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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.

This is not the last we hear of Tolstoy. Later in ­August 1914, after Sanya and his student friend Kotya have volunteered for the armed forces, they encounter the philosopher Varsonofiev, the so-called “stargazer,” who is impressed that these young men think of themselves as patriots even though patriotism is no virtue in “progressive” intellectual circles. During their conversation, Sanya tells a revealing story about a literate Russian peasant who had written to Tolstoy. The peasant had suggested that the Russian state was like “an overturned cart,” broken and hard to move, and he asked how long working people would have to go on dragging it. “Wasn’t it time to get it back on its wheels?” Tolstoy’s answer is uninspiringly fatalistic. He says that if the cart is righted, those who turn it over will only jump inside and make ordinary Russians pull it once again, leaving them no better off than before. What then were they to do? “Let the wretched cart look after itself!” Tolstoy exclaims. “Just ignore it altogether! Unharness yourselves and go each his own way, in freedom. Then your lives will be easier.”

This answer is wholly inadequate for Sanya and for us. Tolstoy’s disdain for Russia amounts to disdain for the common good. As Sanya puts it, “This refusal to help everyone else haul the cart was what first turned me against Tolstoy. His hazy oversimplification.” Here is Tolstoy’s counsel in all its practical import: Do nothing but withdraw. The term passivism, coined by scholar Vladislav Krasnov in a 1986 essay in Slavic Review, neatly unites the pacifism and passivity of Tolstoy’s ethic. It is forthrightly counterproductive and cautious. Another character in The Red Wheel, the neo-Tolstoyan General ­Blagoveshchensky, reveals a personal rule derived from it: “One must never take any abrupt and decisive steps of one’s own.” The irony is obvious: What kind of outlook is that in a commander of armed forces?

The opposite of passivism is found in Georgi ­Vorotyntsev, a colonel in the Russian army and the fictional protagonist of the work. One critic terms him “the direct bearer of Solzhenitsyn’s distress.” ­Vorotyntsev belonged to a circle in the military that was known as the “military Renaissance,” a small, tightly knit group that had come together in the General Staff Academy, consisting of soldiers and officers with a feel for twentieth-century warfare. They understood the importance of new knowledge and approaches, and they knew that modernity posed existential challenges that Russia had to face. As ­Solzhenitsyn puts it, “Soldiers who realized that ­Peter the Great’s banners and Suvorov’s fame would do nothing to strengthen or protect Russia, that the need was for modern ­technology, modern organization, and fast and ­furious thinking.”

Vorotyntsev’s urge to act climaxes in a late scene in August 1914 when he confronts timeservers at military headquarters. General Samsonov, the Russian commander who committed suicide during the Battle of Tannenberg, possessed faith, piety, and love of country but suffered, too, from the debilitating passivity of the old Russia. Now, as others falsely blame him for all of the mistakes of a Russia that had mobilized too quickly, Vorotyntsev rises before Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, the commander in chief of the Tsarist forces, and defends Samsonov’s honor. “But the main reason for the destruction of Samsonov’s force is that neither it nor the Russian army as a whole was ready to take the offensive so soon,” he alleges. The mobilization of Russia’s forces had not been nearly complete; the country needed two full months to mobilize, and it sent men disastrously unprepared into action after only two weeks. This guaranteed disaster at the Battle of Tannenberg. The others grow angry, especially when Vorotyntsev identifies a different cause of failure: the desperate efforts on the part of military and political officials to satisfy Russia’s French ally at all costs.

Yet Vorotyntsev is not a wholly unproblematic figure. In November 1916, a personal affair both undermines his marriage and distracts him from rallying the forces of good against the coming disaster of the revolution. In the final, dramatic scene of April 1917, however, he recovers and helps organize a conference of officers even as Russia’s military and political authorities decline into fatal ineffectiveness. It is Vorotyntsev who helps initiate what will become the White Movement. We know from other writings of Solzhenitsyn’s, such as the play Prisoners, that ­Vorotyntsev will end up as a White officer and continue resisting the Soviet state for a good twenty years. Vorotyntsev is a man made for action—the opposite of the generals, who, under the influence of Tolstoy, succumb to an enervating fatalism.

The great political and nonfictional protagonist of The Red Wheel, at least of August 1914 and November 1916, is Pyotr Stolypin, prime minister of Russia from 1906 to 1911. Solzhenitsyn places almost all his hopes for the survival of a decent, free, and tradition-minded Russia on the shoulders of this great statesman, who would die at the hand of an assassin’s bullet in September 1911 at the age of forty-nine. It is he who arduously pursues a “middle line of social development” by taking on the armed revolutionary left, solidifying a constitutional order in Russia, and guaranteeing hardworking peasants the right to own their own land by leaving the centuries-old reparational commune, where land was held and worked in common.

