Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1174

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, used his writing to confront the oppression of the former Soviet Union and the weight of its cruel bureaucracy, whereby individuals were lost and destroyed inside Siberian prisons, cancer wards, and insane asylums. Solzhenitsyn depicts simple human qualities and creates realistic portraits that bear witness to the incredible strength of the human spirit while undergoing intense suffering.

Best known for the novella Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) and for the novel Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978), Solzhenitsyn had been a prisoner as well. In 1941, after earning degrees in mathematics and physics, he had begun teaching, but by 1945 he was the commander of a Soviet army artillery battery. That was when he wrote a personal letter criticizing Communist leader Joseph Stalin. The Soviet police and counterintelligence agents arrested Solzhenitsyn, and after a hasty trial he was found guilty of conspiring against the state and sentenced to a series of brutal prisons.

It was during his confinement, in prison amid the frozen wasteland—where the petty theft of a slice of bread or a pair of work boots could mean death—that the author had the transformative experiences that were to form the core of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His experiences included a diagnosis of cancer, from which he miraculously recovered and which forms the basis of Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968). Freed from exile in central Asia in 1956, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia, but he was arrested again when The Gulag Archipelago was published in France. In 1974, the Soviet Union finally expelled Solzhenitsyn and forced him into exile in the United States, where he remained until his triumphant return to Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

August 1914 is the first volume of The Red Wheel, a series of novels in which Solzhenitsyn intended to present a sweeping view of twentieth century Russia and to correct the falsifications imposed on Russian history by the Soviet regime. Borrowing different styles from fiction, journalism, and film, Solzhenitsyn conveys the intricacy of political movements by using every literary and rhetorical technique at his disposal to unravel what he sees as the grossly misinterpreted “knot” of Russian history.

Solzhenitsyn’s mastery of narration has been noted by numerous literary critics, and August 1914 has been favorably compared to Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) for its broad scope and detailed and accurate descriptions of battle scenes. While the core action of Solzhenitsyn’s work takes place during twelve days of August, 1914, the author employs flashbacks, a pastiche of items from newspapers, advertisements, military documents, and camera-eye descriptions of events (all reminiscent of similar devices used by John Dos Passos in his trilogy U.S.A., 1937), and other narrative artifices with great effect to widen the compass of the novel’s social, political, and moral concerns.

Also noted by many who read Solzhenitsyn’s works in the original is the author’s exhaustive use of the enormous resources of the Russian language, which Solzhenitsyn acquired through attending to the speech of people of all levels and geographical areas of Soviet society. He had met diverse peoples in his native southern Russia, in school, in the army, and in the camps and places of exile scattered throughout the vast expanse of the Soviet Union. He also read widely in Russian literature and had closely studied Vladimir Dal’s classic dictionary of the Russian language. The delicacy of Solzhenitsyn’s exposition of character in August 1914 invites comparison to the works of Anton Chekhov.

On the political level, August 1914 attacks czarism for its reliance on favoritism and for using a biased system of advancement, including bribery and nepotism. These practices led to the appointment of incompetent generals whose blunders cost the lives of thousands. Solzhenitsyn views the czar’s weakness and corruption as catalysts that started the terrible and bloody revolution that destroyed Russia’s potential. In his books, Solzhenitsyn tried to explain why a great vision of Russia that included a well-developed and prosperous Siberia never materialized. For Solzhenitsyn, the dream died in the bloodbath of 1917, for which he sees two causes: the assassination in 1911 of prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, whose attempts to modernize Russia were cut short, and more specifically, the failure of General Samsonov, who had represented traditional Russia—forthright and sincere but incapable and unable to adapt.

Solzhenitsyn splits the blame for Russia’s economic and ethical poverty between two opposing camps, the backward-looking officials known as the Black Hundreds, who were drawn from the wealthy upper class, and the forward-looking revolutionaries known as the Red Hundreds, impoverished insurgents from the lower classes. According to the author, both groups prevented Russia from fulfilling its destiny and leading the world, for as the two sides attempted to vanquish each other, the country decayed around them and the dignity and the rights of people were needlessly sacrificed. This is the tragedy at the core of August 1914.

In 1983, Solzhenitsyn published an expanded edition of August 1914 that included three-hundred pages of additional text dealing with one of Communism’s founders, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, and with Stolypin, the assassinated prime minister. Solzhenitsyn held that Stolypin’s death stopped Russia’s peaceful political development and removed a deterrent to the Bolshevik Revolution. Many historians and critics disagree, calling August 1914 more of a personal political treatise than a serious dramatic novel.

In all his work, Solzhenitsyn advances his view of the human being as a noble animal, one capable of transcendence and dignity even in the most degrading and depersonalizing circumstances. Solzhenitsyn had described his job as a writer by saying that he had “to treat universal and eternal themes: the mysteries of the heart and conscience, the collision between life and death, the triumph over spiritual anguish.”

August 1914 is an example of a writer’s use of the novel to rewrite history. By seducing the reader with the familiar devices of fiction—story, character, plot, and imagery— Solzhenitsyn creates a reality in which events are seen from all sides, as opposed to the simplified, and biased, version provided in state-sanctioned textbooks. Accordingly, Solzhenitsyn describes his novel as a fascicle, which he defines as a “dense, all-round exposition of the events of a brief time span.”

While Solzhenitsyn may not be entirely accurate historically, he nevertheless establishes that the form in which history is presented—be it journalistic, cinematic, or fictive—is in large measure responsible for determining its “truth” for the people reading it. In this way, August 1914 seeks to remedy the distortions of the past established by the Soviet regime.

Solzhenitsyn’s thesis is that the suffering and endurance and triumph experienced by individuals at the hands of human institutions ought not to be forgotten or misinterpreted. As a result, August 1914 stands as the author’s testament to the continued vitality of what is past and to its relevance to the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.

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Critical Context