Review: November, 1916 (by Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

This epic novel requires a significant commitment on the part of the reader, but that commitment is repaid in full measure.

In recent months I have been focusing on the work of Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet dissident and winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1970. November, 1916, is the second book in the Red Wheel cycle, which Solzhenitsyn himself calls "A Narrative In Discrete Periods of Time." The cycle was conceived as an epic retelling of early Soviet history, beginning with the First World War (August, 1914), going through the revolutionary period (November, 1916 and March, 1917), and on through the civil war and early post-war period. Solzhenitsyn finished these three books but never the whole cycle, and it has only been recently that November, 1916 and March, 1917 became available to English-speaking readers. August, 1914 was first published in English in the 1980's, but it was only in 2017 that an anonymous grant allowed the latter two works to be translated into English and published. This is a significant event in literature and Russian history, and those of us who don't speak Russian should consider ourselves fortunate to finally be able to read the next two works in this remarkable cycle of historical novels.

Reading November, 1916 involves a significant commitment of time and energy. The paperback edition (published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux) consists of 1,000 large pages; in a typical paperback edition in the text would probably run closer to 1,500 pages. The work was apparently written in two volumes (though the new paperback edition is organized in a single volume), making it significantly longer than August, 1914, which runs to ~750 pages in mass market paperback form. Interspersed into the narrative are a handful of non-fictional chapters which focus in detail on particular aspects of relevant Russian history (the origins of the Kadet party, "society, government, and the Tsar in 1915", the life of Aleksandr Guchkov). These chapters, while well-researched and informative, do somewhat interrupt the flow of the narrative, and I finally decided to skip them and read them after I finished the rest of the book (which was very helpful in making it through to the end).

November, 1916, like its predecessor, August, 1914, largely follows a conventional narrative storyline, but with some notable unconventional and experimental departures. As in the first book, the story centers around Colonel Vorotyntsev, the dedicated and capable soldier who, in August, 1914, spends nearly the whole timeframe of the story on a dogged quest to understand the catastrophically failed Russian war effort as best he can in order hopefully to convince the doltish generals at army general headquarters to change course. At the end of the first book, Vorotyntsev tosses aside army codes of conduct and, in the presence of the Emperor, lays into the generals for their bad decisions, cowardice, and deceitfulness. This breach of protocol ensures his exile from GHQ, and the second book begins with him stationed at the front in Romania with the war in the trenches having ground to a bloody stalemate (though with the Russians still, unaccountably, occasionally attempting poorly thought-out attacks which are doomed to failure).

At the beginning of November, 1916, Vorotyntsev finally is granted a couple of weeks of leave. He is pulled in multiple directions, since his wife's birthday is approaching (in Moscow), but he also wants badly to see Guchkov (in St. Petersburg), the chairman of the Duma who convinced the Tsar to abdicate in March, 1917. To satisfy his family obligations, he goes first to Moscow, but leaves for St. Petersburg after a couple of days, promising his wife Alina that he will be back the day before her birthday. In St. Petersburg, he calls upon his sister, Vera, to introduce him to some promiment Kadets. At a dinner party, he meets Andrei Shingarev and many of his fellow Kadets (some of whom are Duma deputies). While initially hopeful at being able to portray to them the grim reality of the war, which Vorotyntsev no longer feels is worth fighting, he comes to realize that there is a gap in perception between those who have experienced the war and those Russians (the intelligentsia in particular) who believe that the war must be carried through to victory in order that the huge sacrifices which had already been made (one or two million Russians dead) will not have been in vain.

Here the story takes an unexpected but poetic turn, when at this dinner party Vorotyntsev meets Olda, an iconoclastic history professor with whom he immediately falls head over heels in love. She returns his feelings, and thus begins a torrid, week-long love affair. Though his ostensible goal in St. Petersburg is to meet with Guchkov, and though he has promised his wife that he will return by the day before her birthday, Vorotyntsev cannot tear himself away from Olda. Though he does accidentally encounter Guchkov at a restaurant the night before leaving to return to Moscow, the meeting is a disappointment. Vorotyntsev arrives back in Moscow late, frustrating his wife, and is unable to keep the affair to himself, thus ruining his wife's birthday and placing his marriage in jeopardy. Finally, unsure of his best course of action, he returns to GHQ, but is not invited to join the action there despite reuniting with Svechin, who features in the action of the first book and is now a general.

The overall narrative follows Vorotyntsev on his two weeks of leave, but there are some significant departures from this storyline. First we see some of the life of Arsenii Blagodarov, who forges a friendship with Vorotyntsev in the heat of battle in August, 1914, and at the beginning of November, 1916 returns to his village on leave. Through this glimpse into peasant life, we get a window into the many issues confronting the peasantry (low prices for grain, unavailability of consumer goods), the rural/urban divide, and the raging debates over the way forward. We also see some of the action (or lack of it) in the factories of St. Petersburg, which have largely converted to producing munitions for the war effort, and where strikes are ongoing, encouraged by the skillful action of Bolshevik agitators. In the city, prices have skyrocketed, there is a universal lack of faith that the government is competent to solve the mounting problems, and the word 'revolution' is on everyone's lips. The third major narrative side-channel focuses on Lenin in exile in Switzerland. We get a detailed psychological exposition of his mindset at this moment, along with character portraits of Parvus, Shlyapnikov, Rykov, and other key Lenin associates.

The effect of this narrative structure is to create an effect which is intimate and personal and yet at the same time sweeping and historically comprehensive. We see the details of many Russian lives and personalities, and these are framed within a broad portrait of Russian society at this key moment when everyone is wondering what comes next. As with August, 1914, the effect is profoundly convincing and illuminating: the life of an entire nation is brought to life, and the context of the approaching revolution illustrated in sparkling detail.

Solzhenitsyn's skills as a novelist ensure that the story feels immediate and powerfully relevant. Reading this novel in the midst of the coronavirus crisis made it even more so. There are some obvious differences between this moment and that one. The American situation in 2020 is not as bad as the Russian situation in 1916. We are not in the middle of a disastrous war, although the public health crisis it its own sort of society-wide catastrophe. But months into the coronavirus crisis, which has revealed the many weaknesses of American economic and political systems, the moment portrayed in November, 1916 feels more familiar by the day. Russians in 1916 had come to a shared conclusion that their government simply could not do anything right. That same feeling has begun to dawn on many Americans in recent months. The virus crisis has made us begin to consider scenarios that were previously unimaginable, like the complete failure of government to deal with a once-in-a-century health crisis, essentially throwing its hands up and letting the virus rampage across American society.

This novel is definitely not for casual readers, but those with particular interest in Russian and revolutionary history and fans of epic historical fiction will find November, 1916 deeply rewarding. Fans of Michener or Follett will be right at home here. Solzhenitsyn is most closely associated in the Western mind with his writings on the gulag (Gulag Archipelago, A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich), but he considered the Red Wheel cycle to be "the chief artistic design" of his life. November, 1916 displays his prodigious abilities as both a storyteller and a historian, and the publication of this grand work of historical fiction in English for the first time is a great opportunity for historically-minded readers.


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