March 1917: The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 1, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Marian Schwartz (Notre Dame, 672 pp., $39)
The Bolshevik coup d’état of October 25 (November 7 according to the Western calendar), 1917, is known the whole world over as the Russian Revolution. It is nearly universally considered to be either a liberating event or a catastrophic one, but one that in either case profoundly shaped universal history. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was an indefatigable enemy of Communism and all its works, but he considered the major event of 1917 to be the February revolution (to use the old Julian calendar) and not the October coup that flowed inexorably from the overthrow of the czarist order earlier that year. The February revolution, in Solzhenitsyn’s considered judgment, was a disaster of the first order and not a welcome, democratic eruption in a country ill-prepared for democracy. A reader of March 1917 (Node III of The Red Wheel, the nodes being a series of “narratives in discrete periods of time”) would be hard put to quarrel with Solzhenitsyn’s judgment. As this great work of history and literature attests, February indeed was the root of all the evils to come and not a brief shining display of Russian democracy.
The previous nodes, August 1914 and November 1916, centered respectively on the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg and on a deceptive period of quiescence before the outbreak of revolution in 1917, the proverbial calm before the storm. This volume consists of 170 chapters (out of 656 in March 1917 as a whole), most of them relatively brief. One experiences on every page the frenzied pace of events spiraling completely out of control. From the first pages, we confront an emperor incapable of serious thought or action. Even the little czarevitch Alexei asks why his father is “so weak.” Nicholas is a decent man and a good Christian, but a terribly incompetent ruler. “The family was Nikolai’s favorite milieu.” He preferred to be with Alexandra and the family in “untroubled seclusion.” He regularly attended the Orthodox liturgy, he fasted, and he took Communion. He cared for the Russian people in his own way. But he was absolutely oblivious to approaching disaster.