The month of November 1916 in Russia was outwardly unmarked by seismic events, but beneath the surface, society seethed fiercely. In Petrograd, luxury-store windows are still brightly lit; the Duma debates the monarchy, the course of war, and clashing paths to reform; the workers in the miserable munitions factories veer increasingly toward sedition. At the front all is stalemate except for sudden death's capricious visits, while in the countryside sullen anxiety among hard-pressed farmers is rapidly replacing patriotism. In Zurich, Lenin, with the smallest of all revolutionary groups, plots his sinister logistical miracle. With masterly and moving empathy, through the eyes of both historical and fictional protagonists, Solzhenitsyn unforgettably transports us to that time and place--the last of pre-Soviet Russia. Translated by H.T. Willetts.
November 1916 is the second volume in Solzhenitsyn's multi-part work, the Red Wheel, following August 1914. The final volumes will deal with March and April of 1917. Each volume concentrates on a historical turning point, or "knot," as the wheel rolls on inexorably toward revolution.
About the Author
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in 1918. In February 1945, while he was captain of a reconnaissance battery of the Soviet Army, he was arrested and sentenced to an eight-year term in a labor camp and permanent internal exile, which was cut short by Khrushchev's reforms, allowing him to return from Kazakhstan to Central Russia in 1956. Although permitted to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962—which remained his only full-length work to have appeared in his homeland until 1990—Solzhenitsyn was by 1969 expelled from the Writers' Union. The publication in the West of his other novels and, in particular, of The Gulag Archipelago, brought retaliation from the authorities. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and forcibly flown to Frankfurt. Solzhenitsyn and his wife and children moved to the United States in 1976. In September 1991, the Soviet government dismissed treason charges against him; Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994. He died in Moscow in 2008.
Read an Excerpt
The Red Wheel. Knot II
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, H. T. Willetts
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1984 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
All rights reserved.
Birds don't like some forests. There were fewer birds in skimpy, stunted Dryagovets than in Golubovshchina, three versts to the rear. Crows, ravens, kites flocked there to batten on the leavings of war (mice and rats poured in too), but song thrushes flew by and the white storks, guardians of happiness, had left their posts on the high roofs. The peasants, though, said that it was always the same even before the war: birds didn't like Dryagovets, but did like Golubovshchina. An old coach road from Catherine's time ran through the soggy patch between the two woods. There, war or no war, the lapwings kept up their plaintive cry, and no other sound was heard.
Golubovshchina was parkland, not dense forest: thick-trunked trees stood as if on parade; there was clean, sweet grass over the whole expanse. Even now, after a year close to the front line, it was populated by throngs of birds. And in May there was such cuckooing and gurgling and chirring and twittering and hooting and trilling that Sanya, a native of the southern steppes, felt weak at the knees, longing to sink onto the silky grass, and his chest swelled to take in not just air but the singing of birds.
The ammunition belts tugging at his shoulders, and his bulky revolver, seemed all the heavier.
All these birds, you might think, could have easily flown away from the whine of shells, the smoke of explosions, the waves of gas, gone another ten versts or so to the rear. But no! Heedless of man's black and noisy war, although they were sometimes among its victims, many birds went on living in the places that were theirs of old, obedient only to the imperative within them, their own strict meridian.
Golubovshchina belonged to a Polish landowner, but had been leased to a simple villager, whereas Dryagovets was a peasant wood. What exactly its name meant Sanya never discovered, but the very sound of it told you that here was something inferior, contemptible. And so it was, a sickly, scrawny wood that gladdened no one's heart and was now, through no wish of their own, peopled from end to end by grenadiers—the rear services and reserves of the infantry, in among the limbers, horses, and dugouts of the artillery. Just behind Dryagovets stood the guns of the 1st Division, Grenadier Brigade.
