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Once again, Solzhenitsyn would have been acutely aware of the resemblance between contemporary events and the collapse of Russia in February/March 1917, which is the central drama of The Red Wheel.

The Red Wheel is divided into four 'knots' - August 1914, November 1916, March 1917 and April 1917. August 1914 and November 1916 have both been published in English translation but the core of the series is March 1917 - four large volumes giving a day by day account of the course of the February Revolution - the abdication of the Tsar and the simultaneous creation in Petrograd of a 'bourgeois' provisional government and a working class 'soviet'. It was the 'February revolution' because Russia at the time was still using the Julian calendar, which is still the calendar used by the Orthodox Church. According to the Western, 'Gregorian', calendar, the 'October Revolution' the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, took place in November. It was in 'Petrograd' because St Petersburg had been renamed at the beginning of the war for much the same reason that the British royal family became the House of Windsor and the Battenberg family became Mountbatten. March 1917 has been available in a French translation since the 1990s. 

April 1917 comes in two volumes. The first of these, covering Lenin's arrival in Petrograd - the occasion of the famous 'April Theses' - and the beginnings of a major crisis over the refusal of the foreign affairs minister, Paul Milyukov to renounce, and call on the allies to renounce, imperialist aims in the war as demanded by the Petrograd soviet. The second volume, still available only in Russian, takes the story through to the resignation of Milyukov and the formation of a new government in which the Social Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, as war minister, was the dominant figure. The definitive version of August 1914 (a shortened version had been published shortly before The Gulag Archipelago) included a long section 'From previous knots' showing the events that had led to the war, centred on the career of Nicholas II's first minister Peter Stolypin and his assassination in 1911. Similarly, the second part of April 1917 includes a selection of subsequent knots which, presumably, will tell the story of the creation of the Soviet Union.

It is obvious that this is not a 'novel' in the normal sense of the word. It has fictional characters but Solzhenitsyn's interest in them seems to decline as the book progresses. On the other hand it is certainly not a 'history book' in the normal sense of the word either. Solzhenitsyn's particular skill as a writer lies in his ability to think himself into other minds, to see the world through eyes other than his own. The eyes of Alexander Shlyapnikov, for example. Shlyaphinkov was, with Vyacheslav Molotov (yes, really!), and Peter Zalutski, the main representative of the Bolshevik tendency living in Petrograd at a time when all the more prominent leaders were in exile. November 1916 largely turns on a strike he has organised. The Tsarist government's failure to confront this strike was, in Solzhenitsyn's view, a forewarning of its imminent collapse. Shlyapnikov however is operating on his own initiative without clear orders from the Bolshevik leaders and, at a point when it is too late to call it off, he realises that the pretext for the strike, which he thought was genuine, was actually spurious.

Shlyapnikov was one of the few genuine workers in the Bolshevik leadership and his life in Petrograd, constantly on the run from the authorities, was difficult. In the picture Solzhenitsyn draws he has a conscientious worker's love of work well done and a sense of personal responsibility for his fellow workers. He is, in other words, painted sympathetically even though for Solzhenitsyn the result of his action was another turn of the red wheel pushing Russia towards the rule of what Solzhenitsyn understood as a reign of Absolute Evil.

Similarly, the event that finally precipitated the catastrophe (as Solzhenitsyn saw it) of the abdication of the Tsar was the refusal of the Volhynian regiment to use force to break up the strikes which by February 25th/9th March had brought Petrograd to a standstill. Solzhenitsyn describes in powerful prose the thoughts of the soldiers - Timothy Kirpichnikov and Michael Markov - who had initiated it as they lay on their beds the night before it had to be implemented. And then we share abundantly in the 'Blest was it in that dawn to be alive' atmosphere as, instead of being court martialled and shot, the soldiers find themselves in a snowballing movement of unrestrained jubilation that eventually engulfs the whole population (interesting to switch from that to the grim description of Petrograd under siege from the White and allied forces three years later in Conquered City, by the old revolutionary, Victor Serge). 