Much of the lengthy chapter 65 of August 1914 lays out the Russian statesman’s “principal idea” that the reparational commune was finished. Stolypin’s idea was one of “shining simplicity—yet too complicated to be grasped or accepted.” He knew the faults and limits of the commune and reached a pointed conclusion: “The reparational commune reduced the fertility of the land, took from nature what it did not return, and denied the peasant both freedom and prosperity.” Rejecting all romanticism about the commune, he concluded: “The peasant’s allotment must become his permanent property.” If Russia could create a new class of peasant, citizen-proprietors, Stolypin reasoned, some of the ­challenges of modernity would be met and overcome. These men would have a stake in the system, be loyal to the monarchy, and help “defeat revolution through reform.”

In this passage, Solzhenitsyn does inquire, however, whether the self-denial (or the harmonization of the will of the individual with that of the commune) required by the old system leads to “something more ­valuable than harvests and material well-being.” Perhaps there is more to life than the development of private property. Perhaps there is something to be said for a system of paternalistic constraints that cramp the freedom of the individual but reflect “the people’s philosophy of life, its faith.” In a crucial passage at the beginning of chapter 65 of August 1914, Solzhenitsyn nicely recapitulates, without in any way endorsing, the moral teaching of the Slavophiles, who find the spiritual greatness of the peasant in his “eternal subordination, an awareness of oneself as an insignificant particle.” But as Solzhenitsyn makes clear, Stolypin has excellent reasons for rejecting this position. Thinking that way about the mir, or commune, 

makes action impossible. Stolypin was always a realist. With him, thought and action were one. No one can ask the people to behave like angels. We have to live with property, as we live with all the temptations of this life. And in any case, the commune created a good deal of discord among the peasants.

The commune, in the guise of creating an angelic community, in fact created endless discord, and the novel shows it. It fostered oppression, enervated the will, and got in the way of creating a decent, hardworking, self-respecting political and economic community.

Stolypin’s idea was to take a bet on the strong and determined rather than on the idle and the drunk. Looking back, as he lay dying in his bed after being shot at the Kiev opera house in September 1911, he reflects on his achievement of liberating the hardest-working peasants from the tyranny of the commune. He is convinced that he “defeated revolution with reform” by bringing a strong, orderly, self-­confident constitutionalism to bear in Russia. But he also appreciates the arduous and fragile character of his own middle path between revolution and reaction, and he is desperate to get an indifferent tsar to reflect more seriously on these matters.

It is important to understand how Solzhenitsyn’s political, spiritual, religious, and philosophical convictions are played out in these events and expounded by the characters. At one point, a dialogue between Sanya Lazhenitsyn and Father Severyan, a thirty-five-year-old army chaplain, extends through two full chapters of November 1916. He is a dark-haired, bearded, Russian Orthodox cleric, the crème de la crème of the priesthood. A man of good character, great intelligence, and lucid articulateness, he is also a Christian who is not taken in by facile progressivism or by the humanitarian distortion of or substitution for Christianity that is now the rage among a certain kind of intellectual. He is the perfect interlocutor for Sanya.

Their dialogue on a rainy night on the front goes right to the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s deepest concerns. The first part treats the Old Believers, a splinter group that refused to conform to liturgical changes. Sanya thinks that they were unjustly persecuted for remaining true to the faith of their fathers. He also suggests that they were the most energetic, diligent, morally discerning, and religiously serious of Russians. In this passage, Sanya uses the same kind of language to describe the persecution of the Old Believers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Solzhenitsyn uses in other works to describe the persecution and killing of kulaks, religious believers, and other “enemies of the people” in Leninist–­Stalinist Russia in the 1920s through 1950s. In other words, he sees the struggle against the Old Believers as an effort to destroy the flower of the nation.

This important discussion of the Old Believers and their place in historic Russia is quickly followed up by a lengthy discussion of Tolstoy. Once again, Sanya insists that Tolstoy is too sweeping in his critique of the faith of old Russia. He is particularly struck by Tolstoy’s hatred of the cross and all it represents. Tolstoy, he tells us, advises his listeners not to regard representations of the cross as sacred, “not to bow down to it, not to put it on graves, not to wear it.” “Such insensitivity! I can’t go along with that,” he cries. “You know the saying—a grave uncensed is just a black hole. And it’s even truer of a grave without a cross. No cross? When there’s no cross, I get no feeling of Christianity.”