No dugout could have been roofed with the thin trunks of Dryagovets, and there would have been no wood left long ago but for a timely order to fell no more trees either there or in delectable Golubovshchina. Stout beams were brought on flatcars from the Russian heartland to serve as fortification, and put on wheels so that peasants, for three rubles a load, could haul them a few steps at a time in the dead of night, with German rockets overhead, right up to the front line. (The peasants had left villages farther forward, but were still living and seeding their fields at Staiki and Yushkevichi. The Germans shelled the open fields, but did not aim at the peasants working them.)
Sanya had spent the past year, almost the whole of his war, in these surroundings, the few square versts within his field of vision. His battery had been standing to the rear of Dryagovets since the previous September, and Sanya had always taken the same path to what used to be their observation post: first through Dryagovets, which was teeming with soldiers, then, in full view of the enemy, along the old highroad, where troops broke formation and vehicles passed one at a time; from the still undamaged wooden cross with a wire mesh shielding the figure of the Saviour, he bore left and walked a verst and a half, humiliatingly doubled up, along a communication trench, bumping into people coming the other way, and stumbling over earthfalls until he came to the infantry trenches, narrow slits in the marshy ground. Taking this path from day to day, squelching through the mud in spring and autumn, sometimes over your boots in trench water, you might wonder, if you did not already know, how anyone could have let it come to this: retreat to the worst possible positions and allow the Germans to cross the Szara, occupy the Torczyc Heights, and convert the manor house on the hill at Michalowo into a fortress.
But Sanya had seen something of last August in the Grenadier Brigade and remembered the last stage of that terrible retreat: flattened by raking artillery fire, or sometimes by poison gas, they had huddled all day in sketchy trenches, under pounding bombardments, with no shells of their own, and retreated by night, never catching sight of the enemy infantry, which had no need to do anything. With no shells, and having to count every rifle bullet, they had rolled and staggered back beyond Baranowicze to Stolpce and might have gone on to Minsk, when suddenly they discovered that the Germans were no longer pinching their behinds. They turned and stood, stood fast. Then, from month to month, watched and fired upon by the enemy, the whole Grenadier Corps laboriously and with great losses, crawled back, again "advanced to the closest proximity," tediously digging their way forward to occupy two and a half versts of wilderness abandoned by the Germans as useless.
It is hard to see how anyone could come to love these versts of humiliation, sweat, and death. But strangely, during the year he had spent there, the place had become as poignantly dear to Sasha as his homeland and he had come to know every bush, every hummock, every field path there as well as those around his native Sablya. Nearby, Sasha discovered, was Mickiewicz's true homeland—to the right, toward Lake Koldyczew—and it would have been strange if the poet had not loved the scene of his childhood games and youthful dreams. But are not the places where you spend your turbulent years closest of all to your heart? They stand out against the whole world's expanses as though caught by lightning; they witness not your unthinking and unheeding birth, but the deeds you do surprised by manhood, and, perhaps—today? tomorrow?—your death. As you tramp about your business through the rustling grass, you may be walking past the cross that will say you are dead, past your future grave.
It amazed him to think of all that he had lived through, of how much he had changed, in a year. Walking from the observation post to the battery, worn out and deep in thought, he had paid no attention to the shell hideously whistling overhead until he saw on the fringe of Dryagovets a black column three times higher than the forest, and topping it a bright red cap of belching flames, and higher still a flight of thick sticks. Before all this collapsed, and in spite of the incredible din, he had made the connections: an eight-inch shell had fallen on the battery's ammunition dump, the sticks were splintered seven-inch beams, and the blasts were Russian shells exploding vertically. You might think (but at the time you would not be thinking) that it was against nature for any living creature to rush to its death. It was not Sanya's duty to be with the battery at that moment, and no one would have been surprised or blamed him if he had arrived ten minutes late, but without stopping to think he rushed to the gun site as fast as his legs could carry him. Beams were still falling in a cloud of soil (two of them stuck upright as though pile-driven into the ground) and an ammunition box full of shrapnel burst into flames. There was no officer to be seen, and only a handful of gunners, a junior bombardier, and a few soldiers from the ranks who had taken cover at the moment of the explosion. Sanya shouted at them to follow him and raced toward the shell box. Smoke was pouring from its shattered sides (the powder in the broken shell cases was burning). They all rushed with him to prevent the explosion, expecting to be hit by it, and also expecting at any moment to be hit by another shell capable of scooping out a crater thirty-five feet in diameter and nine feet deep. But the next one didn't arrive, and in the meantime they had hacked off the burning casing with axes and hurriedly thrown out the shells (their wrapping already red-hot) before even one could go off. The work was done in such tearing haste that Sanya didn't have time to feel frightened. It was only when they had finished and were mopping their brows that he felt his legs trembling and refusing to support him.
