One hundred years ago, a catastrophic event took place in the grand city of St. Petersburg. A revolution overthrew the Tsarist government of Russia. Out of the chaos that ensued, the most vicious and ideologically extreme splinter group gained ascendency. When the Bolsheviks violently solidified control throughout the vast Russian Empire, it so frightened people in other parts of Europe that they ceded power to vociferous anti-communist political parties—fascists and Nazis. In turn, those movements led the world into the worst war in history. The end of the World War II did not bring peace, but instead led to a long Cold War in which the United States and the Soviet Union spent uncountable fortunes to defeat each other’s way of life.
Aleksandr Solzhenitysn’s multi-volume The Red Wheel attempts to answer an important question: How did all these horrible events come to pass? When Solzhenitsyn began writing the story in the 1930s, it was not to be a tale of tragedy, but one of triumph. The work was intended to show how Solzhenitsyn’s boyhood hero Lenin founded a society based on equality, freedom, and brotherhood. The tenor of the book changed when the psychotic Stalin succeeded Lenin and began to systematically enslave and brutalize the Soviet Union in an effort to establish Marx’s vision of a perfect society. Solzhenitsyn was swept up in the whirlwind of terror, spending years in forced labor camps under the most inhuman conditions.
In the nearly forty years it took Solzhenitsyn to complete The Red Wheel, the work became more than an effort to recount the origins of the Bolshevik Revolution. It became, rather, a dire warning to future generations about the calamitous consequences of social upheavals and ideological political doctrines. The completed work is a massive and daunting literary masterpiece. It encompasses nearly 3,000 pages, grouped into four volumes, or “nodes.”
The first node, August 1914, highlights one of the most important causes of the Bolshevik Revolution—the catastrophic losses suffered by Russia in World War I. It focuses on the battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia and exposes the incompetence of Russia’s imperial military hierarchy. Solzhenitsyn’s fictional Georgi Vorotyntsev, who is present when all the key decisions are made, is meant to illustrate how the disastrous defeat might have been avoided. There are also moving chapters on Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. Stolypin was a real-life political leader whose policies of developing free-market institutions and devolving power to localities might have brought Russia into the age of democracy and enlightenment without a bloody upheaval. Sadly, he was the assassinated in 1911 and his reforms were never implemented.
Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable skill of making people come alive on the written page is evident in November 1917. His characters provide a glimpse of what life was like in Russia at the beginning of the Revolution. The novel shows the effects on the psyche of the loss of belief in higher spiritual principles, including the false hope that political reform can resolve all human travails.
Node II includes poignant sections on Tsarina Alexandra, whose simple religious faith teaches duty towards others and places limits on selfishness. Despite her lofty position, or perhaps because of it, the Empress spends time comforting injured soldiers in her private hospital.
March 1917, node III, gives a sketch of the events in St. Petersburg that culminated in the overthrow of the Tsar. Most striking in this segment is the ineptitude of Russia’s ruling class. Although a decent man, Tsar Nicholas was slow to make decisions, fearful of talented people, and incapable of resolving difficult issues. The ministers who exercised executive power were appointed by the Tsar and therefore lacked energy or ability.
The legislative branch—the Duma—had no responsibility for carrying out policies. Its only function was to criticize the actions of the government, no matter how successful they were. The constant condemnation of the regime by the Duma undermined trust in the royal family and the government.
By 1917, the war had sapped the resolve of Russia’s best and brightest. They no longer believed that the Imperial system could be salvaged, but could not conceive of an adequate replacement. In March 1917, Vorotyntsev, the fictional military champion of August 1914 and November 1916, takes no part in public or military responsibilities. He wallows in self-pity and indulges in private pleasures. He leaves his wife for a mistress and is unfaithful to both with an old flame.
For decades, Russia’s intellectual elites had agitated for the overthrow of monarchy, but had no clue what to do when actual authority came into their grasp. Party leaders lost heart and abdicated power until it landed in the hands of people who were not reticent about using force.
It was in this chaotic situation that the peculiar talents of Vladimir Lenin came into play. Solzhenitsyn portrays Lenin throughout The Red Wheel as disciplined, self-assured, cunning, and ruthless. He is more interested in the ideal future of the masses than the fate of the individuals who make up that mass. It is the ideological commitment of Lenin and his followers that bring about the Bolshevik Revolution, the awful crimes of later Communist leaders, the murder of millions of people, and the tragic events all too common in the 20th Century.
Reading The Red Wheel demands an extensive investment of time and energy. For those willing to devote the effort, Solzhenitsyn’s art allows readers to grasp one of the pivotal episodes in history.
Looking for more about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Check out The Pen that Toppled an Empire: Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago.