“March 1917, Node III, Book 3” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

1917a

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the courageous Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning author of the Gulag Archipelago who died in 2008, considered The Red Wheel his most important work. Its ten volumes cover Russia from pre-World War I days to the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the early months of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Red Wheel was the author’s monumental effort to identify the crucial turning point in 20th century Russian history, and Solzhenitsyn’s admirers consider it and Gulag his “two great literary cathedrals”.

Solzhenitsyn’s approach in The Red Wheel is to tell the story of the Russian Revolution of 1917 in “nodes”, brief segments of events as they occurred in history. The author explained the nodes this way:

 

I select short segments of time, of two or three weeks’ duration, where the most vivid events unfold, or else where the decisive causes of future events are formed.

 

To convey sequentially the entire flow of history, Solzhenitsyn believed, would be too much—too long—for the reader. Nodes are “critical points”, he explained, “where the course of events is internally determined … those where history turns or decides.”

In Node I, entitled August 1914, Solzhenitsyn wrote about the pre-World War I premiership of Pyotr Stolypin (and his assassination by a revolutionary) and the disastrous (for Russia) Battle of Tannenberg. Node II, November 1916, covered the time period between 27 October and 17 November 1916, and here Solzhenitsyn examined the revolutionary opposition that would eventually topple the monarchy. Node III, March 1917, is divided into four separate books. Book 1 narrated events between 8-12 March 1917, with the monarchy teetering on the brink of disaster. Book 2 covered the period between 13-15 March 1 1917, and ended with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.  The chaos and uncertainty surrounding the Tsar’s abdication is where Book 3 begins. This book covers events between March 16-22, 1917. In Node III, therefore, Solzhenitsyn covers the events of two weeks in more than 1600 pages!

The University of Notre Dame Press recently released the English translation of March 1917, Node III, Book 3, the fifth volume of Solzhenitsyn’s massive novel of Russia’s path to revolution.

 

March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 3, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Marian Schwartz (trans) (University of Notre Dame Press. October 2021)
March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 3, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Marian Schwartz (trans) (University of Notre Dame Press. October 2021)

Revolution came to Russia in the midst of war—a war the Germans were winning. A feeble, indecisive Provisional Government cowered before the Petrograd Soviet that was granted veto power over all important policies. The Tsar abdicated for himself and his son Alexis, and the Tsar’s brother Michael, who was if anything weaker and more indecisive than Nicholas, then refused the throne—the end of the Romanov dynasty after more than 300 years of rule in Russia.

Solzhenitsyn shows that news of the Tsar’s abdication spread gradually through the vast Russian realm, especially among the troops at the front. It was received happily by some, sadly by some, and indifferently by still others. Some citizens didn’t believe the news when they first heard it. Others suspected that the Tsar and other monarchists would try to regain power in a counterrevolution. The Bolsheviks, who dominated the Petrograd Soviet, wanted the Tsar and his family arrested, incarcerated, and tried for “crimes” against the Russian people. Even at this early stage of the revolution, some on the far left wanted Nicholas executed.

In March 1917, the collapse of authority at the top of the government rippled throughout Russia, as soldiers killed their officers, sailors mutinied on ships, and police in cities were arrested and killed. Workers stopped working. Food was scarce. Prisons were emptied—freeing both “political prisoners” and common criminals. All the new government did was issue “appeals” to soldiers and sailors to do their duty and prosecute the war, and urged citizens to return to work.

No one in the new government grasped the full extent of the revolution’s chaos—not Prime Minister Georgi Lvov, not Foreign Minister Paul Milyukov, not War Minister Aleksandr Guchkov, not Duma President Mikhail Rodzyanko, and not Justice Minister Aleksandr Kerensky. Events in Petrograd and elsewhere throughout Russia, Solzhenitsyn explains,

 

seemed not to have a coherent flow, where a subsequent event flows out of the event previous. Rather, they would pop up suddenly, like a magician’s puppet.

 

Soldiers at the front and in the rear refused to obey orders, arrested their officers, or killed them without consequence; and this with a war going on–a war that was not going well for Russia. “Nothing could be done without shoring up the public order,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “and doing that required a strong authority.” But there was none now that the Tsar and his government were gone. And any minister of the Provisional Government that sought to restore order and discipline would have to deal with opposition from the Soviets—and no one was willing to do that even though Russia, in Solzhenitsyn’s phrase, was “wobbling, convulsing”.

In March 1917, Russia was hampered by competing power centers—the Duma (or Parliament), the Provisional Government, and the Soviets. Under normal circumstances, competing governmental power centers can ensure freedom and liberty. But in revolutionary times, unrivaled authority is necessary to restore order. “The bigger an organism,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “the more it needs hierarchy and unified authority.” (He has Russian Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak suggest to Grand Duke Nicholai Nikolaevich, the army’s supreme commander, the formation of a military dictatorship). That is a common theme running through all of the volumes of The Red Wheel, and it is one reason why Solzhenitsyn received criticism from Western liberals who accused him of favoring monarchy or autocracy for Russia.

As in previous volumes of The Red Wheel, Bolshevik exiled (in Switzerland) leader Vladimir Lenin makes a cameo appearance, anxious to get to Russia while the political power vacuum exists, and already scheming to get German help to return to Russia. Lenin implores his comrades in the Petrograd Soviet to refuse cooperation with the weak Provisional Government and to continue to undermine the forces of order in Russian society. As we know, it will be Lenin’s “will to power” that in November 1917 finally sinks Russia’s brief opportunity for constitutional government.

March 1917, Book 3 ends with the arrest of the former Tsar and his family and their imprisonment in the former imperial residence at Tsarskoye Selo near Petrograd. It is the beginning of the end for Nicholas and his family, who will be murdered by the Soviet regime at Ekaterinburg on 17 July 1918.

 

When historians and writers of historical fiction look back on events and developments they can sometimes portray them with more understanding and order than they deserve. The best historians and novelists—and Solzhenitsyn was first and foremost a novelist—narrate history through the eyes and ears of the participants who don’t know the outcome of the events they are observing and participating in. In March 1917, Solzhenitsyn presents events through the characters’ perspectives and perceptions at the time, not in hindsight or years afterward, lending authenticity to his narrative by putting us in the room (so to speak) with the statesmen, officers, soldiers and citizens who experienced the chaos of war and revolution.

There are three more volumes of The Red Wheel to be translated into English, and the story will end in April 1917, seven months before the Bolsheviks seize power. For Solzhenitsyn, however, the key events sealing Russia’s fate are in March and April of 1917. Indeed, he wrote that Russia was “inescapably lost … from the very first days of March” when “everything began to sink into the quicksand of anarchy.”


Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.