He had still not got over his surprise at himself and the men who had helped him when they received a St. George's Cross each, and the Awards Council bestowed an Officer's Cross on Second Lieutenant Lazhenitsyn.
Then, and at many other times, Sanya's life might have ended in his twenty-fifth year, in the lush and pleasant locality between Vlasy and Melikhovichi with their clumps of tall poplars. And though the front might move elsewhere, and however often the scene of danger and of short-lived soldierly joys might change, this place in which they had spent a whole anxious year would always be remembered as his lost homeland.
There was another enigma: a boundary line which had never existed before, and which would later be obliterated, plowed under, surviving only in the memory of old men, now separated the two intruding armies, and so divided and alienated from each other two pieces of a continuous and long-cultivated tract of land. Everything should have been just the same on the other side of the line—and everything seemed entirely different. It should have been another cozy piece of the homeland, embellished with a scattering of farmhouses and peasant huts, with the same eighteenth-century coach road sparsely lined with birches and disappearing over a rise and beyond the river, the same windmills, poplars, and derelict stork's nests—but instead it was a parcel of alien land under alien rule.
That spring, when the Rostov Grenadier Regiment had dug in close to the Torczyc Heights, they had made a successful sally before dawn, taken the German trenches by surprise, and might have crossed the Szara if there had been any backup. Sanya happened to be on duty at the observation post in the Rostov Regiment's forward trench, and went with the attack. He could not have given them artillery support—the use of shells was prohibited and the operation had developed suddenly at the regimental level—but Sanya ran across those 1,500 yards of land scanned day in and day out, studied stone by stone, surmounted the two-crested hill, and gasped: it really was another world over there. Not barren, broken land with nary a bush, but, from immediately beyond the German trenches, a green slope down to the river, flourishing oaks, pollarded willows, luxuriant shrubbery along a stream, and a soft morning river mist caressing these lovely creations. No sooner had the machine guns and rifles fallen silent than a nightingale, nearby but invisible, came to life and began pouring its heart out, uninhibitedly, with all the expected grace notes and trills and dying falls. ... He too would not be driven by the war from his accustomed place!
This steep green bank beyond the Torczyc Heights, this mist, this unexpected nightingale seemed to Sanya a paradise on earth. What strength and what love had gone into its creation. How strange to think that at either end the Torczyc slope and Golubovshchina rang still with their eternal song while in the shadow zone between them where the twenty-foot crucifix had survived without a scratch, a thousand men had in a fit of madness burrowed into the ground to blaze away at each other with the whole arsenal of twentieth-century technology.
This sprint before dawn with pounding heart to where neither orders nor a sense of duty had sent him, but his own overmastering urge to feel for the first time in his life what it was to attack, seemed to have given him wings, he felt light-headed and half conscious as though after a night of happiness and love. There was a charge and a victory, but it was a lighthearted affair, without casualties. For that half hour Sanya was disembodied and unafraid of raking lead, he had no ears for the bullets that began to whistle toward them from beyond the Szara.
