Revolutionary Chaos

The first-ever English translation of a 20th-century Russian masterpiece

Dick Sijtsma/Flickr

March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 2 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated by Marian Schwartz); The University of Notre Dame Press, 703 pp., $39

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s multivolume historical novel about the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel, is divided into four “nodes,” each a lengthy account of a short span of time. March 1917, the third node, is in turn divided into four volumes, the second of which is the book under review, translated into English for the first time. Combining nonfictional historical argument with novelistic accounts of the principal historical actors and a few fictional characters, March 1917 covers a mere three days of unrest and revolution, March 13–15, 1917, at the end of which Tsar Nicholas II abdicates, ending the Romanov dynasty in Russia. Marian Schwartz’s splendid translation captures the prose’s powerful pace and conveys, as few translators could, the author’s subtle use of tone.

Heavily indebted to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) borrows a central insight of his great predecessor: war is far more chaotic, random, and contingent than its representation in historical narratives. Tolstoy described battle as no one had ever done before, showing soldiers moving blindly in fog with no idea what is going on and generals, unable to keep up with ever-changing situations, issuing orders that are impossible to execute. After the fact, however, historians construct a smooth story bearing little or no relation to reality. Solzhenitsyn makes the same point about revolution. “What happened … no one was sure, except for what was right in front of him.”

To capture such confusion as it was experienced, Solzhenitsyn divides nearly 700 pages into 182 brief chapters jolting among countless narrative threads. We witness decisions taken on the basis of rumors later revealed to be false. We see that Petrograd (as St. Petersburg became known after 1914) was not overrun by an organized group of class-conscious revolutionary workers, as Soviet historians later claimed, but by a rabble of drunkards, released criminals, and soldiers who murdered their officers. “That’s what’s freedom’s for,” one rioter explains. “I shoot wherever I want.” The result is a world reminiscent of Hobbes’s struggle of all against all: “In all the city, each person could protect only himself and expect an attack from anyone and everyone. … It was as if the capital itself were drunk.”

Only intellectuals who have read too many romanticized accounts of the French Revolution could celebrate this violence and expect anything good to come from it. With his trademark irony, reminiscent of Edward Gibbon, Solzhenitsyn describes the puzzlement of one government official unable to recognize in this mob “the noble Face of the People” idealized by thinkers across the political spectrum.

According to Russian liberals and Marxists, the Duma—an elected legislature that had been forced on Nicholas II and whose powers he tried to restrict—is bound to establish a liberal government leading to a “bourgeois era” of constitutional democracy, guided by the Constitutional Democratic Party, known as the Kadets. But “the Kadet faction was so exhaustively legal and humanitarian [that] no one possessed any practical experience and no one [even] knew how to calculate.” The Kadet leader, the historian Pavel Milyukov, enjoys making glorious speeches and consulting his watch as he monitors the pulse of History for future generations. Among the “languid, indecisive Duma deputies,” the obese Duma president Mikhail Rodzyanko, who absurdly imagines himself a latterday Heracles, tells himself that “the revolution had gone far enough and now it had to be reined in.” Most ridiculous of all is “that arrogant shrimp,” the socialist Aleksandr Kerensky, who loves the thrill of it all but has no sense of what is going on.

One good imperial regiment might have easily restored order, but Nicholas’s government is unable to deploy one. Why? To begin with, the tsar is an uxorious fool, who cares only about being reunited with Empress Alexandra. When the urgent situation is brought to his attention, Nicholas allows himself to be guided by signs from heaven the way he was once advised by the charlatan Rasputin. “What a bright cheerful sun was shining!” he thinks. “Wasn’t that a good sign?” The empress, who is used to exercising influence over her husband, thinks the same way: “In weather like this, no evil deed could take place. God would not allow it.”

The fictional hero of The Red Wheel, Colonel Vorotyntsev, knows that it is necessary to act decisively, but the generals hold back—partly because they have no initiative, partly because they do not want to risk making a decision independent of the tsar, and above all because they, like the emperor and empress, wish to avoid any bloodshed! Reading about these events a century later, we know that the result of this fastidiousness was decades of slave labor camps and millions of corpses.

Meanwhile, young people, intellectuals, and random enthusiasts greet “the revolution” as they might celebrate a carnival that will never end. “A general state of ecstasy” grips Petrograd and Moscow, as strangers embrace and everyone expects that a new, utopian government will ensure universal prosperity and brotherhood. Even the cantankerous socialists in exile are so carried away that they put aside their ideological differences.

There is one exception: Lenin, to whom Solzhenitsyn devotes one of his longest chapters shortly before the book ends. With our historical hindsight, we have sensed his brutal, unsentimental presence from the beginning. We know that he will be able to exploit this “revolutionary situation.”

Early on, Solzhenitsyn devotes a few paragraphs to crowd psychology:

In a crowd, a man ceases to be himself. … Apparently, the crowd obeys no one. But it easily follows a leader. But then the leader does not belong to himself and … only stays afloat on a single surge for two minutes … Only a criminal, only a natural born killer, only someone infected with vengeance leads and does not falter.

When we meet Lenin, we realize that he is the one who does not falter. Learning of the revolutionary events while in exile in Switzerland, he feels “contempt” for the other revolutionaries and “the way they sonorously discussed freedom and revolution without grasping all the chess possibilities under which these events could proceed and what kind of enemies they had and how deftly they could intercept them.”

Lenin manages to seize control of a great empire with a handful of armed men while the Imperial armies remain quiescent and then disintegrate; while Milyukov and Kerensky’s Provisional Government dithers; and while the other socialists, including those in the various Soviets, or radical councils claiming to represent the revolutionary workers, that exercise the only effective power that remains, get tied up in ego and theoretical abstractions. But however great a strategist Lenin was, his victory was far from inevitable. Had the tsar been a bit more decisive, had but one of the generals taken initiative, had the Liberals and other socialists been capable of seeing reality instead of “History,” the result might have been different. Millions of lives might have been saved. For that matter, Solzhenitsyn suggests, if only the temperature had been a little colder in Petrograd (it was nine degrees below zero), people would not have come out into the streets and there would have been no revolution.

March 1917 is haunted by “what-ifs.” Indeed, Solzhenitsyn suggests, the revolution was less likely than other outcomes, and all retrospective attempts to describe it as inevitable are fallacious. In his view, events might just as easily followed a different course. As we contemplate what transpired, we regret the Russia that might have been.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Gary Saul Morson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and teaches Russian and world literature at Northwestern University. His latest book, Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Ultimate Questions and Why Their Answers Matter, will be published next year.


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