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Although The Red Wheel ends with the triumph of evil in the form of Bolshevism, it begins with another triumph of evil in the form of the war. But, as one might say, 'what is to be done?' Early in August 1914 we are introduced to the pacifist, Lev Tolstoy, telling the schoolboy, Sanya Lazhenitsyn - loosely based on Solzhenitsyn's father - about the purpose of man's life: "To serve the good. And so create the Kingdom of God on earth."

'"Yes I know that!" Sanya said eagerly. "But tell me - how are we to serve it? By loving? Must it be by loving?"

'"Of course. That is the only way."'

Which is fine until Sanya begins to splutter out the thoughts that have been tormenting him since he himself became a Tolstoyan.

'"What if love is not so strong [...] what if love cannot prevail [...] ought we not to envisage some intermediary stage, ask less of people to start with and then try to awaken them to universal benevolence?"'

Tolstoy replies: '"Love is the only way! The only way. No-one will ever find a better."' But by now Sanya is unable to restrain himself.

'"But there's another thing, Lev Nikolaevich. How are we to know what the good is? You write that the rational and the moral are always identical [...] that evil does not come from an evil nature, that people are evil not by nature but out of ignorance [...] but it isn't like that, Lev Nikolaevich, it just isn't so! Evil refuses to know the truth. Rends it with its fangs! Evil people usually know better than anybody else just what they are doing. And go on doing it. What are we to do with them?"

'He clapped his hand to his mouth so that he would say no more, so that he could not hear himself say more.

'The old man sighed deeply. "That's because no-one has been clever enough to explain to them in a way they can understand. We must explain things patiently. then they will understand. All men are born with the ability to understand."

'He strode off with his walking stick, obviously put out ...'

Despite his Tolstoyan pacifism, Sanya signs up for the army the moment war is declared. He cannot help himself, it is an absolute imperative for him to stand by his country in its hour of need. I have avoided saying 'moral' imperative because he still feels the immorality of it. Early in November 1916, he has another conversation on moral affairs, this time with the Orthodox chaplain to his brigade, Father Severyan. Severyan, like Sanya, is a sensitive man, interested and excited by ideas, and the two of them are delighted to discover each other. Sanya tells the priest that when he first went to him for confession he had said that since he was a volunteer '"I voluntarily took all the sins and murders committed here upon myself [...] The main thing was that you gave me absolution for my sins and my doubts - but I hadn't absolved myself. It all came back to plague me again. Should I have gone back to you? A second and a third time? To repeat what I'd already said, in the very same words - as if I was rejecting the absolution you'd given me? [...] Couldn't you not forgive me? If I'm to bear the very same burden tomorrow, because you can't relieve me of it, don't forgive me! Send me away unrelieved. That would be more honest. How can I ever relieve myself of it while the war goes on? I can't. The fact that I can't see the people I'm killing doesn't change matters [...]"'

Father Severyan has. of course, himself thought about the question and developed an argument by which he tries to reconcile Sanya to the war:

'"Quite simply, no state can live without war, that is one of the state's essential functions." Father Severyan's enunciation was very precise. "War is the price we pay for living in a state. Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states. But that is unthinkable until the propensity to violence and evil is rooted out of human beings. The state was created to protect us from violence.. [...] In ordinary life thousands of bad impulses, from a thousand foci of evil, move chaotically, randomly, against the vulnerable. The state is called upon to check these impulses - but it generates others of its own, still more powerful, and this time one-directional. At times it throws them all in a single direction - and that is war. [...] The real dilemma is the choice between peace and evil. War is only a special case of evil, concentrated in time and space. Whoever rejects war without first rejecting the state is a hypocrite. And whoever fails to see that there is something more primitive and more dangerous than war - and that is the universal evil instilled into men's hearts - sees only the surface. mankind's true dilemma is the choice between peace in the heart and evil in the heart ...'

The last sentence of course evokes the famous passage in The Gulag Archipelago about the line between good and evil in the human heart:

"So let the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now. If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate then from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"' (Vol 1, p.168)

Sanya is impressed by Father Severyan's argument but not totally convinced. And there are other matters he wants to raise, but Father Severyan is tired and begins to get a little irritated. The conversation takes a turn similar to the end of the conversation with Tolstoy.

Later, Sanya meets his friend Kotya, the friend of his youth, the one person with whom he can share all his memories and thoughts. Solzhenitsyn had a friend like that, Nikolai Vitkevich, nicknamed 'Koka'. D.M.Thomas's book includes a lovely photograph of the two of them, staring into each other's eyes, deep in conversation, taken at the time when they were discussing the plans to overthrow Stalin which landed them both in the Gulag. Later they met up in that privileged part of the Gulag which is the setting for In the First Circle. But Koka was no longer so interested in ideas, least of all subversive ones. He was principally concerned to get himself out.

The meeting between Sanya and Kotya is similarly disappointing. Sanya is bursting with eagerness to renew their old discussions and has a wealth of new ideas and impressions to share with him. But Kotya is unresponsive. He isn't hostile but the whole discussion has no meaning for him. He has lived through one of the worst incidents in the war, when his regiment was ordered to hold a position hard against the German lines:

'The ground was too soggy for deep digging, so under cover of darkness they hauled in bodies to make a parapet - there were more than enough of them - covered it with earth, and there you were, a strongpoint. They stayed there in that stench, and a cloud of blowflies, for a month [...] For anyone who crawled through blood and over dead flesh there, and had no hope of crawling to safety, that battle divides his life in two: there's before Skrobotovo and there's after Skrobotovo.'

It is rather the way Solzhenitsyn sees his time in the camps except that where Solzhenitsyn seems to have discovered God in the camps. Kotya rebuffs all Sanya's attempts to interest him in Father Severyan's intellectually stimulating explanation of war and why Christians can engage in it. Lying in bed, and conscious that Kotya isn't sleeping, Sanya makes one last effort:

'"I started telling you about Trubetskoy's article on the dispute between Tolstoy and Soloviev on the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven. Some of the finer points of Christianity are not highlighted in the Gospels but only hinted at, and they get lost sight of completely in everyday life. For instance: 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.' Are we to take this to mean that Christ is expressing approval of the Roman Empire, and of the state in general? Of course not! But he knows that people will not be able to live without the state for a very long time to come. That the state with all its deficiencies, its laws courts, its wars, and its policemen, is still a lesser evil than chaos. But a time will come when every state will have to depart this earth and give way to a higher order - the Kingdom of Heaven. Only here Trubetskoy himself loses sight of the problem. Because if we place our hopes on the transformation of the world by the Second Coming, it does not matter whether or not we gradually evolve toward it - the transition cannot be effected gradually."

'Kotya had had enough. "Stop talking crazy, Sanya old friend. What's this Kingdom of Heaven you keep on about? We could burble about it in our student days, when we were young pups who hadn't seen war. But now that all the nations of Europe have been making mincemeat of each other, gassing each other, spewing fire at each other for nearly three years, does this look as if the kingdom of Heaven is at hand? You and I will be polished off well before that, never fear!"'