This dramatic intervention by Sanya leads to a crucial moment in the dialogue when Father Severyan raises the all-important question of whether Tolstoy was a Christian at all. This question shocks Sanya. His jaw drops, and he asks, “Not at all?” Father ­Severyan answers that Tolstoy made a raid on the Gospels for his own purposes. He appealed to “political passions” and encouraged a double hatred of both Church and state. His readership was impressed less by his appeal to religion than by his frontal assault on the political and religious establishment. Moreover, the Father says, Tolstoy’s teaching is “useless” for society—no society could exist on its basis. Besides, the liberal public did not care about his spiritual quest. “It had no use for religion reformed or unreformed.”

This sustained indictment is followed by a penetrating discussion of war and pacifism. Everything in Tolstoy (his hostility to Orthodox Christianity, his fatalism, and his pacifism) originates in the injunction to “Resist ye not evil”—that is, in his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. This is crucial for Sanya. The young officer is still influenced by Tolstoyan pacifism. He is fighting on the front, but with a guilty conscience. He remains a quasi-pacifist or at least a guilty warrior. Father Severyan suggests to him that the true faith understands his ambivalence and reminds him that ancient Christian warriors who returned from a campaign were not immediately absolved. They were made to do penance first. He also suggests to Sanya that there is another way out of his dilemma: “Change your ideas.” It is time to cease being quasi-pacifist, and to disengage Tolstoyan pacifism from the core of Christian wisdom.

Father Severyan does not consider war to be the worst of evils. It is one evil among others tied up with the fallen nature of man. “At no time has the world been without war,” he states. “Not in seven or ten or twenty thousand years. Neither the wisest of leaders, nor the noblest of kings, nor yet the Church—none of them has been able to stop it.” Hotheaded socialists won’t end it, nor will rational and just wars be sorted out from the rest. Father Severyan’s enunciation is precise: “War is the price we pay for living in a state. Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states. But that is unthinkable until the propensity to violence and evil is rooted out of human beings. The state was created to protect us from violence.”

In a memorable passage, Father Severyan lists five human evils worse than war:

An unjust trial, for instance, that scalds the outraged heart, is viler. Or murder for gain, when the solitary murderer fully understands the implications of what he means to do and all that the victim will suffer at the moment of the crime. Or the ordeal at the hands of a torturer. When you can neither cry out nor fight back nor attempt to defend yourself. Or treachery on the part of someone you trusted. Or mistreatment of widows or orphans. All these things are spiritually dirtier and more terrible than war.

The “real dilemma,” Father Severyan concludes, “is the choice between peace and evil.” War may be an evil, but it is only a special case of evil “concentrated in time and space.” Whoever rejects war must also reject the state. But to reject the state is to forget the universal evil instilled in men’s hearts. You are not going to overcome the evil of worldliness with antiwar demonstrations, by processions along the streets with signs bearing slogans. Those like Sanya who joined the fighting army are not to be condemned—“they naturally went where so many others were suffering.” Those who can be “rightly reproached” are those who do not “struggle against evil.”

Sanya listens and begins to turn away from pacifist doubts and the false view that ­Tolstoy represents a true, primitive, or authentic Christianity. Evil must be resisted, and war paradoxically forms part of that resistance. This is not to give uncritical support for World War I—far from it. Solzhenitsyn saw the war as an unmitigated disaster for Russia, a crucial moment in that monumentally destructive negation of civilized order, which was “the red wheel.” In his 1983 Templeton Lecture, Solzhenitsyn freely speaks of the First World War as a calamity for Russia and the whole of Europe, a calamity that reflected a loss of a “divine dimension” to human consciousness on the part of a Christian civilization that was losing its spiritual moorings and its sense of sacred limits and restraint. Solzhenitsyn is confident that if Stolypin had lived, he would have kept Russia out of the war, or at a minimum would have been a voice for sanity in the weeks and months leading up to it.

Why, then, is Solzhenitsyn so hard on the pacifistic distortion of Christianity? Because evil is real, rooted in fallen human nature, and must be resisted if the things of the soul are to be preserved. The state is a powerful instrument for keeping evil at bay and for safeguarding the foundations of civilized order. One must resist the facile negation of the common good, which is so typical of Tolstoy. The spirit of pacifism also dulls one to the malign efforts of those revolutionary nihilists such as the Bolsheviks, committed as they were to the destruction of Christian civilization. Against Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn urges what he once called “the active struggle against evil,” which entails the maintenance of an imperfect order against ideological demons who are animated only by the spirit of pure revolutionary negation.

The focus of The Red Wheel turns out not to be Red October, as originally planned when Solzhenitsyn designed twenty knots that would go all the way up to 1922 (with five epilogues going up to 1945). In March 1917 and April 1917, the focus becomes the February Revolution, the ostensibly “democratic” revolution that unseated tsarism. Here was the true revolution and the enduring disaster. Solzhenitsyn came to see the October Revolution as a secondary coup d’état made possible by the ineffectual character of the new order that had arisen after the overthrow of the tsarist regime in February 1917.

