Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, but his writings continue to educate the West about communism. Last month, Notre Dame University Press published the English translation of the the third volume of Solzhenitsyn’s March 1917, which is a part of Node III of the great Russian writer’s magnum opus The Red Wheel. With a novelist’s insights into human nature, the complexity of historical events, and the tragedy of human action and inaction, Solzhenitsyn in The Red Wheel narrates the descent of Russia into totalitarianism.
Born in Russia in 1918, a little more than a year after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Solzhenitsyn spent his childhood in Rostov on the Don and early on recognized that he wanted to be a writer. He studied mathematics at Rostov University. During World War II, he served in the Soviet Army on the front lines until he was arrested in February 1945 in East Prussia for telling a joke about Stalin. His punishment was confinement in slave-labor camps for eight years — part of the massive concentration camp system that he later made world famous in his three-volume Nobel Prize-winning book The Gulag Archipelago.
After Stalin died in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released from the Gulag to “internal exile,” and three years later after Soviet leader Khrushchev’s “secret” speech criticizing the excesses of Stalinism, Solzhenitsyn was a “free” man — at least as free as an ordinary Russian could be under Soviet rule. With the so-called Khrushchev “thaw,” Soviet writers felt freer to publish works critical of Stalin and Stalinism, and Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel of life in the camps. After Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964, Soviet authorities cracked down on criticism of the communist system and refused to publish two more of Solzhenitsyn’s books — Cancer Ward and The First Circle, both of which were subsequently smuggled out of Russia and published in the West in the late 1960s.
In 1969, Solzhenitsyn secretly began writing The Red Wheel, the first volume of which appeared in the West in 1971 under the title August 1914. Meanwhile, manuscripts for The Gulag Archipelago were covertly sent to his allies in the West, and when they were first published in the early 1970s in France and later in the United States, Soviet authorities decided to expel Solzhenitsyn from his homeland. Solzhenitsyn later told the story of his exile — first in Europe and later in Cavendish, Vermont — in two volumes entitled Between Two Millstones.
At the height of detente, the AFL-CIO invited Solzhenitsyn to address their national conference in Washington, D.C. (the Ford administration cowardly refused to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House for fear of damaging relations with Soviet leaders). Solzhenitsyn’s address to the labor union and two other speeches were subsequently published as Warning to the West. A few years later, Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address at Harvard, where he denounced communism and Western appeasement of the Soviet Union but also scolded the West for turning its back on God and for its excessive materialism. Later, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire collapsed, Solzhenitsyn credited President Ronald Reagan for implementing policies that won the Cold War.
In May 1994, the great Russian writer returned to his homeland, where he continued his work on The Red Wheel. While living in the United States, Solzhenitsyn used the Russian archives at Stanford’s Hoover Institution to help him narrate the events of March and April 1917. Although The Red Wheel is historical fiction, much of it is based on actual events and real historical figures.
The second node of the work appeared in 1985 under the title November 1916. That was followed by the four volumes of March 1917, three of which have been translated into English since 2017, and the final two volumes of April 1917, which will be translated in the future. The Red Wheel is an epic historical narrative written in the manner of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Solzhenitsyn’s nodal approach focuses on critical points of history instead of the full history of Russia in the First World War and during the early months of the 1917 revolution. And contrary to the conventional histories of Russia, Solzhenitsyn identifies March and April 1917 as the key turning point in Russian history, the time period during which Russia’s new “leaders” after the fall of Nicholas II failed to restore order and allowed the Bolsheviks to undermine the forces of order (police and military) and eventually to seize power in the coup d’état of October to November 1917. “For forty years,” Solzhenitsyn later wrote, “I had clung to the universally accepted view that Russia in February 1917 had achieved … freedom … but, alas, only for eight months, as the Bolshevik fiends drowned that freedom in blood, steering the nation to ruin.” In hindsight, he wrote, “Russia was inescapably lost … from the very first days of March” (emphasis in original). It was into the “quicksand of anarchy,” as Russia’s new ministers squandered their newfound authority, that Russia sank while Lenin and his followers schemed to seize power.
The Red Wheel and The Gulag Archipelago have been called Solzhenitsyn’s “two great literary cathedrals.” The Red Wheel takes us on the road to communist totalitarianism, while The Gulag Archipelago shows us communist totalitarianism’s true sordid and evil nature. They are great gifts to the Western world that is today faced with the challenge of confronting a communist great power abroad and totalitarian temptations at home, and they speak to us about the depths of human depravity as well as the resilience of the human spirit.