I’ve actually read ‘August 1914’ before, but never blogged about it because I found the whole experience so confusing. It is the first volume in Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Red Wheel’ cycle and delivers exactly what the title promises – over 700 pages dealing with one month of Russia’s experiences in World War I. The level of detail is overwhelming and I’m afraid that without a basic grounding in exactly what was going on during this time it’s easy to feel as lost and bogged down as the poor soldiers endlessly advancing and retreating over the same unmapped patch of land.
Apparently inspired by the same masochism or desire for senseless achievement as the main characters, I decided to have another go at it. I knew I’d be aided this time round by knowing much more about the First World War thanks all the recent events and TV programmes commemorating its end.
It paid off, and if ‘August 1914’ is not on the level of Cancer Ward or ‘The First Circle’ for delivering a knock-out literary blow, it is still an impressive example of unexpected World War I literature. Unexpected because, in the UK, we know so little about the Russian experience of the conflict; in nearly all my other Russian reading so far it has been glossed over in haste to get to the revolution.
Solzhenitsyn clearly wasn’t even tempted to push ahead in his epic historical cycle. Instead ‘August’ is followed up with ‘November 1916,’ which has the same mixture of fictional and historical characters somehow making no progress whatsoever as world events unfold round them incredibly slowly.
I realise I may not be adequately selling the first two novels in this cycle. Personally, I found something charming about the incredible lack of compromise in their scope and scale. ‘November 1916’ for example is almost entirely concerned with Russia’s provisional government and the Kadet (Constitutional Democrat) political party which tried to control it. They get a footnote in most histories of the revolution; Solzhenitsyn gives them over 1000 pages. This book is also memorable for a sympathetic character’s heartfelt defence of autocracy. It may not be fashionable, but I was won over by the fact that the novel simply doesn’t care.
Across both volumes, the main character (within a cast of hundreds) is the fictional Geórgii Vorotyntsev, an idealistic career officer who was told by cryptic fortune -teller that he’d survive the first world war. This gives me two certainties going forward: Vorotyntsev will be there to guide me through the rest of the cycle and, like Pierre in War and Peace, he won’t actually be able to save Russia. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be engrossed in his continued attempts. I’m holding on to volume 3, ‘March 1917,’ till the appropriate month, but I’m already looking forward to immersing myself in the minutia of the precise historical moment.