Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161
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 is innocent and only wanted to “feel his will,” he remorsefully carries her “like a child.” This last gesture completes her fantasy: It was something for which she could not ask, but now she is content.
In a parallel scene, though under more refined and gentle circumstances, Vorotyntsev’s lover has induced him to rock and swing her, like a child. When these two very different couples are shown in consecutive scenes, the Professoress (in bed) expounds her dazzling theories of Russian history and the need for a czar; down on the farm, Katyona keeps up a stream of chatter about the field in which she is a recognized authority: geese.
Encompassing the novel as a whole, a bigger circle is drawn which begins and ends with the Russian church, as embodied in Father Severyan, an anomalous figure in an age of unbelief. Sanya first meets Severyan on a painful night of doubt and disgust. Even Tolstoyanism is failing him. Severyan willingly polemicizes with the young officer. According to the priest’s novel theory of war and peace, in which Sanya is able to find some comfort, the sum total of evil impulses in the world is always the same. War channels most of the evil of a country into a single direction: Therefore war is not the worst form of evil. In fact, “the dilemma of peace/war is the superficial dilemma of superficial minds.”
When another priest, Father Alonius, appears at the end of the novel, it is in a similar role. In a running subplot (also counterpointing the Vorotyntsev-Andozerskaya affair), a bright, precocious, eccentric young woman, Zinaida Rumnitskaya, has played out the seamier side of the adultery poeticized by the Professoress. Zinaida saves her sanity by confessing to Alonius, putting herself in the worst possible light. The comfort that Alonius offers to this inconsolable woman is biblical, and closes the novel: “Who can tell another: ‘Do this, but don’t do that.’ Who can order you not to love, when Christ said: There is nothing higher than love. And He did not exclude any love—any kind of love at all.”
While personal relationships are life’s most serious business, considerable humor is added to the novel by the events of history: The minutes of the Duma, quoted verbatim in separate chapters, are a tragicomedy; the internal monologues of the czar and czarina provide macabre humor when they reverently touch upon “Our Friend” (that is, Grigory Rasputin); and sustained irony is created by the mere recitation of the words and deeds of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Convinced that the Russians are too meek to revolt, Lenin pins his hopes on a Marxist revolution in Switzerland. His tiny group of rebels calls itself “the Bowling Club,” as if overturning governments were like knocking down tenpins.
Once a mass movement begins, however, Lenin, like a boy with a toy train, is confident that he alone knows how to drive it: “to brake on those turns in time, sometimes steering left, and sometimes right, foreseeing up ahead where the twisting road of revolution threatened to plunge.”