August 1914 is the first installment in a four-volume effort under the common title Krasnoe koleso (The Red Wheel). The first Russian edition was published in Paris in 1971 and in English in 1972; the second, enlarged edition appeared in Russian in 1983 and in English in 1989. The second volume, Oktiabr’ shestnadtsatogo (1984), appeared in English translation in 1999 as November 1916; the third and fourth volumes, Mart semnadtsatogo (1986-1988) and Aprel’ semnadtsatogo (1991), have yet to be translated.
Solzhenitsyn relied heavily on documentary material, obtained from historical archives, and on historical figures active in the first month of the war between the Russians and Austrians and their allies, the Germans. At the same time, he created fictitious characters who serve the purpose of commenting upon the war and expressing the author’s views, especially Colonel Vorotyntsev, who is to a large degree the author’s alter ego. Solzhenitsyn exchanges the masterfully depicted battle scenes with those of civilian life, all contributing to the reader’s understanding of the events. As was customary with him, he surrounds the main figures, such as General Samsonov, with a host of minor characters. The result is a huge, mosaic-like canvas of a historic event in the tradition of Tolstoy.
As in practically all of his works, Solzhenitsyn is primarily after the truth. His prime concern is magnified here by the simple fact that the events in 1914 directly led to the revolution in Russia and that the history of World War I was tailored heavily to reflect the views of the victors—the Bolsheviks. The ultimate truth of August 1914 is, as Solzhenitsyn saw it, that the czarist government was inept and corrupt and that its weaknesses, rather than the strength of the Bolsheviks, prepared the way for their eventual triumph. This premise is illustrated best at the end of the novel by the generals’ blaming Samsonov for the defeat, rather than admitting their own failures.
Solzhenitsyn also pursues his well-established thesis that the responsibility of the individual—that is, his or her dignity—is the ingredient that spells victory or defeat in the constant struggle for a decent life. The treatment of fellow human beings goes a long way toward determining how he or she will react; the better the treatment, the greater the chances for a success, and vice versa. Thus, Solzhenitsyn went beyond the mere writing of a historical novel; he used this book to establish some basic truths about how humans behave as social beings, which could then be used to understand the subsequent events in Russia.
The enlarged edition of August 1914 contains fifteen new chapters amounting to more than three hundred pages, all running consecutively. They do not change the basic premises of the first edition’s plot, but they do add considerable material pertaining to the machinations behind the front lines, as well as further historical background.
August 1914 examines an extremely broad cross section of Russian society within the telescoped time frame of a few critical days at the beginning of World War I. A major battle (and with it, an entire army) will be lost, at a moment when “[i]t only needed two or three such defeats in succession for the backbone of the country to be put out of joint forever and for a thousand-year-old nation to be utterly destroyed.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s thesis is that Russia itself was destroyed when it was replaced by the Soviet Union. The strands of his novel come together to emphasize that the Soviet Union was born out of war—the original harsh experience that colors the country to this day.
The author opens the novel with protagonists from his own preexistence. The models include his grandparents, Zakhar and Evdokia; his father, Isaakii; his elegant aunt, Irina, and difficult uncle, Roman; and his...
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