Oktiabr' Shestnadtsatogo by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Oktiabr' Shestnadtsatogo Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Oktiabr shestnadtsatogo (October 1916) seeks to re-create the processes that led to the 1917 overthrow of the czarist regime. Beneath the chaos, lines of fate are running to conjoin in a disaster, a universal pogrom of Russia itself. Competing groups, pursuing opposite goals, unwittingly work toward the same end. Once the chariot of revolution has begun to roll, like a runaway train, it cannot be stopped.

On the Byelorussian front, it has become clear to Colonel Georgii Vorotyntsev that Russia’s continued participation in the Great War will destroy her, regardless of who wins. Vorotyntsev takes a brief leave from the battlefront with the desperate objective of presenting his views to Aleksandr Guchkov, who as Secretary of the Duma (parliament) appears to be Russia’s most courageous statesman. On his way to see Guchkov in St. Petersburg, Vorotyntsev stops overnight in Moscow to visit his long-neglected wife, Alina. He placates her with a solemn promise to see her again on his way back (in less than two weeks), on her birthday. There is a tacit feeling that the continuation of their marriage will depend upon his keeping this promise.

In St. Petersburg, however, Vorotyntsev is immediately distracted from the purpose of his journey by a fascinating woman, Olda Orestovna (Professor Andozerskaya). The “wooden” soldier sinks into a lush new world of sensual eroticism and while away his entire leave. Vorotyntsev meets the elusive Guchkov only on his last day in St. Petersburg, and then quite by chance(although this meeting may have been arranged by Guchkov, for whom Vorotyntsev has been leaving messages).

Guchkov is seriously contemplating a coup, preferably bloodless. All he needs is a handful of officers to take over the General Staff headquarters at a moment when the henpecked czar, Nicholas II, is bivouacked there. Vorotyntsev, whom Guchkov has visualized as exactly the kind of iron-willed man who is needed, is unable to participate, however, because he does not dare to miss his wife’s birthday. Thus the coup is postponed. More important, Vorotyntsev is unable to make even Guchkov, Russia’s most enlightened politician, understand the danger that underlies all of their fates: The war is destroying Russia. When Czar Nicholas is finally overthrown by a broad coalition of the Russian intelligentsia, it will be in large part because of rumors that the czar himself was moving toward a separate peace with Germany.

Meanwhile, the much-proclaimed endurance of the Russian people has been sapped by the incessant call-ups of useless recruits, uselessly dying, which depopulates and demoralizes the countryside. This side of Russia, invisible to the urban populace, appears very early in the novel and is personified in the good soldier, Arsenii Blagodaryov (Senka).

Just at the moment that Senka becomes eligible for home leave, the high command denies all leaves for soldiers (timing this prohibition to coincide with the harvest is typical of the regime, which also exempts the politically radical proletariat, largely employed in war-related industry, from military service). A young officer, Isaakii Lazhenitsyn (Sanya)—himself of peasant stock—tries to get Senka a special leave. As the novel’s focus shifts to Vorotyntsev’s travels, Senka’s leave is still pending. He is left behind as a somewhat pathetic figure: homesick for the farm and getting worried about his wife.

Midway through, when the novel’s wheel completes its first revolution, Senka reenters, but now he is seen from a strikingly different perspective—as the backbone of a peasant family and a pillar of his community coming home to a warm celebration.

There appears, however, to be a problem with his wife, Katyona. When they are alone, she asks him to beat her. Senka assumes that she is asking to be punished for infidelity, and he complies. In fact, she is acting out an erotic fantasy that she nourished during his long absence. When she finally makes him understand that she...

(The entire section is 1,161 words.)