Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1657
Fans of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn waited long for the appearance of the second installment of what he promised would be a trilogy explaining the causes of the revolution that paved the way for Vladimir Ilich Lenin and his henchmen to impose Communist rule on Russia and its neighbors. Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971, rev. 1983; August 1914, 1972), the first volume, which detailed the defeat of the Russian Army at the Battle of the Tannenberg Forest, had been acclaimed by Western audiences when it appeared in translation in 1972. The second “knot,” as Solzhenitsyn calls each novel in his trilogy, was begun in 1971 and occupied the author for more than a decade. Although he secured copyright to the novel, Oktiabr’ shestnadtsatogo, in 1984, it would be fifteen years before an English translation appeared, giving Solzhenitsyn the wide readership outside the Soviet Union that he so desperately wanted for all his works.
Unfortunately for him, in the decades between inception and publication of November 1916, one of the most significant events of the twentieth century took place: the fall of Communism and the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Hence, a work intended to explain the causes of a destructive yet still vigorous ideology to an oppressed people in Russia and a sympathetic audience in the West lost much of its political impetus. What had begun as a novel using history to rationalize politics had become merely another historical novel.
What is even more curious is that Solzhenitsyn had chosen to write about the causes of the Russian Revolution by focusing not simply on events involving open warfare, terrorism, or coups d’état. He had done so to a certain extent in August 1914. By contrast, in November 1916Solzhenitsyn chooses to concentrate on a period significantly less tumultuous. “The interval between 27 October and 17 November 1916 contains relatively few events of historical importance,” he tells readers in the author’s note preceding his story. He focused on this rather uneventful month, he continues, because “it encapsulates the stagnant and oppressive atmosphere of the months immediately preceding the Revolution.” Like many writers of historical fiction, Solzhenitsyn is less concerned with momentous action (in this case, considerably less so) than he is with helping to capture the intellectual, social, political, and military milieu of the time. Because, as he acknowledges, historical records of prerevolutionary Russia are sparse, he resorts to fiction to give himself wider latitude not only to tell his story but also to re-create the atmosphere of the age.
Were he not so serious about his work, Solzhenitsyn might have adapted Mark Twain’s famous adage about looking for a moral inAdventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to describe the story line ofNovember 1916: “Persons looking for a plot will be shot.” There is no single narrative thread that binds together the disparate parts of Solzhenitsyn’s story. Instead, Solzhenitsyn weaves together more than a dozen major vignettes of individuals whose lives are touched by the war, interspersing fictional accounts with pages of history taken from records he found within Russia and in archives throughout the West. The effect is decidedly disjointed, and readers may find it difficult to recall details from the various real-life and fictional episodes that make up this thousand-page saga.
If there is one dominant character, it is the fictional Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev. Assigned to the front after years serving in staff positions, he has become resigned to completing his career in obscurity, carrying out his duty as a soldier. His wife Alina is even more disappointed than he that he has been sent to the front, because she has dreams of mingling within the best circles in Moscow. When her husband returns by way of Moscow on a visit to General Headquarters in St. Petersburg, she is initially elated, but her joy turns to bitter disappointment when she learns he can stay only a day. Though he promises to return quickly on his way back to his unit, Vorotyntsev spends more than a week in St. Petersburg. There he meets Olda Andozerskaya, a professor and political activist, at the home of Aleksandr Shingarev, a member of the Russian Duma and leader of the Kadet Party, which was influential in Russian politics during the first decades of the twentieth century. Vorotyntsev finds that Olda possesses qualities of intellectualism and feminine charm sadly lacking in his wife, and he risks marriage and career to be with her for most of the time he was to have been briefing members of the General Staff. Upon his return to Moscow, however, he confesses his affair to Alina, and the deterioration of their marriage is related with agonizing psychological detail.