Solzhenitsyn's own views are, notionally, represented by the fictional character, Colonel Vorotyntsev, who was shown stumbling through August 1914, seeing quite clearly the military disaster that was in preparation, with clear ideas as to what to do about it, but unable to find anyone willing to take him seriously. By November 1916, he is persuaded that the only hope for Russia is that the Tsar should abdicate and Russia should withdraw from the war, making a separate peace with Germany. To this end Vorotyntsev mixes in political circles - meeting members of Milyukov's Constitutional Democratic Party (the 'Cadets') as well as the 'Octobrist' leader, Alexander Guchkov (the 'Octobrists' were supporters of the 'October manifesto' which was agreed by Nicholas II in the wake of the 1905 rising and which established the elected consultative 'duma'). But he hardly dares formulate his own thought and finds that both the Cadets and Guchkov, however opposed they may be to Nicholas, are more than anxious to continue the war. Milyukov in particular sees Nicholas as secretly an ally of the Germans.

Vorotyntsev has a close friend, this time based loosely on a real historical person, a fellow officer and eventually a general, Alexander Svechin, who argues against Guchkov, that loyalty to the Tsar is the only option. Solzhenitsyn in his author's preface remarks a little disingenuously that Svechin was 'executed by the Bolsheviks'. He neglects to say that this was in the 1930s and that in the great confrontation between the Whites and the Reds he had joined the Reds (he was the author of an important manual of strategy published in the Soviet Union in 1927). It is not difficult to see why. Russia in his view needed a firm hand. And what firmer hand is offered through the whole of The Red Wheel than the hand of Lenin?

During his visit to the Cadets, Vorotyntsev meets up with another enthusiast for loyalty to the Tsar, the University professor, specialist in mediaeval history, Olda Andozerskaya. But though it is her passionate advocacy of the principle of monarchy that excites his interest their friendship quickly turns into a sexual relationship that renders both of them (the people who seem best to embody Solzhenitsyn's own convictions) impotent in the hour of Russia's need. Vorotyntsev is married. From now on the need to save Russia is hopelessly tangled up with the need to save his marriage.

But do Vorotyntsev and Andozerskaya really represent Solzhenitsyn's own opinions? Andozerskaya's defense of the monarchy has become little more than the initial move in a process of charming Vorotyntsev into her bed. Guchkov tries to enroll Vorotyntsev in his own plot to bring about the abdication of Nicholas. But Vorotyntsev has to bow out because he has to be with his wife for her birthday, all the more urgently because of his unfaithfulness. The abdication takes place all the same - more or less as Guchkov had planned it (and it is in fact Guchkov who receives it). The description of Nicholas's isolation in the second part of March 1917, culminating in his confrontation with the icon of Christ after the terrible decision has been made, is another of the great pieces of writing the book contains. The result is a government that has neither the competence nor the authority to repair the damage that has been very largely of Nicholas's own making. Guchkov himself is Minister of War but, especially by the time of April 1917, is too ill to concentrate on his work, and his wholesale purge of generals he perceives as being incompetent is having disastrous consequences at the front.

Vorotyntsev had wanted the government to disregard its agreements with its allies and make a separate peace with Germany, but the only people seriously advocating that are the Bolsheviks. In April 1917, there are large demonstrations of all sorts of people in Petrograd against Lenin and the Bolsheviks, perceived as traitors and German agents. Solzhenitsyn sees it as a moment when the Communist monster could have been smothered in its cradle. But the slogan of the demonstrators is precisely support for Milyukov's policy of continuing the war and fulfilling the obligations to the allies.

The great subject of The Red Wheel is of course the triumph of Absolute Evil ie of Bolshevism - we hardly need to argue the case that that is what Solzhenitsyn believed Bolshevism to be. Bolshevism is personified in the novel by Lenin. But Lenin is also the only figure in The Red Wheel who sees clearly (from his own point of view) what needs to be done and has the ruthlessness to do it. The Bolsheviks will soon be firing at unarmed demonstrators. It was the refusal of the Volhynian regiment to fire on unarmed demonstrators that precipitated the February Revolution. In April 1917, Timothy Kirpichnikov, now deeply distressed by the consequences of his action, watches a demonstration of (armed) workers calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government. He considers the possibility of collecting his regiment again, in defiance of government orders, and shooting them down. And then he sees in the faces of the great mass of the demonstrators signs of the suffering and hardship of their lives and he cannot bring himself to do it. It is one of the all too rare moments in The Red Wheel when Solzhenitsyn, for all his ability to enter into other minds, has something to say about the subjective experience of the Petrograd workers, the reasons for the hatred both among them and among the Kronstadt sailors, which he represents as such a sinister force. Nonetheless, we feel that he regrets Kirpichnikov's lack of ruthlessness at that crucial moment.