Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Book Review: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's August 1914

August 1914 is the first book in Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel series which covers the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the birth of the Soviet Union. Set during the initial stages of the First World War, it delves into the reasons for the catastrophic defeat suffered by the Imperial Russian army at the hands of the Germans in the area around the Masurian Lakes, in what's now called the Battle of Tannenberg. Prior to the First World War, Russia had a string of defeats, at Crimea and then against the Japanese, followed by a none-too-glorious Turkish campaign.

Colonel Vorotyntsev plays the most important role in August 1914. A member of the Russian General Staff, Vorotyntsev travels (mainly on horseback) throughout the war theatre meeting various senior Russian army officers, analysing Russian positions and tactics and finally reports back to Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army. It goes without saying that Vorotyntsev is very much unhappy with the way things are done by the Russian generals. In the course of Vorotyntsev's wanderings through the war theatre, we get to know of their near total ineptitude. None of the generals have bothered to keep in touch with the latest advancement in military technology or tactics. And why should they, when the War Minister himself has boasted of having not read a single military textbook since he left university 35 years ago? Promotions are always by seniority. Orders are telegraphed without using codes (en clair) since the operators don't have much schooling and do not understand code.

Russian generals do not have access to much intelligence. There are a few aeroplanes for aerial reconnaissance, but nothing compared to what the Germans have. German artillery is a lot better and lot more effective. There is one motorised ambulance unit for the whole Russian army. Russian generals are totally clueless about the whereabouts of the German armies whilst the Germans know exactly where the Russians are. There is no coordination whatsoever. Soldiers advance on foot for many miles through enemy territory only to get lost and have to trudge back. Despite all this, Russians fight with enormous gallantry and courage, putting up with extraordinary hardships.

The Commander in Chief of the Russian army is Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, Tsar Nicholas II's uncle. Solzhenitsyn shows some respect for his military abilities. When the Grand Duke was made the Commander in Chief, he had plans to revamp the entire general staff and put competent people in vital positions. However, the Tsar tells the Grand Duke to not to replace any of the Tsar's appointees, which meant that the Grand Duke’s plans come to naught.

Most generals don't have a plan of action other than to save their own skins. They make false claims of having won battles and captured territories. Generals are very religious and prayers form a vital part of the campaign. When the Tsar gets to know of the enormous casualties suffered by his troops, he sends a letter to the Commander-in-chief. It says "Dear Uncle Nick, I deeply grieve with you over the loss of our gallant Russian soldiers. But we must submit to the will of God. He who endures to the end will be saved. Yours Nicky (Nicholas II)" In addition to such words of encouragement, the Tsar dispatches an icon of the blessed virgin appearing in a vision to the Holy Father Sergius. Apparently this icon has accompanied the Russian army on many of its battles and campaigns, both successful and the unsuccessful (such as during the Russo-Japanese war).

The climax of the novel comes towards the end when Colonel Vorotyntsev manages to meet the Grand Duke and appraise him of what's happening on the war front. The Grand Duke convenes a meeting of all Generals. Vorotnysev launches into a brilliant analysis of what's going wrong. Articulate, erudite and his anger under control, he tears the Generals apart. The Grand Duke is silent, thus implicitly supporting Vorotnysev. However, towards the end Vorotnysev makes a fatal error. After criticising the generals, he criticises the treaty between Russia and France which obligated Russia to launch the war fifteen days after mobilisation started. In reality, the Russian army needed sixty days. Vorotnysev tells the assembly that Russia had an obligation to support friends but no obligation to commit suicide. Throwing untrained troops into battle fifteen days after mobilisation was, in Vorotnysev’s opinion, a criminal act. The Grand Duke is forced to ask Vorotnysev to leave. The treaty was signed by the War Minister and himself and approved by the Tsar. No one has the right to criticize the Tsar, the deeply religious Grand Duke agrees with one of the idiotic generals.

Towards the end of the book, the capture of Lvov by Russian troops is announced. It is a great victory, the public is told. In reality, Russian generals have committed a blunder. They had the Austrian army in a pincer, but allowed them to escape. They have captured an empty Lvov from which the Austrians had already withdrawn.

Solzhenitsyn does not tell us much about Vorotyntsev's personal life other than that he is not on very good terms with his wife. And herein lies the biggest flaw of this book. When compared with any of the other great Russian war stories – be it Tolstoy's War and Peace or Sholokhov's Quiet Flows the Don, August 1914 lags behind in the quality of its tale. Solzhenitsyn's only focus in August 1914 is the war and the political realities of those times. He does not bother to tell us about the person behind any of his characters, many of whom make a brief appearance and are never seen again. Once in while, Solzhenitsyn does get philosophical. ‘What makes a human being cease to shun death?’ his readers are asked. But on the whole, the book is an analysis of the causes of Russia's defeat. If you are looking for a story and nothing more, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, if you enjoy political commentary and analysis (as I do) you will really enjoy this book.

