It is a conceit of the modern world that history is governed by reason. Reason is like an axe to the living, growing tree of history, with its convoluted branches, each cell and molecule emerging as a matter of sheer contingency, one building upon the next—so that great events arise from innumerable plots and threads. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a series of exhausting books, totaling thousands of pages, about unreason in history and the subsequent creation of the modern world, in which the axe of reason, as he puts it, is rare, and when it does fall sometimes creates absolute terror.

The Red Wheel, with its “discrete” “nodes” or “knots,” is composed of August 1914, November 1916, March 1917, and April 1917, with March 1917 alone accounting for several long volumes. This is the principal work of the Nobel laureate’s life, to which Solzhenitsyn dedicated several decades and into which poured all his thoughts about the senseless chaos of the modern and postmodern worlds, all told through the prism of that most contingent of events, the Russian Revolution. That signal event begins with a complex and bungled war and ends with a shaky Bolshevik coup that set in motion a death machine virtually unrivaled in history. And none of this might have happened had Russia’s resolutely effective and moderate prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, who pursued a “middle line of social development,” not been assassinated in September 1911 at the Kiev opera house.

“When things are too clear, they are no longer interesting,” says one of the author’s characters. Solzhenitsyn, far more than other writers, uses his characters to announce counterintuitive and unpopular truths. He knows that a bundle of passions can decide a seemingly clear-cut and rational action, to say nothing of the most consequential decisions that can be decided by a momentary mood. Hindsight is lazy in this regard, Solzhenitsyn intimates, since it reduces complexity to a counterfeit clarity. He replaces hindsight with a multitude of characters thinking and acting in the moment, so that at the beginning of World War I, “The clock of fate was suspended over the whole of East Prussia, and its six-mile-long pendulum was ticking audibly as it swung from the German to the Russian side and back again.” Indeed, the life and death of whole battalions of men, as the author vividly demonstrates, can be effected by a misplaced pencil movement on a general’s dimly lit field map.

Solzhenitsyn’s dissection of the Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg, which occupies much of the action of August 1914, should be studied at every military war college. Without that failure, there might well have been no Romanov abdication, no Lenin, thus no twentieth century as we know it. Solzhenitsyn’s presentation of the battle over hundreds of pages is panoramic, immersive, and masterly, the equivalent in typewriter ink of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent. As with any writer of great epics, Solzhenitsyn knows many disparate things: the technicalities of artillery formations and field maneuvers; the mental process by which semi-starving, over-extended, and ill-led soldiers become looters; how small changes in terrain affect forced marches; as well as the placement of the stars in the night sky and the names of many Orthodox saints.

Solzhenitsyn’s dissection of the Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg should be studied at every military war college.

War between Russia and Germany begins in a whirlpool of emotion. Elation was general, especially in Moscow and Petrograd. After all, this was one war you “could not reject.” “Historic obligations” to Slavic brothers in Serbia were sacred. “A European war cannot be a prolonged conflict.” Of course, the popular naïveté preceding World War I is an old story that is the stuff of many books. But Solzhenitsyn goes on to illuminate in his saga how the same innocence will carry through the entire revolutionary process in Russia, in which phrases like “war” and “revolution” meant very different things to a people whose frame of reference extended only to the end of the nineteenth century. Thus they had no conception of how history could wildly swerve in a new technological age, so that the new military conflict would be nothing like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and the revolution to come would yield nothing like the French one of 1789, which even with its Reign of Terror was altogether benign compared to what was in store for Russia. People sleepwalked backwards into the horrors of the twentieth century, blindly slashed by its revolving blades. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t tell us this; he illustrates it through dozens of fully realized characters.