To Vorotyntsev’s story Solzhenitsyn grafts those of Sanya Lazhenitsyn, a young lieutenant whose concern for his men and for traditional values gives the author an opportunity to discuss matters of religion and morals. Through the adventures of Arseni Blagodev, a private in Lazhenitsyn’s unit, Solzhenitsyn explores the reaction of the peasants to the war and the effect the continued fighting has on their villages. Vorotyntsev’s conversations with real-life political and military figures such as Shingarev and Aleksandr Guchkov, head of the War Industries Committee, provide Solzhenitsyn the opportunity to comment on the state of politics and the economy during the war years. Dozens of other historical figures make appearances in the work, and an equal number of fictional men and women are created to give readers an idea of how the war and attendant political unrest affected citizens at all levels in a country ill prepared for its role in the conflict and unable to mobilize its resources to carry out its military commitments efficiently.
Solzhenitsyn is at his best when delineating characters, whether they be made from whole cloth or constructed from the historical record. For example, he introduces readers to Fyodor D. Kovynev, a self-styled writer whose indiscriminate ramblings about his native countryside and his inability to provide any substantial insights through his work are strongly reminiscent of the Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov, whose novels of peasant life were so pleasing to Joseph Stalin and other Communist Party leaders. Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter in which the events of the period are viewed through the consciousness of the czarina Aleksandra. She is worried to distraction about the long separations from her husband Nikolai II, who had rashly decided to assume field command of the Russian army. Through her internal monologue and her chaotic attempts to control the government in her husband’s absence, she reveals her perceptions of the revered spiritual counselor on whose advice she relies for deciding the fate of ministers and generals. Her portrait of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin stands in sharp contrast to the commentary of many others, both historical and fictional, who can see with great clarity the damage this madman and lecher is doing to the prestige of the royal couple and, by extension, to all of Russia. By moving his perspective from the small circle around Nikolai and Aleksandra to the politicians and military leaders trying valiantly to carry out their tasks in government and warfare, Solzhenitsyn displays the degree to which the royal family had been cut off from the people they were ostensibly ordained to rule.
Perhaps the most intriguing portrait is that of Lenin. In 1916 Lenin was merely one of a number of revolutionaries who had been forced to flee Russia when his efforts to bring about political reform were unsuccessful. Situated in Zurich, Switzerland, Lenin is shown manipulating subordinates and honest reformers so that, when the time is ripe, he will be able to orchestrate sweeping changes inspired by his reading of the radical political philosopher Karl Marx. Though not dominating the landscape of the novel, Lenin emerges as a man with exceptional intellect, clear vision, and little concern for those who might stand in the way of his new workers’ state.
It is easy to get caught up in the history that underpins November 1916and to miss the fact that it is principally a work of fiction. The novel is carefully structured to balance documented events with imagined accounts of the impact of events on fictional characters. Not bound slavishly to the historical record, Solzhenitsyn is free to speculate about feelings and motivations, not only for fictional characters but for historical personages as well.
A number of other literary qualities enrich the text. The panoramic vista of a country at war is clearly meant to remind readers of that other great fictional account of the Russians’ struggle for survival, Leo Tolstoy’sVoyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). The apparent collective madness that sweeps through segments of the populace suggests eerie parallels to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913). Throughout, too, Solzhenitsyn provides lengthy, detailed descriptions of a seemingly unchanging natural landscape; apart from the little strip in the west where fighting takes place, it lies largely unscarred while the men and women who inhabit it find themselves undergoing radical changes.
The novel is filled with narration, description, and dialogue that bring to life this chaotic period in Russia’s history. Perhaps there is no more poignant section in the novel than the final one, in which a mother comes to church to mourn her dead son and seek forgiveness for her trangressions, which she somehow realizes have led to her tragedy. It would be hard not to see the scene as metaphor for what is going on in the country at large. Even if the need for justification on political terms is no longer necessary, Solzhenitsyn’s novel provides insight into the continuing human problems of any individual’s struggle with sin and the need for redemption, or any community’s or nation’s need for sanity and compromise in the conduct of society’s business. For these reasons,November 1916 may live long after the Soviet Union is but a dim memory.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (September 1, 1998): 7.
Library Journal 123 (September 1, 1998): 217.
The Nation 268 (May 3, 1999): 32.
The New York Times, February 12, 1999, p. E49.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (February 7, 1999): 4.