That the Russians are very patriotic people is brought out very well by Solzhenitsyn. He tells us of Russian families exiled by the Tsars to the Caucasus which after many generations are still devoted to the Russian empire. Revolutionary spirit and desire for change is shown to be widespread, even among the rich people. However, so-called revolutionaries sign up to the army when Mother Russia is said to be in danger. The Russians have enormous contempt for the Germans, even though they find Germany to be an advanced country. Solzhenitsyn is very good in describing the awe with which Russian soldiers see Germany when they are in German territory. It is a case of people from an underdeveloped country being suddenly exposed to a first world country.

Various minor characters softly slide past the reader in the course of this 650 odd page saga. One of them is Isaaki, a model student who considers himself a “Tolstoyan”. Isaaki goes to Tolstoy's farm one day hoping to set eyes on the great man. Isaaki is lucky. Not only does he catch a glimpse of Tolstoy, who is shorter than he expected, but also exchanges a few words with him. Isaaki is not Jewish, but is mistaken for one (because of his name) when he applies to University. Unfortunately for Isaaki, the quota for Jews is full and his application is rejected. Isaaki is forced to produce his baptism certificate in order to get admitted.

There's Madame Kharitonova, a Headmistress, who is of a liberal and revolutionary bent of mind. She hates her son for having enrolled in the army. However, despite her liberalism, she hates it when her daughter runs off and marries a poor engineer.

Ilya Isakovich Arkhangorodsky, a Jew, is one of the rare minor characters who we get to know much better than any other minor character. Ilya Isakovich is an engineer, an expert on flour milling machinery and the owner of many mills and factories. Since Solzhenitsyn was always dogged by claims that he showed traces of anti-Semitism, I was particularly interested in the way he has depicted Ilya Isakovich. Solzhenitsyn contrasts Ilya Isakovich with Obodovsky, a very famous and talented Russian engineer. While Ilya Isakovich is stocky and well dressed, Obodovsky is tall, fair and is dressed untidily. Ilya Isakovich is rich, while Obodovsky doesn't really care about money. Obodovsky used to be a revolutionary, but gave up his cause and devoted himself to engineering. Having travelled through Europe seeing how things are done, Obodovsky has come back to Russia to make things better for his country. However, Ilya Isakovich is not your average rich Joe. After gaining his engineering degree, he worked in a mill as a workman (even though he could have started off as an engineer) before he became the chief manager and finally the owner of the mill. He soon acquires many more mills and factories. We meet Ilya Isakovich's pretty wife who doesn't say much and his two teenage children who call themselves revolutionaries. They condemn the support shown for the Tsar by the Jews of Rostov who held a service in the synagogue to pray for Russia and the Tsar and took out a 20,000 strong procession. Solzhenitsyn tells us that Ilya Isakovich is not a practising Jew and that his family "ate matzos for Passover and then at the orthodox Easter, they baked Easter cakes and painted eggs."

There's an interesting discussion between Ilya Isakovich, Obodovsky and Ilya Isakovich's two children. Obodovsky tells the children that a revolution will be pointless. Ilya Isakovich is very indulgent towards his kids, but he has no sympathy for a revolution either. Instead, both the engineers want to industrialise Russia. "Heat the tundra, drain it and see what minerals lie underneath,' Obodovsky tells them all. 'Climate change! Global warming! I screamed in my head. However, let's not forget that it was a different era altogether.

I wouldn't say that Solzhenitsyn has shown Ilya Isakovich as slimy or a weasel, unlike in the case of Tsezar Markovich, a Greek-Gypsy-Jew, a character in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. However, the net effect of Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of Ilya Isakovich, especially when contrasted with Obodovsky, is one of a man who is superior to everyone else around him, in terms of the ability to make wealth. It is not that Solzhenitsyn does not mention other wealthy people in his story. There are many wealthy landowners, one of whom is Tomchak, who manages to buy an exemption from military service for his son. However, Ilya Isakovich is the only character who lives a very comfortable life without doing physical labour or owning any land. I don't think this should open up Solzhenitsyn to a charge of anti-Semitism since many Jews in Russia did live comfortably using their brain power.


KMD said...

Your review would be quite different if you read the later translation in English which is almost a 1,000 pages. AIS is able to describe the scenes of home life much better and is able to tie them into the political and military situations. As you note, this is a saga and some of the characters reappear in other books (such as the student who meets Tolstoy who pops up in November 1916). These were translated by Willets and are worth checking out.

Winnowed said...

Thank you. Let me see if I can get hold of the later translation in English.