Looking back: ‘August 1914’ and ‘November 1916’ by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

download.jpgI’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.

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5 Responses to Looking back: ‘August 1914’ and ‘November 1916’ by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

  1. Fascinating! I’ve read many Solzhenitsyn chunksters but never The Red Wheel. I do have the first two volumes and now I really, really want to get immersed… 😉

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I can’t see myself reading this because I have always found Solzhenitsyn more of a ‘worthy’ read than an enjoyable one, but yes, you are right about how little acknowledgement there is of Russian losses in the two world wars. It was just this month that encountered the first-ever reference I had ever come across to the astonishing number of Russian dead in WW1 because I read Boris Pasternak’s The Last Summer and did a little research to find out about some references that puzzled me. You can read the stats within my post at https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/11/07/the-last-summer-by-boris-pasternak-translated-by-george-reavey/.
    BTW it was this week I also heard for the first-ever time about Indian soldiers killed in WW1. Unfortunately I was driving so I couldn’t write down the name of the book.
    I’d have thought that with four years to milk that stupid war for all it’s worth during its centenary, that room could be found for acknowledging the losses in other countries… but no, that hasn’t happened.

    • Thank you for the link – if you want some extremely grim stories to go with the figures, Sholokhov’s Quiet flows the Don starts with the brutality of WW1 moving more or less seamlessly into the brutality of the revolutionary wars.
      A book that I’d really recommend is Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. A main character is a Pashtun soldier who fights at Ypres and many of the most memorable parts of the novel focus on exactly those parts of WW1 history that are so often ignored.

  3. Pingback: Writing the Revolution: ‘March 1917’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn | Shoshi's Book Blog

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