Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914: How Fiction Enables Us to Get Closer to the Truth

Why great literature is so satisfying to read.

1974 photo of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Bert Verhoeff/ Anefo — Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, a historical novel about events on the Eastern Front during World War I. For American readers it’s a perspective on the war less familiar than the horrorshow of trench warfare’s perpetual stalemate on the Western Front.

As a young writer Solzhenitsyn made no secret of his desire to become his generation’s Tolstoy, hence his novels of monumental scope like this one which is actually the first of four massive volumes in a series about the birth of the Soviet Union. August 1914 was the first of this series which he called The Red Wheel.

He conceived the book while himself a soldier entering Prussia from the East during World War II, echoing the movements of the First World War. This first volume is over 800 pages. The second, November 1916, is two volumes in length. The third, March 1917, is four volumes and April 1917, the last, is not yet translated.

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Public domain.

While reading chapter 42 — I’m halfway through the book now — I was reminded again what it is that so thrills me about great literature. It’s the manner in which the author orchestrates situations which reveal deeper insights into human motivation and the human situation. In this case, three men are in a bar drinking beer. One is an old man who has seen much and lived long, whose perspective on the emerging war is very different from the two youth who have recently finished school and volunteered to join the army in a wave of national enthusiasm. Over a series of beers the characters relax and become increasingly engaged. The reader is that proverbial fly on the wall observing and listening in.

The old man here is Varsonofiev. The youths are Kotya and Sanya, friends from school. Early on, as the three get to know one another, the more extroverted Kotya explains who they are by expressing their worldviews:

“Yes indeed, a pure Hegelian,” Kotya proudly and uncompromisingly confirmed. “And he-” poking Sanya’s chest-”is a Tolstoyian.”

“A Tolstoyian?” The old man looked sideways in amazement, sizing up Kotya’s shy and diffident companion. “Great heavens! Why then are you going to war?”

He saw, however, that Sanya was excruciatingly aware of the muddle in his mind. Sanya looked pitifully at Varsonofiev, smoothing the soft corn-colored hair back from his forehead.

“I’m not a pure Tolstoyan anymore.”

Sanya apologetically attempts to explain.

This brief sequence signals to the reader that some serious fun is about to emerge along with a deeper penetration into the heart of the matter. Why are we here? And what is our role in the midst of it all?

As every Russian reading this knew, Tolstoy had been born into aristocracy — privilege that enabled him to become an influential writer ( War and Peace, Anna Kareninina and many other volumes). Later in life he experienced a profound moral/spiritual crisis and became a Christian anarchist and pacifist. His ideas on non-violent resistance later influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is why Varsonofiev raised his eyebrows regarding Sanya being a Tolstoyan. How is it that you are in uniform heading to the front then?

Varsonofiev proceeds to toy with and challenge both of his drinking companions in the pages that follow. At one point Varsonofiev asks how Sanya and Tolstoy came to part company. Kotya answers for his friend after Sanya demurs.

“It was the cart!”

Sanya thought a bit and nodded. “Yes… some literate person wrote to Tolstoy. The Russian state, he said, was like an overturned cart, and it was very hard going, very awkward dragging along — how long, he wondered, would working people have to go on doing it? Wasn’t it time to get it back on its wheels? And Tolstoy answered: “Get it back on its wheels and those who turned it over will jump in and make you pull them, and you’ll be no better off.” Well what Tolstoy told them was: “Let the wretched cart look after itself! Just ignore it altogether! Unharness yourselves, go each his own way, in freedom. Then your lives will be easier.”

Could Tolstoy’s anecdote here about the cart have been the initial spark for this seven volume story The Red Wheel?

This conversation about the meaning of Tolstoy’s words continues until a little further on the old man begins to challenge Kotya’s own claim to be a follower of Hegel.

Vasonofiev settled down to enjoy himself, fingers interlaced on the table. “But if you are a Hegelian you must take a positive view of the state.”

“Well, I… I suppose I do,” Kotya agreed with some hesitation.

“The state does not like sharp breaks with the past. Gradualness is what it likes. Sudden breaks, leaps, are fatal to it,” the old man said.

As they talk and drink, Varsonofiev continues to zero in on the implications of what these young people are really saying.

“Words get worn out and often obscure meaning. What does it mean nowadays-being a populist?”

Sanya concentrated… “A populist is someone who loves the people. Believes in their spiritual strength. Puts their eternal interests higher than his own petty short-term advantage. Lives not for himself, but for the people and their happiness.”

“Happiness?” Varsonofiev asks.

“Why yes, their happiness.”

Varsonofiev’s eyes bored into him like searchlights from under the protective covering of his sweeping eyebrows. “For the majority of people happiness means being well fed, well clad, generally well off, the full satisfaction of their needs, doesn’t it? But if you think of it, it will take a whole century to feed and clothe everybody. A century before you think of their eternal interests-because poverty, slavery, ignorance and inefficient government stand in the way. To abolish or reform all these things, all this, will take how many-three generations of populists?”

“Well… it might, I suppose.”

Varsonofiev continued: “And all these populists-for whom nothing will do but to save the whole people all at once-will do nothing to save themselves in the meantime. And they feel compelled, don’t they, to dismiss as worthless anyone who does not sacrifice himself for the people-anyone, that is, who practices one of the arts, or inquires into the ultimate meaning of life, or, worse still, turns to religion and the salvation of his own soul?”

This one section alone is filled with rich insights that could easily be placed in the mouths of characters living in our own period of disruption today. The follow exchange continues to reinforce this notion.

Varsonofiev looked at him affectionately. “You speak of ordering and perfecting society. But nothing is more precious to a man than the order in his own soul, not even the welfare of remote generations.”

Now they were getting somewhere. That was with Sonya had been trying to pin down: you had to choose! But wasn’t that just what Tolstoy said? What then of the people’s happiness?” Deep wrinkles creased his brow.

“That is our whole vocation,” Varsonofiev went on, “to perfect the order in our souls.”

“What do you mean vocation?” Kotya interrupted

Varsonofiev checked him with one finger. “It’s an enigma. But you must beware that worshiping the people as you do and sacrificing everything for them, you do not shred your own souls into the dust. What if one of you is destined to hear some great truth about the order of the universe?”

“But what about the social order?” They still wanted to know.

“The social order? Don’t get carried away with the idea that you can invent a model society and then twist your beloved people into the right shape to fit it. History,” he said, “is not governed by reason.”

“What is history governed by then?”

“History is irrational young men. It has its own organic fabric which may be beyond our understanding.”

Do you not see it? We have young people today ready to throw everything into the trash bin in order to realize a dream that will never be. Idealism and realism will perpetually be at war, as in the days of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, as it was 100 years ago, so it is today.

Young people, today as always, are confronted with a dilemma. There’s a war going on, a war of ideas, and they feel compelled to act. And they want to act with certainty. This is life’s biggest challenge. Is my only option to stand by and watch? How do I fit in to this? They want to know.

“The true path is always difficult,” Varsonofiev answered, his chin resting on his hands. “And almost invisible.”

After this the chapter winds down for another page until Solzhenitsyn knocks my socks off with this sizzling summing up.

Varsonofiev softened, smiled, and relaxed. “The most important questions always get circular answers. The most important questions of all no one will ever answer.”

Yes, novels like War and Peace, August 1914 and others appear to be massive mountains of words with a multitude of characters whose names are hard to keep straight, but as the saying goes, “There’s gold in them there hills.”

What makes reading great literature so satisfying and rewarding is seeing how the ancient themes have such relevance again in our current historical moments. Of this, much more can be said.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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