Books: Seeing red in the Revolution

November 1916 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn trans H T Willetts Jonathan Cape, pounds 30, 1014pp: Russia's angry old man has let propaganda handicap his genius, argues Robert Service
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The Independent Culture
ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN, now in his 81st year, is a writer with a mission. It has been his dream for three decades to complete his sequence of novels on the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel. The novels are gathered into "knots" and this hefty new tome is the second. Although two further knots have yet to appear, the published material is already longer than Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Solzhenitsyn's early novels were landmarks in European literature. I can still remember getting my hands on his Cancer Ward in the Russian edition published in Paris; at the time, he could not have it published in his own country. The opening pages were an antidote to the historical accounts of Soviet communism available in the West. Solzhenitsyn analysed his country not through political reportage or economic statistics but through the characters who convalesced in a dingy hospital. The language was so dense and colloquial and the characters were drawn with such warmth - even the Stalinists were shown capable of creditable emotions. In waging his struggle against Soviet communism, Solzhenitsyn the novelist preferred the rapier to the cudgel.

The Red Wheel takes us further back, to the period of the Russian Revolution. He started the project while persecuted by the KGB and continued it in Vermont, after his deportation from the USSR. Such was his commitment that he rejected invitations from Gorbachev and Yeltsin to return home until he had completed his draft.

For Solzhenitsyn, the year 1917 was a man-made disaster. In the months between the overthrow of the Romanovs in February and the communist seizure of power in October, he argues, Russians took leave of their senses and plunged their country into a bloodbath of irreligion and terror. Solzhenitsyn's credo is that Russia's health today depends on his fellow citizens resuming their reverence for hard work, self-reliance and Christian faith.

November 1916 is a treatment of the Russian Empire on the eve of tsarism's collapse. In the Russian original, the title is "October 1916": the discrepancy is because Russians in the First World War were still using the Julian calendar, 13 days out of sequence with the Gregorian version.

This detail illustrates the novelist's ambition to be taken seriously as a factual chronicler. He has not written a novel of the usual kind. It stands and falls by its achievement not only as a work of art but also as an historical tract. At times, Solzhenitsyn abandons fiction altogether and devotes dozens of pages to verbatim documents and his commentaries.

His preoccupation is with the specific reasons for Russia's malaise in the First World War. The comparison with Tolstoy's account of the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 is unavoidable. But whereas Tolstoy insisted that individual men and women do not make their own history, Solzhenitsyn's purpose is to convince us that personal responsibility is decisive for political and social outcomes. And there is another contrast. Tolstoy gave the impression of exploring a topic even when he had made up his mind. Solzhenitsyn knows the truth, or thinks he does, and wants to thrust his ideas into the consciousness of his readers.

There are some wonderful passages. Few writers have so successfully evoked the dangers, hopes and boredom of military service on the Eastern front. Adjutants and nurses are vividly evoked and he is particularly good at examining the pressures on the low-ranking officers. His own career at the end of the Second World War must have helped him here.

Yet Sozhenitsyn is equally effective at reproducing the sights and noises of Petrograd's wartime streets. He has an artist's eye for the hansom cabs, the sweetshops and the stall-holders - and all such phenomena had disappeared long before he grew up. He also offers a sensible account of Nicholas II as a brave but incompetent little tsar. His wife Alexandra, insists Solzhenitsyn, was a volatile but well-meaning empress who trained as a nurse and changed the blankets of wounded soldiers. And he refuses to denigrate the "holy man" Rasputin.

His empathy runs out, however, when he turns to the figures whom he charges with betraying Russia into the hands of Lenin. The list of traitors is a very long one. It includes not only Lenin and the revolutionaries but also the liberals and extends even to the conservative Alexander Guchkov.

Here was a character made for the novelist's pen (I suspect Solzhenitsyn does not use a computer). A traveller in Africa as well as a journalist, Guchkov had founded a party that aimed to provide the Romanov monarchy with constructive criticism. By 1916, Guchkov had given up on the Romanovs and was plotting their overthrow. Solzhenitsyn shows him no mercy. Because the fall of the Romanovs led eventually to Bolshevik power, Guchkov has to join the bench of traitors.

November 1916 is, excessively, a work of political propganda. There are too many longueurs and far too many commentaries. Solzhenitsyn badly wishes to replace the communist myth of Russia with a myth of his own. Art pays the price. He is a hard old man, quite as hard as his arch-demon of October 1917, Lenin.

Robert Service's latest book is his `Penguin History of Twentieth-Century Russia'