The Red Wheel
The Red Wheel is Solzhenitsyn’s multivolume epic on the revolutionary cataclysm of 1917 that ushered in the Soviet regime and the events leading up to the revolution. It is arguably the author’s chef d’oeuvre and was described by Solzhenitsyn as “the chief artistic design of my life.” Solzhenitsyn argued that the Russian revolutions of 1917 were the central event of the twentieth century—the decisive turning point from which so many of its other evils flowed. The destinies of not only Russia, but also Europe and the wider world, were irreversibly shaped by the events described in this work. They are well worth the supreme effort of historical recovery to which Solzhenitsyn devoted central decades of his life.
The Red Wheel is a unique work – a “novel” that contains many chapters of “dramatized history” as well as carefully researched and detail-filled chapters on Tsar Nicholas II, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, Lenin in Zurich and in Petrograd, and the Duma and the principal political groupings (Octobrists, Kadets, and assorted revolutionaries) in Russia on the eve of the revolutions of 1917. It is a work of faithful historical reconstruction that includes a central role for fictional characters such as Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev. Vorotyntsev is a keen and capable strategist who is burning with love of country. He has no tolerance for ineffectual and timeserving Tsarist courtiers and generals, even as he repudiates the self-destructive nihilism of Russia’s homegrown revolutionaries. If the tough-minded reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin is the “historical” protagonist of The Red Wheel, Vorotyntsev is undoubtedly its “fictional” protagonist. His patriotism and commitment to the revitalization of Russia are equally at odds with the irresponsible histrionics of Russia’s soi-disant liberals (“false liberals” Solzhenitsyn calls them, as they never manage to see enemies on their Left) and with the blindness and ineptitude of the Tsarist old guard. He embodies the patriotic single-mindedness of those intelligent, forward-looking officers who represented Russia’s best hopes for renewal amidst the devastation of war and revolution. But as a fictional character he is not in a position to affect the outcome of events.
The various “knots” of The Red Wheel capture certain crucial moments that reveal the nature of the unfolding revolutionary juggernaut, the “red wheel” of the book’s title. These huge, sprawling books are “novelistic” in a real but qualified sense. Above all, they are polyphonic works that allow dozens of characters (including those for whom Solzhenitsyn has no sympathy, such as Lenin) to speak from their own points of view. This does not preclude the author from speaking in his own voice, particularly in the more historical chapters. The movement back-and-forth from historical-political analyses to fictional representations of its heroes such as Sanya Lazhenitsyn (a fictional representation of Solzhenitsyn’s father) as well as Vorotyntsev, no doubt taxes those who have little interest in the political and spiritual fate of Russia or even in the Russian revolution. In the first instance, this is a book directed especially at Russians and students of Russia. But for all those who truly share–or come to share–Solzhenitsyn’s desire to comprehend the underlying meaning of 1917, for those who have the discipline to encounter and engage with an artful mixture of history, philosophy, and literature in the pursuit of a truth that goes beyond narrowly nationalistic limits and concerns, Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork will delight and instruct.
The Red Wheel, a quintessentially “Russian” book, reminds us that the searching exploration of certain pregnant particulars provides the best access to universal truth. It shows us quite palpably that the destinies of Russia and the West have and will inexorably continue to intertwine.
– by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader