Witness to Yesterday
WHEN THE 1914 WAR with Germany broke out, Czarist Russia was unprepared. Yet she instantly sent two armies into East Prussia. Both were ill-equipped, underfed and hampered from headquarters by more than the usual complement of careerist nitwits, blockheaded aristocrats and plain cowards familiar in the literature of military debacle. In the resulting battle, the Russian Second Army, lumbering westward in the vicinity of Tannenberg, was enveloped by the Germans. More than 90,000 prisoners were taken. In a few days, despite great courage shown by many Russian regiments and officers, the Second Army ceased to exist. Its brave but confused commander, General Alexander Samsonov, committed suicide. The Russian General Staff quickly covered its own criminal idiocy by blaming him entirely for the defeat.
These very real events are not merely the background of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's already much puffed (and huffed at) new novel. In an occasionally quite tedious way, the battle is the book. Understandably so. August 1914 is the first of a many-volumed effort by Solzhenitsyn to re-create modern Russian history in truthful fiction. Tannenberg was a decisive battle from which the Czarist regime and the Russian war effort never recovered. But there are moments when the reader, plugging along with the hungry troops or trying to feel the requisite rage at the chicanery of the book's archvillain General Zhilinski, longs for a series of those day-by-day position maps that help make sense of nonfictional accounts of war.
Truthful Witness. At the beginning, to be sure, Solzhenitsyn sets out a number of narrative seedlings that he clearly expects to nourish to fuller life in future volumes. Among the best minor characters are a rich, rough, self-made landowner named Tomchak and his studious daughter (who may be drawn from the author's mother and grandfather). Solzhenitsyn's principal literary creation (and expository device) is a staff colonel named Verotyntsev, who has license to follow the battle to frontline trenches as an observer and sometimes as tactical hero. Verotyntsev has fictional possibilities. He combines a kind of detached professional elegance that suggests Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in Tolstoy's War and Peace with that passion for bearing truthful witness at all costs that has been the center of Solzhenitsyn's own career as a writer. In August 1914, though, Verotyntsev is too busy carrying messages around the battlefield (and from the author to the reader) to seem entirely human.
Even at the book's close, when Novelist Solzhenitsyn might have been expected to weave the threads of personal narrative back together again, it is Historian Solzhenitsyn who has the last word. In a showdown scene that strains credulity but stirs historic perspective, the young colonel risks his career to confront the Russian General Staff with its lies and follies. He even predicts that if they do not face these facts, defeat in the war will surely follow.
Solzhenitsyn is a controversial world figure, sadly, inevitably praised and blamed for reasons that have more to do with politics than literature. Cancer Ward, The First Circle, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ring with a high purpose that goes far beyond the exposure of Stalinist terror. Though August 1914 departs for the first time from the author's own immediate personal experience, it continues the work begun in earlier books. Solzhenitsyn is attempting nothing less than to restore to the Russian people a whole segment of personal experience never truthfully written about or discussed, as well as their own recent history, which the makers of the 1917 revolution rewrote for purposes of solidarity.
This is why August 1914, despite a graceless translation and fictional failures, is an extraordinary book. The horrors of the 20th century have produced a more and more widespread belief that, confronted by such things as bureaucracy, modern war and concentration camps, man is necessarily reduced to pliable victim, meaningless cipher, hopeless bundle of conditioned reflexes. Solzhenitsyn, however, fought the Nazis for four years. He has endured slave camps and near death from cancer. His experiences seem to have produced a strong belief in the existence of an inextinguishable sense of justice in human society and—despite the power and prevalence of evil—a spark of absolute conscience in the individual. To survive as human beings, his characters make use of such old-fashioned virtues as bravery, loyalty and total truthfulness.
Communist critics have accused August 1914 of glorifying German military might. In fact, its pages shine with the author's loving awareness of the Russian capacity to endure, and the "inexhaustible spiritual strength that lay hidden under these soldiers' tunics." Throughout the book he carries on a kind of running discourse about history, asserting—in contrast to Tolstoy —that though men do not know the purpose of life, individual acts of common sense, honesty and courage may change the course of history. Out of the dark past, in the terrain around Tannenberg, he produces examples.
They do not stir an American reader as they do Solzhenitsyn. The war seems distant. The rhetoric of patriotism is just now justifiably in ill repute. The dramatic scenes are not so dense, driving and personal as they were in Cancer Ward and The First Circle. But the message carries. Solzhenitsyn could be writing of himself when he describes Staff Colonel Verotyntsev's showdown with the generals: "He brought with him, too, that passionate sense of conviction which inspires belief less by its veracity than by its origin in personal suffering."