Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

As a young man, and at that time still a convinced Communist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn outlined a vastly ambitious project: a multivolume novel centered on the Revolution of 1917. He never lost sight of that goal. By the time he actually began the project, in the 1960’s, his historical perspective had changed radically, but the basic conception of the work had not. The Red Wheel, as it came to be called, would re-create the period from the beginning of World War I to the Revolution; “its main dramatis persona,” Solzhenitsyn has said in an interview, “is Russia as a whole.”

August 1914, the first “knot” of The Red Wheel, was initially published in 1971. Following his exile to the West in 1974, Solzhenitsyn enjoyed access to historical materials which had not been available to him in the Soviet Union. As a result, he published a greatly expanded version of August 1914 in 1983. The revised version introduces a new historical theme: the assassination, in 1911, of prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, whose views Solzhenitsyn much admires and whose death, he believes, significantly diminished Russia’s hopes for peaceful development.

Solzhenitsyn’s achievement in August 1914 should be seen in the context of a well-established tradition in Russian literature, where the historical novel is a respected genre; among Solzhenitsyn’s distinguished predecessors are Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak, whose book, Doctor Zhivago (1957; English translation, 1958), picks up the thread of Russian history in 1905 and coincides with the pre-and post-Revolutionary period with which Solzhenitsyn is also most concerned. In this tradition, historical fiction is not a light entertainment but a laboratory for analyzing and experimenting with the historical process itself. Influenced by the very Soviet ideology that he opposed, Solzhenitsyn carries the experiment a step further: He has no doubt that literature influences life and that his interpretation of history cannot but influence the decisions of his readers and his government. This lends an undisguised polemical aspect to his historical novels.

Solzhenitsyn’s interest in the medieval, pre-Petrine roots of Russia had surfaced in his early story, “Zakhar kalita” (“Zakhar the Pouch”). That theme is also continued in The Red Wheel, most obviously in the character of the medievalist (the “professoress” Andozerskaya, who appears in a minor role in August 1914 and in a major one in Oktiabr shestnadtsatogo); more subtly in the linking of the grandeur of old Moscow with the tragic dignity of Samsonov and in the quixotic questing of Vorotyntsev, the modern Saint George (the rescuer of the Slavs).

The Red Wheel expresses Solzhenitsyn’s drive toward a comprehensive view of all Russian society, encompassing the entire range of social positions and a tremendous inventory of psychological types, dwarfing the already Dantean range found in his earlier novels, V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968) and Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968). With the multisided tableau of The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn confirms his own credo: the total inadequacy of any ideology to do justice to human life.

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Critical Evaluation