World War I on the Eastern Front begins with the uneasy specter of culture conjuring itself up. Solzhenitsyn concentrates on deterministic aspects of reality that our policy and intellectual elite want to avoid. To wit, a Russian soldier is amazed at the tidiness of the German landscape the moment he crosses the frontier: the neat regimentation of the brick houses, the pigsties, and the wellheads. The electric lighting deep in the rural interior and the well-kept roads through the clean, practically shaven forests bespeak an “inhuman cleanliness” and “parade-ground order” shocking to a Russian peasant accustomed to the filthy dreariness of his home and village. From this flows dozens of pages of description of Russian military disorganization and slovenliness, with a chain of command and general officer corps corrupted by a thoroughly rotten czarist system. Russian generals make alcoholic toasts over heavy lunches in the middle of a campaign. A withdrawal is ordered after gaining ground in a horrific battle to protect a general’s reputation in the expectation of further loses. At the highest levels there is almost always the avoidance of risk and the rewarding of mediocrity.

Solzhenitsyn’s sympathy is rather with the middle-level officers, who “all bore the indelible impress of a similar background: army tradition, long spells of garrison service in a world isolated from the rest of society; a sense of alienation, of being despised by that society and ridiculed by liberal writers.” Throughout these pages Solzhenitsyn reveals himself as the ultimate patriot and reasoned conservative, who, with a deep belief in an Orthodox Christian God, recognizes the primacy of culture and empathizes with the military, even as he must expose every aspect of a decadent and autocratic imperial system that has failed its own people. Solzhenitsyn’s uniqueness—that is, his greatness—rests on his deep political conservatism, married to a narrative genius akin to Tolstoy’s, encompassing, like the earlier master, just so many universes: from the horrors of the Romanian front, to the exaltations of falling in love in middle age, to the fantastic dinners in private rooms, with masses of smoked salmon and sturgeon, bouillon, sour cream, and rowanberry vodka.

Here is the very texture of anarchy, with crowds assaulting police with stones and chunks of ice . . .

Solzhenitsyn sees an unnecessary war that chain-reacts within a society—spread across half the longitudes of the earth—that for some years already has been crumbling into chaos: with inflation; food shortages; complete bureaucratic dysfunction; a dynasty bordering on sheer “helplessness” and “irresolution”; and a rowdy Duma given to endless, flowery, and directionless speeches in the worst of parliamentary traditions. Here is the very texture of anarchy, with crowds assaulting police with stones and chunks of ice, while the police are in turn afraid of the cossacks. Meanwhile, congeries of parties and factions within parties are left to debate among themselves. Loose, drunken talk postulates that if only the government would change, everything would become better and more humane. There is almost a romance about the future, about any fate save for the present. The author isn’t so much writing a series of novels as unloading everything he knows and thinks about pre-revolutionary Russia, and constructing a tight philosophical argument about it, which glints through multiple layers of description.

The opposite of anarchy is hierarchy, from which order emanates. And it is the melting away of hierarchy that Solzhenitsyn describes in almost tactile terms. Institutions like the royal family, the imperial bureaucracy, the Duma, and the police gradually cease to function, or even to answer properly to each other in the course of these novels. Solzhenitsyn is a deeply moral man of liberty, as the political philosopher Daniel J. Mahoney has observed. Yet as a man of liberty he realizes, as all conservatives do, that without order there is no freedom for any man. And the greater the disorder, the greater the repression to follow.

For in this entire revolutionary process, what pierces most through the intelligent reader’s consciousness is the madness of crowds coupled with the romance and irresistibility of extremism, so that a minority ends up moving history. Just listen to Solzhenitsyn’s timeless words:

For a long time now it has been dangerous to stand in the way of revolution, and risk-free to assist it. Those who have renounced all traditional Russian values, the revolutionary horde, the locusts from the abyss, vilify and blaspheme and no one dares challenge them. A left-wing newspaper can print the most subversive of articles, a left-wing speaker can deliver the most incendiary of speeches—but just try pointing out the dangers of such utterances and the whole leftist camp will raise a howl of denunciation.

Nobody interferes with the mob, least of all the polished and oh-so-civilized intelligentsia, who see the radical Left as composed of a purer and distilled archetype of their own values, and only awake from their dreams when it is too late. For, as it is said, people who have lost faith in God believe in nothing, and they will therefore believe in anything. Richard Bernstein, a former book critic for The New York Times, in referring to campus multiculturalism, calls this larger phenomenon “the dictatorship of virtue,” something that took firm root in twentieth-century totalitarianism, in which the perfect race or system becomes the absolute destroyer of everything good. In this way Solzhenitsyn’s story is a timeless one, aptly suited for our own age.

