanya encounters an enigmatic itinerant scholar (Varsonofiev). Their discussions wrestle with the shortcomings of narodnik idealism.
Zakhar Tomchak (zah-KHAHR tom-CHAK), the owner of a prosperous northern Caucasus estate near Rostov, as well as extensive lands in the Kuban. Descendant of a family of migrants who originally came to the Ukraine as hired laborers, Tomchak, with his “craggy features” and “gargoyle-like” nose, still reflects his rough origins. When he goes into the city of Rostov wearing a formal suit, he strikes a somewhat comical figure. This rusticity does not keep Tomchak from using his native intelligence to further the productive goals of his agricultural domain. Many of his ideas, like the most up-to-date machinery he purchases, come from abroad or are borrowed from the German colonists whose labors have produced visibly superior results in Russia. Tomchak views Russia’s declaration of war against Germany to be a great mistake. Out of fear that mass conscription will harm the effective running of his estates, he uses his influence to secure military exemptions for his son Roman and for all foremen, laborers, and cossacks in his service.
Irina (Orya) Tomchak
Irina (Orya) Tomchak (ee-REE-nah), Roman’s wife. Irina is a tall, erect woman with an elaborate coiffure. Although she is accustomed to urban standards of elegance, she avoids displays of finery in the presence of her father-in-law. By ingratiating herself with the stern Tomchak patriarch, Irina escapes the continual reprimands that plague other members of the family. Her favored position is reflected in the fact that Tomchak relies on her reading of the Novoe Vremya newspaper, to the exclusion of all other sources, to learn news of Russia and the world. Irina spends long hours lost in dreams that, through their romantic content, help her remove herself psychologically from the rough conditions and unpleasant associations that surround her.
Roman Tomchak, Zakhar’s son. Roman reflects the idleness of privilege. His main concern for the future is to secure the best possible conditions of inheritance. In the meantime, he concentrates on filling the role of a future estate owner, paying particular attention to his elegance. Roman is no friend of the declining Russian monarchy, nor does he subscribe to orthodox conceptions of religion. For propriety’s sake, however, he keeps outward appearances of Christian faith and patriotism. This hypocrisy serves to distort even more the purchased privilege of military exemption arranged for him by his father.
Xenia Tomchak (ZEE-nyah), the youngest of the Tomchak children. With the questionable exception of her brother Roman (who is seventeen years older), Xenia is the only member of the family to profess progressive political views. She reads widely from different Western European literatures and is tempted to abandon a standard university education to pursue a career in ballet, irrespective of the effect this switch could have on her status as an heir to the Tomchak estate. Through the special efforts of her father, Xenia enters a private provincial high school known for its “left-wing liberalism” and befriends the head mistress’ family. Xenia’s intervention saves the daughter of the head mistress from ostracism as a result of an awkward marriage situation. Xenia herself chafes under her father’s insistent pressures to marry her off. Even though her educational experiences promise to provide an opening for her into Muscovite society, she comes to realize that she has most in common with her adopted family, which has espoused liberalism out of conviction, not convention.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 193
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.