Writing the Revolution: ‘March 1917’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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I was so excited to be given the opportunity of reviewing Marian Schwartz’s English translation of ‘Node 3, book 1’ of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental historical novel cycle ‘The Red Wheel.’  Of course, when I jumped at the chance, I hadn’t quite realised what an undertaking this would be.  As it happens, I had previously read ‘August 1914,’ but not the door stop that is ‘November 1916’, and even my experience with the first book was so long ago that I couldn’t confidently remember the characters (of which there are many) or main plot points (of which there are very few).  It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally up to date.  You can read by views on the previous nodes here, meanwhile, I’m going to throw myself into the frenetic excitement of the early days of the Russian revolution.

‘March 1917’ is over 600 pages long and takes the reader from 8th March to 12th March of that decisive year in Russian history.  This means the Bolsheviks don’t get much of a mention (Lenin won’t even start his journey back to Russia for another month), but a lot of time is spent with public and private individuals who played key roles later forgotten by history.  For Solzhenitsyn, these include the first soldiers who start mutineering before realising that they will be court martialed if order is ever restored, the initially apathetic revolutionaries who know that no uprising has been planned and don’t want to take a minor public disturbance too seriously and the politicians convinced they will be the future leaders of free Russia.

It is almost impossible to set the scene for the action of the book, because this scene (notwithstanding maps at the end of the volume) is just so disparate.  The revolution begins with what seem like minor bread riots in some areas of St Petersburg, mostly described through blackly comic descriptions of Duma (the elected legislative assembly) speeches in which the Tzarist government prove there is no bread shortage and the elected officials say there must be because it is impossible for the government to be competent enough to feed the city and can they have more power now.  Other chapters take us to the Tzar and his wife in neighbouring Tsarskoye Selo where he tries to make appropriately autocratic wartime decisions and she advises him and mourns for her recently assassinated ‘dear friend’ Rasputin.  Still other chapters cover the love lives of various fictional characters with pretty much no attention for the ongoing world war and outbreak of revolution.

Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, a year after the events he depicts with such vigour in the novel.  Instead, he lived with the consequences of this cataclysmic historical moment, and his anger against the authorities who sought revolution without understanding their responsibilities to the nation drives the narrative.  It is a true strength of the book that, despite the almost overwhelming detail, it never allows the reader to imagine they have the full story or a definitive answer about everything that happened during these tumultuous few days.  Instead it shows the multitudes affected and their immediate, confused and ignorant responses.  As the wheel moves forward some will rise and others will be crushed.  And I for one am very excited about book 2 (covering 13-15th March), being published in English later this year.  The revolution might be inevitable, but no one in St Petersburg knows it yet, and Solzhenitsyn makes both these realities equally poignant and believable.

I received my copy of ‘The Red Wheel: March 1917’ from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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5 Responses to Writing the Revolution: ‘March 1917’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    600 pages for four days in history, whoa!
    But that’s Solzhenitsyn, isn’t it…

    • In his defence, they were a very busy few days! Personally I find the maximalist approach to writing historical novels very appealing – which could be why I was so drawn to Russian fiction in the first place 🙂

      • Lisa Hill says:

        Indeed they were, and profoundly influential; for the entire world. I remember being in the room at the Winter Palace where the ‘moment’ took place, and being awestruck. Such a small room, and most tourists just walk on through it because it doesn’t have any great art in it…

  2. So exciting that these books are coming out in English – I have old ragged copies of the bits that have been previously translated and really it’s about time there was a proper complete Solzhenitsyn English translated set! 😀

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