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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1174 words.)

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Critical Context