If you are interested in the past and future of Russia, November 1916: The Red Wheel: Knot II is a must read. But set aside significant time for this task -- it's hard work battling through these thousand pages.
This is the second volume of a still-unfinished multi-part work. The first volume, August 1914, was first published in English in 1972. This one came out in 1999. In between, the Soviet Union crumbled and our perspective on 20th century history totally changed as well. No longer was Communism vs. Capitalism the main theme. No longer was it presumed that the Soviet state was the natural, inevitable outcome of previous Russian history. Suddenly, other tendencies and themes from Russia's past, such as religion and nationality, emerged from the background and became important once again. The focus and tone of the new book reflect the new perspective. Solzhenitsyn's detailed analysis and fictionalized portrayal of the World War I era brings to the fore all the possibilities, tendencies, and diversity of the Russia that seemed to vanish with the Revolution and that has now resurfaced. It is as if Russia is now a country with an identity crisis -- if we are not Communists what are we? -- and this book seeks to resurrect an historical moment that had been largely forgotten and misrepresented when told by Communists and by anti-Communists, events and facts that were irrelevant to Communism but are very relevant today.
While technically this book is fiction, the heart of the story is, in fact, meticulously researched and exhaustively presented history. The central figure is a Colonel Vorotyntsev, who also figured prominently in August 1914. Much of the story is seen through his eyes, as he moves from the Eastern Front to Moscow and Petersburg, then to Russian military headquarters in Mogilev. He has his personal ambitions and concerns, his love life, his human weaknesses. But he is driven to understand what is happening to Russia and try to find out if and how he can intervene to save his nation.
There are literally hundreds of other characters, some historical and some meant as representatives of different tendencies and perspectives that were important at that time. But the real "hero" of the story is Russia itself, for Solzenitsyn seems far more interested in the fate of nations than in the fate of individuals. Repeatedly, his characters ponder what is the nature of national character? How does the character of the Russian nation differ from that of German, English, and other nations? What is it that holds a society together? What makes it all work for everyone's benefit, in peace and in war? While novelists typically place their main characters in crisis to test them and reveal their true nature, Solzhenitsyn picks the historical moment that places the Russian nation in crisis and tests it. In a sense, he is exploring the nature of man, in that each nation has a developing personality, like an individual, and each nation expresses different aspects of human possibility. But first and foremost, Russia is what matters to the author -- every spoken word and every characteristic incident that uncovers previously forgotten trends and possibilities, that might shed light on the nature and destiny of Russia needs to be dramatically presented and analyzed in context. In fact, this book seems to have no beginning and no ending -- it's all middle, with the texture of life and the trends of thought more important than the fate of any individual character.
Considering the monumental task that the author set for himself and the style of presentation that he has chosen, it is remarkable that this book works at all -- and it does, driven by his personal passion and the passion of his diverse characters, not just to understand the destiny of Russia, but also to influence it. For that is what makes this book stand apart from mere fiction or mere history -- Solzhenitsyn is a player, someone with the stature to be heard and respected by his countrymen, and someone with a sense of his own personal mission to redefine his nation, to give it new self-confidence and pride, to give it a new sense of identity and direction.
Other book reviews by Richard Seltzer
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