Geopolitics

What Solzhenitsyn Understood

By Gary Saul Morson, New York Review of Books

Detecting the same incompetence and self-satisfaction among the liberals of the Provisional Government in 1917 and the reformers of the post-Soviet era in the 1990s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn feared another descent into authoritarian rule.

For Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, no literary form was ever sufficiently capacious. Three gargantuan works dominated his creative life. The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, on which his reputation mainly rests, chronicles in three volumes the history of Soviet forced labor camps. It earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 and forced exile from the Soviet Union in 1974, the first official expulsion since Leon Trotsky had been deported to Turkey in 1929. Solzhenitsyn himself regarded The Red Wheel, a series of novels about the Russian Revolution, as his major contribution to literature. These novels posed a question: Why and how did the unprecedented horror described in The Gulag Archipelago occur? The answers Solzhenitsyn arrived at shaped his third great project, four volumes of memoirs.

The Red Wheel is divided into four “nodes,” some of which contain more than one volume; each node focuses on a specific short period encapsulating important events that led to the catastrophe of Bolshevik rule. The first two nodes, August 1914 and November 1916, superb works that overflow the conventional form of historical novels, are followed by four long volumes devoted to the third node, March 1917, which recounts events from March 8 to March 31, 1917. The final node, April 1917, still untranslated, encompasses two more volumes. The third volume of March 1917, now available in an exceptionally fine rendition by Marian Schwartz, is especially riveting. It makes a splendid companion to the last volume of Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs, the recently translated second part of Between Two Millstones, which casts the Gorbachev years as an eerie repeat of 1917.

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