Tyranny is inseparable from the mob. Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian-Jewish Nobel laureate in literature, made this the theme of his 1960 masterwork, Crowds and Power, traumatized as he was by the mobs he had seen in Vienna in the decade prior to Hitler’s takeover. The crowd, Canetti suggests, emerges ultimately from vulnerability and the consequent need of the individual for conformity with others. Thus the lonely individual exerts dominance through participation in a crowd that speaks with one voice. Once that crowd has achieved a sufficient size, others are coerced to join it, or at least not to interfere with it. From lockdown, to isolation, to loneliness, to explosion in the streets, that is: one contingent event leading to another, as in the expanding branches of a tree. Obviously our own society has institutional breaks and barriers that pre-revolutionary Russia utterly lacked. Think of our contemporary drama as a much subtler yet relevant deviation of Solzhenitsyn’s story.

“The crowd!” Solzhenitsyn writes. “A strange special being, both human and inhuman . . . where each individual was released from his usual responsibility and was multiplied in strength.” The psychology of the crowd, or mob, is thus: “show us who [next] to tear to pieces.”

And the mobs that are the most lethal for civilization are composed of the young. Listen to one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters:

Idolized children despise their parents, and when they get a bit older they bully their countrymen. Tribes with an ancestor cult have endured for centuries. No tribe would survive long with a youth cult.

The problem with youth, as the aging travel writer Paul Theroux, among others, has explained, is that there is a place where it cannot go, but which its parents and grandparents have experienced in all its vividness: the past. The young have never seen the past and therefore have no intimate realization of it. Having lived enough years in the past makes one humble, unsteady, aware of the imperfections of life and of fate, and therefore more immune to ideal solutions for society. To trust youth blindly, to see in youth the answer to our own sins and imperfections, may hold some appeal, but it is also dimwitted. Youth can break down an institutional order, but building a new one is another story, especially as the mobs seeking to ransack the dotty Romanov royal house had no idea about how technology in the twentieth century would assist repression in the new regime aborning.

Solzhenitsyn’s mind seethes with all these realizations and revelations. His answer is a fictional protagonist, Colonel Georgi Mikhalich Vorotyntsev, the very embodiment of human agency. Vorotyntsev, as a colonel, comprehends all the details of grand strategy yet also experiences the peasant grunts in their filthy trenches getting ripped apart by German bullets. He sees above and below him, in other words, a trait common to upper-middle-level officers in any military. Battle plans obsess him; sleep and mastering his own impatience he finds impossible. He despises the czarist courtiers and mediocre generals, but also loathes the revolutionary nihilists in the streets and plotting abroad. And all his emotions arise out of an exalted yet practical patriotism. He is the ultimate good man, in other words, who struggles to have an effect—a less consequential version of the murdered prime minister Stolypin. But Solzhenitsyn, ever the novelist, understands that even the best men are made out of flesh and not out of granite, and so saddles Vorotyntsev with an extramarital affair, which distracts him and undermines his effectiveness.

There is another protagonist in the story, though not a fictional creation, who is never distracted and who is composed of a block of granite, as a contemporary of his once put it, someone who has no humanity and is permanently focused on a problem: Vladimir Lenin, whom Solzhenitsyn captures in exile in Switzerland in the pages of November 1916. This émigré world of Russian revolutionaries is, of course, most brilliantly depicted by Joseph Conrad in his 1911 novel, Under Western Eyes. Conrad’s characters resemble, as one critic observed, “apes of a sinister jungle,” in which Conrad announces that “the spirit of Russia is the spirit of cynicism. . . . For that is the mark of Russian autocracy and of Russian revolt,” so that revolutions begin with idealism and end with fanaticism. Solzhenitsyn is not cynical about Russia the way that Conrad, the Pole, is. But his portrayal of Lenin is, nevertheless, quite jarring:

All that Lenin lacked was breadth. The savage, intolerant narrowness of the born schismatic harnessed his tremendous energies to futilities—fragmenting this group, dissociating himself from that . . . wasting his strength in meaningless struggles, with nothing to show except mounds of scribbled paper. This schismatic narrowness doomed him to sterility in Europe, left him no future except in Russia—but also made him indispensable for any activity there. Indispensable now!

