Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Revolution

Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Revolution
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War breeds revolution. The Russian Revolution of February-March 1917 resulted in large part from Russia’s bitter experience in the First World War. Revolution had earlier broken out in Russia in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. Both wars exposed Russia’s economic and political fragility, which coincided with the rise of domestic revolutionary movements.

Western democratic governments initially welcomed the end of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. The First World War, President Woodrow Wilson declared, was being fought to make the world safe for democracies. When Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, a Provisional Government composed of leaders of political parties in the State Duma formed a government that lasted until October-November 1917. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin called Russia under the Provisional Government the freest country in the world and believed that power was lying in the streets waiting to be seized at the right moment. Lenin and his Party did so by discrediting the Provisional Government, promising bread, land, and peace, and carefully taking control of the levers of power in Russia.

There was only one revolution in Russia in the spring of 1917; the Bolsheviks later seized power in a coup d’etat. What went wrong?

Solzhenitsyn investigates revolution in 'The Red Wheel'

The great Russian writer and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn set out to answer that question by spending years researching and writing "The Red Wheel," a massive literary investigation that he completed while living in exile in Cavendish, Vt. He considered "The Red Wheel" his most important work. The English translations and publications are the work of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Cultural Solzhenitsyn Series.

Solzhenitsyn narrated the story of Russia’s 1917 revolution in nodes. In Node I, entitled August 1914, he focused on the prewar premiership of Pyotr Stolypin and the First World War Battle of Tannenberg. In Node II, entitled November 1916, he narrated the events in Russia between Oct. 27-Nov. 17, 1916. Node III is March 1917 and encompasses four separate books. Book 1 covered the period from March 8-12, 1917, focusing on the fall of Petrograd (St. Petersburg). Book 2 has just been published in English, and it covers the period of March 13-15, 1917 in more than 600 pages.

Solzhenitsyn covers the historic events of those three days from all relevant perspectives — the State Duma (or Parliament), the workers’ councils or Soviets, the military commanders, officers, and enlisted personnel, and the Tsar and his ministers. There was great hope that the revolution would bring freedom and a better life for ordinary Russians. Solzhenitsyn writes that many citizens were “ecstatic over what was happening.” A common sentiment was that the “people’s long-awaited liberation had begun.” It was believed by many that “no change could make things any worse.”

But in Petrograd it seemed that no one was in control. Several of the Tsar’s ministers were under arrest. Police officers were being assaulted, and in some cases killed. Enlisted men turned against their officers. There was looting, destruction of property, anarchy. The Tsar was traveling by rail to see his wife and children at Tsarskoye Selo, but his train had been stopped.

'All authority has been swept away'

Members of the State Duma negotiated about power with the Soviets (dominated by the Bolsheviks). Forces loyal to the Tsar reportedly were on their way to restore order in Petrograd. Order started to breakdown in Moscow and other cities. Solzhenitsyn describes the confusion, disorder, indecision, personal ambition, and fear that influenced events. “All authority had been swept away,” he wrote, “all communications had been cut, and all laws had lost their force.” On the streets of Petrograd, “[t]here was shooting everywhere … Motor cars were driving around with red flags, machine guns, and armed soldiers or sailors.” “The world,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “had turned upside down.”

While the Provisional Government sought to restore some form of order, the Bolsheviks sought to undermine the forces of order, especially the military. The Soviets called for officers to be elected by enlisted personnel and for enlisted personnel to disobey their commanders. The Soviet newspaper Isvestia, Solzhenitsyn explained, “came out directly opposed to the restoration of order.”

Among the key characters in the book are Duma President Mikhail Rodzyanko, Kadet Party leader Pavel Milyukov, revolutionary leader and later Minister of Justice Aleksandr Kerensky, Minister of War Aleksandr Guchkov, General Mikhail Alekseev, General Nikolai Ruzsky, General Nikolai Ivanov, Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina Alexandra.

Horror of communism revealed

Solzhenitsyn narrated the story through their words and observations right up to the Tsar’s abdication on March 15, 1917. A few days before that, Nicholas was Emperor of all the Russians, then “[s]omehow . . . all his power had apparently leaked away from him.”

Toward the end of the book, Lenin makes a cameo appearance. Unlike many of Solzhenitsyn’s protagonists, Lenin would prove to be decisive, cunning, ruthless, and armed with an overarching will to power. The Russian Revolution would go the way of the French Revolution and most other revolutions: terror, repression, dictatorship, and war.

Books 3 and 4 of Node III are still to come, followed by the English translation of Node IV, April 1917, in two volumes. "The Red Wheel" and Solzhenitsyn’s other literary masterpiece "The Gulag Archipelago" have been called his “two cathedrals.” Together, they reveal the fragile nature of civilization, the tragedy of most political revolutions, and the horrors of communism.

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