Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel

From the May 2015 Print Edition

It is not uncommon for readers of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s final novel, The Red Wheel, to draw comparisons with another Russian masterpiece, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Like its predecessor, The Red Wheel is a massive, sweeping work, six thousand pages divided into four “knots”—“Narratives in Discrete Periods of Time”—and incorporating actual historical events that changed the course of Russian history, and of human civilization, too. It commences as a historical novel, but in sections it turns into dramatic history with no fictional characters at all, only historical ones. Both epics delve into the deepest moral and religious concerns, and the status of the two authors as moral authorities in their own times adds to the ­parallel. But for all their similarities, The Red Wheel is in fact a firmly anti-Tolstoyan work. Indeed, ­Tolstoy’s vision of human affairs is a direct target of ­Solzhenitsyn, and much of the speech and action of The Red Wheel explicitly renounces it. To put it bluntly, Tolstoy’s famous ethic of Christian love fails miserably in Solzhenitsyn’s universe. In his pacifist, rationalist understanding of Christ’s teaching, Tolstoy forgets that every human being and citizen has moral and political responsibilities, and that to ignore them, especially in the face of evil, is not a commitment to a higher summons. It is a betrayal of man and God. The critique runs throughout August 1914, the first knot of The Red Wheel, and the early chapters of November 1916. August 1914 begins with Sanya Lazhenitsyn’s visit to Tolstoy to discuss some of the writer’s core ideas. Sanya (a character based on Solzhenitsyn’s own father) travels to ­Yasnaya­Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, with the hope of initiating a conversation with the renowned sage. And they do engage in a brief, if one-sided, conversation. Sanya suggests that the great writer exaggerates the power of love, ignores the limits of universal benevolence, and mistakenly identifies what is good and reasonable. In a word, he charges that Tolstoy underestimates the power of evil, that he fails to acknowledge original sin. For Sanya, evil can never be understood as mere ignorance. As he puts it, “evil refuses to know the truth, rends it with fangs.” ­Tolstoy believes that universal benevolence is the path to an unprecedented society of peace and brotherhood. But Sanya, though timid, has become a renegade ­Tolstoyan who can no longer abide the master’s system and illusions about the human heart that accompany it. He is instead attracted to the ideas of Vekhi (Landmarks or Signposts), the great intellectual manifesto published in 1909 by a group of independent, Christian, pluralist thinkers (Berdyaev, Struve, Bulgakov, Frank, among others). These figures challenged the Russian intellectual class, decried the cult of revolution, defended political moderation, and, above all, argued for the priority of the things of the spirit over material goods. Reading Vekhi “pierced [Sanya] to the quick,” Solzhenitsyn writes. As the opening pages in August 1914 make clear, Sanya is searching for a settled point of view, and Tolstoy no longer provides satisfying answers. Continue Reading »

Clarifying War

From the December 2011 Print Edition

Moral Combat: ? Good and Evil in World War II ? by Michael Burleigh? Harper, 672 pages, $29.99 World War II”the bloody denouement of the “Thirty Years War” of the first half of the twentieth century”is in the popular imagination a “good war,” but the English . . . . Continue Reading »

Tsars & Commissars

From the May 2006 Print Edition

The Soviet Union was the world’s first experiment in totalitarianism, the twentieth century’s contribution to the political experience of humankind. That particular system, with its numerous offshoots and satellites, lasted more than seventy years and wreaked havoc on a third of the human . . . . Continue Reading »