Nodes III and IV: March 1917, April 1917
The third and fourth “knots” of The Red Wheel, March 1917 and April 1917, chronicle the massive chaos unleashed by the “February revolution” of 1917. It is Solzhenitsyn’s judgment that the “February revolution” is the formative event in modern Russian history. Far from being a positive phenomenon that brought liberty to the long-oppressed Russian people, it was marked by a chaotic violence from the start, a disintegration of order, and the diktat of radicals wielding ever more revolutionary slogans and demands, while the supposedly triumphant liberal forces cowered in impotence, or displayed limitless indulgence toward the Bolsheviks, thus allowing them to near effortlessly seize power in October 1917. The disintegration of society was so rapid that no power could be marshaled even for such a little task as properly treating and honoring the disabled veterans who had fought and given their limbs in World War I. No one, it turns out, can protect and defend them from thuggery.
And there are universal lessons to be drawn from these very Russian developments: liberty can never arise from the willful destruction of a social order that is open to change or amelioration, and lawful government cannot coexist with the delirium and nihilism of revolutionary mobs. There is another. As Solzhenitsyn put it in a 1979 interview with the BBC Russian service, the refusal of liberals and socialists in the Duma and the Provisional Government to stand up to the hard left reflects a “process of weakening and self-capitulation” that has been “repeated on a worldwide scale since those days.”
In a series of short, dramatic chapters, Solzhenitsyn conveys the anarchy that took hold of the streets of Petersburg during the February revolution. In scene after scene, the reader witnesses the inebriation of crowds who are caught up in a playful but deadly revolutionary carnival. The engineer Obodovsky, who is broadly sympathetic to the revolution but who is no friend of Bolshevism or of mob violence, reflects on the peculiarity of the revolutionary mob in March 1917: “a crowd was such a peculiar kind of creature! At once human and inhuman. It ran on legs and had heads aplenty, but once a part of it, each individual was absolved of his normal responsibilities, and his strength swelled in proportion to the number in the crowd, even as they drained him of his willpower.” Yet the unhistorical legend persists that the February revolution created a working democracy rather than revolutionary chaos and delirium. Moreover, that “democracy” is said to be the only moment of authentic liberty in a millennium of unremitting Russian autocracy and oppression. Solzhenitsyn demonstrates the opposite of both propositions.
Yet even amidst these frightful events, some noble souls continued to do their duty. The reader is introduced to Colonel Balkashin, the commander of a “Wheeled Battalion” in Petrograd’s Lesnoi district. This decent and honorable military officer, cut off from instructions from his superiors, attempts to maintain order in his own compound amidst an increasingly threatening crowd. He and his men are brutally gunned down, a display that reveals the true nature of a revolutionary mob severed from law and morality. And the fictional Vorotyntsev does his best to organize mid-level Russian officers to save what can possibly be saved amidst the vacuum of power—and the moral and political disorder—that defined the “democratic” dispensation inaugurated in February 1917. Solzhenitsyn clearly suggests that people can act even amidst wreckage, that in history no one is doomed by impersonal forces.
– by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader