Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works are well-known in this country. (Although not as well-known as they should be!) Many people have heard of the novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Cancer Ward, and of the non-fiction several-part series on the Soviet prison camps, The Gulag Archipelago. People have heard of these books, and some at least–not a small number, thank heaven–have read them.
Solzhenitsyn was incredibly prolific. He had a vision for what he could accomplish in his life, and he kept his nose to the grindstone. By the time he died at age 89, he left a lot of books. Some have not yet been translated into English.
One of the projects which was very important to him was his cycle of novels entitled The Red Wheel. The Wikipedia article on The Red Wheel is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Wheel.
This was a project conceived in 1938, although S. did not begin writing on it until 1969. The idea was to tell, in novel form, the history of Russia in the years immediately prior to, during, and immediately after, the Russian Revolution (1917).
When he submitted volume one, August 1914, in Russia, the novel was turned down. Wikipedia tells us his submission was ‘turned down after he insisted on capitalization of the word “God.”‘ The book was published abroad.
I read it in the early 70s, and it made no huge impression on me. (The faint possibility exists that I was not intellectually ready to read the book; the fault may have lain with me.) Later, however, S. revised and expanded the novel. This expanded version appeared in 1984. Only a few years ago, I finally decided I should read the entire The Red Wheel. Should I begin with the new version of August 1914 or just move on to volume 2? I decided I would read the revised and expanded version–make a fresh start. Excellent decision! (Every now and then the old blind sow finds an acorn.)
I purchased the newer version–this time translated by Solzhenitsyn’s favorite translator, H. T. Willetts–only in the summer of 2021. And only now have I gotten around to reading the expanded version of August 1914. I am profoundly glad that I read the new, expanded, and final version of the book. There was so much of value there.
A word of warning, though. If you are new to the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, don’t begin with August 1914. Begin with the three books mentioned above (or a large handful of others). But don’t begin with the first book of The Red Wheel.
The book is a novel, but it is not a novel in the way we usually think of novels. An immense amount of history is mixed in. The main character is, we might say, Russia herself. At one point, S. warns us as follows:
“(Although the necessary outline of Stolypin’s life and work which follows will be as succinctly factual as the author can make it, he suggests that only the most indefatigably curious readers immerse themselves in these details. Others can easily go straight on to the next section in larger print. The author would not permit himself such a crude distortion of the novel form if Russia’s whole history, her very memory, had not been so distorted in the past, and her historians silenced.)” (p. 531)
This warning might have been appended to the entire novel!
Anyway, Most Indefatigably Curious are my middle names, and I of course read the portion in smaller print. I am very glad I did. But one certainly sees what S. means. This is a novel, but it is also a history. I have no complaint whatsoever, but this is not the book to begin your reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It is one of his books to read, after you know him and trust him by having read a handful of his more accessible works.
This book made a strong impression on me, which the original early 1970s version did not. I will certainly plan to press on to volume 2 of The Red Wheel, November 1916. Then, if I am still standing, March 1917, and finally April 1917. The latter book seems not yet to have been translated into English. Which, as I noted above, is true of others of S.’s works.
Here a few takeaways from my reading of August 1914.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. We in the U.S. should be afraid, very afraid. It is clear that Russia in 1914 had an intellectual elite which was horribly corrupt. Does that sound like any other place you know? Hint: its initials are U., S., and A.
The self-righteous ignorance of the Russian intellectual class was horrific. It is so much more pleasant to signal one’s virtue than actually to be virtuous!
The intellectual class in Russia approved and encouraged and participated in countless assassinations. An echo in this country is how the intellectual class has approved and encouraged the violence by the scumbags of Black Lives Matter and Antifa. But we are behind the Russians in actual assassinations! It was a revelation to read what Russia went through in regard to left-wing violence, for many long decades.
A leader needs not just to be a Christian in his faith. The Tsar, Nikolai II, seems really to have been a believer. But practical Christian wisdom is needed as well. Nikolai II lacked that practical wisdom, that applied Christianity.
Stay out of wars! If Russia had just not participated in the world war (World War I), incredible miseries for the country might have been avoided. There might never have been a Russian Revolution. Millions of lives might have been spared. Oceans of horrors might have been avoided. (Who knows, maybe this applies to the U.S. as well. Maybe we should avoid wars, which might bankrupt us and bring instability to us. No, I’m joking, of course–we need to run the world.)
Don’t trust the military leaders! Many of them are incompetent time-servers. Look at the military leadership of Russia, which was excellent at escaping responsibility for bad decisions but not excellent at anything else. Then, bravely removing your fingers from your eyes as you look at the woke parasites in charge of our military, ask yourself if these are people to be trusted to lead our nation into a real war.
The church needs to be strengthened! The Russian church was not what it should have been. Is the situation any different in the U.S.? Half of us are woke (which means asleep), and the other half are contemplating our navels. Like Nikolai II, we may be believers, but our practical Christian wisdom is pathetically weak.
August 1914 is a book in which we get a feel for Russia prior to World War I. We get a feel for the early weeks of the war. We get a feel for how a nation collectively (almost if not completely) pursues unwisdom, daring idiocy to come on. The dare was answered.
But here is one encouraging takeaway.
The horrors Russia experienced were not inevitable. They could have avoided the deaths, the violence, the misery. They could have turned their eyes to God, and tried to obey Him. As S. has noted elsewhere, many Russian people understood that the horrors had come upon them because people forgot God.
It is not too late for us to remember God. It is not too late for us avoid the abyss.
Or, if it is too late–and I don’t think it is if we turn to God–there is absolutely no need whatsoever that you and I, as individuals and as members of families and members of churches, acquiesce in the evil. We can at least stand up on our hind legs and howl at the moon. It is better to go down howling, than to shrug.
August 1914 is a valuable book, a worthy addition to the books by a writer of world-historical importance. Just don’t make this the first Solzhenitsyn book you read! (And when you do read it, make sure you read the expanded 1984 version, not the truncated version from the early 1970s.)
The paperback book is available for about $11.00 (shipping and sales tax included) at both AbeBooks and Amazon. That is not an unreasonable price for a book containing 846 large pages. Just be sure you are purchasing the H. T. Willetts translation of the complete, expanded 1984 version. It features a red and white cover, and Willetts’ name is visible.