The February Revolution witnessed the destruction of any prospect for ordered liberty in Russia. The old order needed to be preserved and reformed, built on the precious and fragile legacy of Stolypin, whose fortitude was needed instead of the tsar’s inaction and pusillanimity. The entire narrative of March 1917 conveys this point. Solzhenitsyn puts it with even more force in Reflections on the February Revolution, originally completed in 1983 and published in 1995 (and reprinted again in 2007 for the ­ninetieth anniversary of the February Revolution of 1917). The four parts that make up this essay were originally written to be introductions to the four parts of March 1917. But Solzhenitsyn decided that they would distort the literary form of the presentation, so he ­published them separately.

As he writes in that work, “monarchy is a strong system on the condition that the monarch is not too pusillanimous. Comport oneself as a Christian on the throne, agreed, but not to the point of forgetting one’s duties or the nation’s business in a way that blinds oneself to approaching catastrophe.” In that same essay, Solzhenitsyn faults Tsar Nicholas for failing to take a series of defensive moves, including sending reliable troops to crush the rebellion in Petersburg, making sure bread was readily available, and cutting telegraph lines between Petersburg and Moscow. These steps might have thwarted the revolution before it had time to get off the ground. If the tsar had sent reliable troops to Petersburg, he would have risked bloodshed, but Solzhenitsyn also notes everything that would have been averted. It’s a toughminded reflection by a Christian who knows that difficult choices have to be made in this ­imperfect world. Even if some had died in the effort to maintain a legitimate political order, this “would not have had the least resemblance with the Civil War which lasted three years on the vast expanses of Russia, with the criminal exactions of the Chekists [the secret police], the epidemic of typhoid, successive waves of crushed peasant rebellions, the Volga basin suffocated by famine—and then a half-century of the internal gnashing of the gulag.” The tsar’s weakness, especially his overweening concern for his family, led to a betrayal of the Russian nation and people, by a man whose responsibility had been conveyed to him by “heredity, by tradition, by God Himself.” And once this decent but mediocre tsar fell, Russia was left to the equally pathetic inaction and lack of will of the “democratic” provisional government and of the liberal and socialist forces dominating the Duma.

The pathos of that outcome is dramatized most sadly in chapter 27 of April 1917 when disabled veterans assemble at the Duma and the Tauride Palace and implore the government to do something about Lenin and his provocateurs. Lenin has just returned to Russia with the duplicitous help of the German enemy. These disabled veterans rightly see him as a traitor actively undermining the war effort. These men of sacrifice and suffering fathom the malevolence of the Leninist left, but the provisional government is blind and feeble. No one comes to their defense. The Leninists beat up some of the disabled veterans and hurl obscenities. All that the leaders of the new Russia can do is mutter pieties about free speech, a free speech that is said to belong even to those who plan to bury civilization once and for all.

What was needed was Solzhenitsyn’s tough-minded Christianity. The humane Christian realism of Father Severyan in November 1916 has no passivity or pusillanimity. It defends human agency against those who reduce human freedom, whether they be ideological thugs or idealistic pacifists. Politics is not the most important thing in the world, but politics still matters. The state matters. And it is impossible in this fallen world to imagine a decent human order that does not ­encourage citizens and believers alike to take seriously the full range of one’s political and civic ­responsibilities.

I hope that this treasure that is The Red Wheel (Solzhenitsyn always considered it to be his most significant work) will become better known as the years go by. One positive sign is the recent republication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux of paperback editions of both August 1914 and November 1916 as part of an effort to commemorate the centenary of World War I. Perhaps most promisingly, the Kennan Institute has announced its support for a translation project that will make the remaining knots of The Red Wheel available by the end of 2018 for the centenary year of Solzhenitsyn’s birth.

As Georges Nivat, the great Franco-Swiss ­Solzhenitsyn scholar and Russianist, has nicely suggested, Solzhenitsyn is the author of two great “literary cathedrals.” The first is The Gulag Archipelago, the definitive exposé of ideological despotism. The other is The Red Wheel, the equally definitive account of how the demons of revolution and nihilism came to triumph in the first place. Most discerning critics appreciate the literary and moral greatness of The Gulag Archipelago. A careful, serious, and open engagement with The Red Wheel makes clear that it too is a literary masterpiece. It is a sprawling and fascinating mix of philosophical and moral discernment, literary inventiveness, and historical insight that sometimes strains the novelistic form, but it is also one of the great works of moral instruction of the twentieth century.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He is the author, most recently, of The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth About a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker. In this essay, all quotations from August 1914 and November 1916 are translated by Harry T. Willetts.