Something else, however, had stolen into Second Lieutenant Lazhenitsyn's mind. In spite of his sleepwalking weightlessness, and rapt as he was by the nightingale's song, he used that brief lull to cast an eye over the German trenches: they were clean, dry, deep enough to stand up in, lined and solidly floored with planks, they had sentry boxes for the winter, the dugouts were shored up with beams, impenetrable by Russian field artillery, and some of them were even fortified with concrete. And although it had always been easy to deduce that the Russian positions must be wide open to scrutiny from this point, it was only when he had looked for himself through the observation slits in the concrete that the second lieutenant realized with a shock how awkwardly placed, how exposed, how defenseless the Russian forces were—almost as though they were waging the war according to the other side's rules.
He also took from a nail in a bunker a magnificent pair of Zeiss field glasses with sixteen-power magnification. Many months later, he would look out from the old, low-lying position at those even more inaccessible Torczyc Heights, now fortified with five barbed-wire fences, and at the tops of the oaks beyond them, and find it hard to believe that he had been there, but for the splendid, heavy field glasses always hanging on his chest or at his eyes and often borrowed by his comrades or senior officers, because they had only Russian army issue with no more than eight-power magnification.
They were like the Firebird's feather plucked by the sleeping prince as an enduring proof of what he had seen in his dreams.CHAPTER 2
Lieutenant Colonel Boyer had assigned Second Lieutenant Lazhenitsyn out of turn to No. 3 Battery's lateral observation post near the village of Dubrowna at 10 a.m. on 27 October, so that he could take part in the battery commander's target practice.
This was a breach of training procedure. Whatever his three platoon commanders were like they should have been given equal training opportunities and each have taken his turn with the guns. But under the curse of having to fight with an army thinned out beyond recognition, in which real, regular officers had been replaced by nondescripts, and NCOs with long service by half-trained common soldiers, the lieutenant colonel could afford not to worry too much about using the commander of No. 3 Platoon, who was better trained and more conscientious than the others, though, like them, no soldier at heart. The commander of No. 1 Platoon, Chernega, promoted from sergeant major to ensign, was as brave a fighter as anyone could wish, but was lacking in knowledge and skill, not always quick to react, and not easily geared into a strictly disciplined system. Ensign Ustimovich, a forty-five-year-old schoolteacher recalled from the reserve, was burdened with family and other cares, was, moreover, an infantryman assigned to the battery only because of the dearth of artillery officers, and though, to his own discomfort and that of his battery commander, he was nominally in charge of No. 2 Platoon, never looked like he had the makings of a gunner and even seemed incapable of adjusting to military discipline.
There had been two days of unrelievedly dull weather: no rain, but never a glimmer of sunshine. From early morning this had been another day of unbroken cloud, but it was dry, not too cold, and an occasional brightness promised clearer weather. The barometer, however, was falling, and made raincoats advisable.
No. 3 Battery's forward observation post, in the infantry trenches facing the Torczyc Heights, commanded a narrow view deep into the enemy position, and so for major bombardments Boyer always manned a lateral post, on high ground partly captured from the Germans. The field of view from there was both broad and deep, but because the post was too far to one side, the firing drill became complicated: the observer did not see what the gunners saw, spacing measurements involved angular measurements and this called for quick calculation and adjustment. It was useless putting Ustimovich there, and Chernega would have been no less confused.
Excerpted from November 1916 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, H. T. Willetts. Copyright © 1984 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
|Chapter 7||(Origins of the Kadets)||57|
|Chapter 15||(From the notebooks of Fyodor Kovynev)||158|
|Chapter 19||(Society, the government, and the Tsar in 1915)||206|
|Document No. 1||November 1916. To the Petersburg Proletariat||284|
|Chapter 41||(Aleksandr Guchkov)||534|
|Document No. 2||Emperor and Empress: extracts from their correspondence||679|
|Document No. 3||A student handbill||727|
|Document No. 4||Prince Lvov to Rodzyanko||748|
|Chapter 62||(The Progressive Bloc)||766|
|Chapter 65||(The State Duma, 14 November)||864|
|Chapter 71||(The State Duma, 16-17 November)||937|
|Document No. 5||A circular telegram from Sturmer||955|
|Index of Names||1001|