And that is the point. Once out of Europe and back in Petrograd, Lenin becomes the most focused man in Russia, indeed perhaps the only focused man in Russia, a man whose narrow mind—grinding like the gears of a clock—concentrates on one issue. While everyone else is debating politics, Lenin meticulously plans how to actually seize power, which, as Solzhenitsyn’s vast canvas makes clear, is, as they say, lying in the streets waiting to be picked up. Lenin was a nightmarish machine of domination. This is human agency at its heights, though not the kind that intellectual idealists contemplate.

“There is just one buttress: the spell of the Tsar’s name!” someone remarks in March 1917, Node III, Book 1. “The people are generally indifferent to the various parties and programs but not to the fact that they have a Tsar.” Of all the violence depicted in these books, perhaps the most terrifying is the sight of the Tsar’s full-length portrait hanging in the Duma, shredded by bayonets. Despite all of its monumental faults, the monarchy was the only graspable fact of stability in Russia. However backward, reactionary, and ineffectual it was, longevity had provided Nicholas II’s royal line with legitimacy, allowing him to rule without the sharpened steel of extremism that the twentieth century was to manifest with all its frightening isms. This is why, as explained by Mahoney, Solzhenitsyn came to see the February Revolution that brought the democrat Alexander Kerensky to power as “the true revolution and the enduring disaster,” since it toppled the monarchical order and led Russia into complete anarchy, from which a Bolshevik coup, the October Revolution, was only subsequent. Indeed, the murder of Nicholas II’s family, including all his children, in July 1918, probably ordered by Lenin, was the seminal crime of the twentieth century: if you could deliberately kill children with guns and bayonets, well then, you could kill millions.

“There is just one buttress: the spell of the Tsar’s name!”

Indeed, while democracy is a relatively new and fragile phenomenon across the span of history, monarchy is perhaps the oldest governing system and incubator of stabilizing tradition known to man. The twentieth century came to be marked by other seminal crimes and tragedies, quite a few involving the end of monarchies. In July 1958, forty years to the month after the Romanovs were butchered, army officers in Iraq murdered the family of the Hashemite King Faisal II, bringing a string of military rulers to power in Baghdad, culminating in the chilling brutality of Saddam Hussein, whose Baathist ideology was devoid of any sense of tradition and political compromise. As for the Shah of Iran, had he not been forced to abdicate in 1979, Iran today—like Iraq today had the Hashemites remained in power, and like Russia today had the Romanovs remained—would have evolved gradually over the decades into a highly imperfect constitutional monarchy with the royal family as stabilizing figureheads. Had the Hohenzollerns been restored to the throne in Germany after World War I, even stripped of any real political power, there might well have been no Hitler. This, then, is the twentieth century: the axe-like ending of the Old World with all of its stabilizing traditions, allowing for the rise of abstract and utopian movements, each in its own machinal way constituting a dictatorship of virtue.

In his first book, published in 1957, titled A World Restored, the young Henry Kissinger wrote that “the most fundamental problem of politics . . . is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.” It is self-righteousness that lies at the heart of most tyrannies: the belief that only you and your side are moral and on the right side of history, making your opponents immoral, and therefore not only wrong but illegitimate. This was what the vast anarchy across the whole of Russia, every detail captured in quasi-fictionalized manner by Solzhenitsyn, finally wrought. Solzhenitsyn was a conservative because he believed in tradition. And because he believed in tradition he also believed in moderation, all of which made him a great humanist. His Red Wheel warns still of the future, with all its terrifying technological and ideological innovations.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 21
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