14-AUG by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


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The first part of what Solzhenitsyn has described as "the principal project" of his life's work, an epic study of Russia before, during and after the Revolution, whose "general conception. . .came to me upon graduation from high school," August 1914 describes the opening campaign of the Russian army in East Prussia, its strategic blunders, operational chaos, and general lack of coordination to a degree the Germans could hardly believe, and the bravery of the troops who were finally surrounded. Solzhenitsyn has described his difficulties in gathering source material, since important archives were barred to him; but no significant historiographic faults have yet been noted and, though he has no firsthand experience of pre-revolutionary society, he has achieved a power and freshness which lend credence to the inevitable War and Peace comparisons. Solzhenitsyn parenthetically disputes Tolstoy's belief that it is not men's decisions which make history; the generals (owing to the way tsarist hierarchies fostered incompetence) did not know what they were doing, and in Solzhenitsyn's view these early losses undercut the entire war effort. Solzhenitsyn has always had an acute understanding of bureaucracy, and his own war experience -- in particular his almost religious conception of comradeship under fire -- animates the chronicle. Other elements are even more directly autobiographical: two of the characters have all the predicates of Solzhenitsyn's parents. The book expresses both Solzhenitsyn's belief in "the vigorous, inexhaustible spiritual strength of Russia" and his contempt for the untruths and abuses of authority, as well as a God-fearingness which should be distinguished from Russian Orthodoxy. One principal is a relatively unsympathetic young revolutionary, to whom Solzhenitsyn imputes a simple-minded "the worse the better" view of the war. The most fully developed characters include General Samsonov, commander of the destroyed army, a victim of broader intrigues and incapacities, and a young staff officer, Vorotynsev, who upholds Solzhenitsyn's foremost value, honesty, in a final explosion. However, as Solzhenitsyn acknowledges, some of the character development is incomplete, because "this is only the initial presentation of a longer work." It is an impressive one, if not as soul-shaking as The Cancer Ward and The First Circle. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1972
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1972


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