Saturday, July 05, 2014

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, August 1914


Opening Passage:

They left the village on a clear morning at dawn. In the early sunlight, the whole of the Caucasus range, each single indentation, could be seen, brilliantly white with deep blue hollows, apparently so close at hand that a stranger to the region might have thought it a mere two hour's drive away.

It towered so vast above petty human creation, so elemental in a man-made world, that even if all the men who had lived in all the past millenia had opened their arms as wide as they could and carried everything they had ever created or intended to create and piled it all up in massive heaps, they could never have raised a mountain ridge as fantastic as the Caucasus.

Summary: August 1914 describes the failure and collapse of Russia's Second Army in a single month in 1914. The failure was not the result of one cause or two. It was a failure of everything. It was a military hierarchy in which promotion was determined almost solely by seniority, and had nothing to do with performance. It was petty jealousies between officers and generals who did not know what they were doing. It was bad communication and poor transportation and even worse preparation; it was hastily changed plans and orders followed almost immediately by counter-orders; it was men who needed months more to be trained marched and marched and marched to the point of exhaustion until even they could not help but think that their superiors had no idea what they were doing. It was a government sharply and suddenly alternating between oppressing the people and promising them liberation. It was revolutionaries eating away at the bones; it was reactionaries ossifying the blood. It was pompous self-importance and all the delusion that it causes. It was the failure of everything.

It was not that the Germans were a better army, although there is no question that they were, for they, too, made mistakes. They consistently underestimated the excellence of Russian riflemen; they completely failed to understand the tenacity of Russian peasants; even the weaknesses of the Russian army outmaneuvered them at time, for when vulnerabilities are so blatant, who will not naturally assume that it is either a trap or an artifact of missing information? The Germans, in a straight fight, were not guaranteed to win. But Russian disorganization, a disorganization that was not merely an accident at headquarters but a seam running throughout all of Russia, allowed the Germans to pull a thread here, pull a thread there, pull another there, until the entire cloth came undone.

Solzhenitsyn tells this tale by following a wide number of people, both in the army and back at home. We follow Alexander Vasilievich Samsonov, head of the Second Army, doing the best he could with a bad hand, but also erring repeatedly by shortsightedness. We also follow Georgii Mikahilovich Vorotyntsev, a colonel, a competent man in an incompetent organization. In many ways the story is the most interesting; he makes no mistakes, but in the Russian military that makes him in some ways the greatest failure. And we follow many others, some more interesting, some less, but through it we get a rounded picture of the whole.

Throughout the narrative, Solzhenitsyn sprinkles folk proverbs, which I thought was interesting. Proverbs are the things everyone knows, the things anyone can advise, but in war people's actions are often contrary to what everyone knows -- and sometimes we discover in the consequences of such disregard why these are the things that everyone can advise. And, of course, the consequences here were vast. A revolution is rumbling under the surface throughout Russian society, and the errors are breaking down the shields that hold it back. The old guard is killed and the Bolsheviks slowly start coming into positions of influence. And on the front, a general surrenders an army of tens of thousands of men, and the Germans, considering what to do with this novel problem, upgrade their ideas of a POW camp to compensate it, figuring out how to make a concentration camp, that "fate of men for decades to come" and "herald of the twentieth century", as Solzhenitsyn calls it (p. 616).

One of the best smaller scenes is when Olda Orestovna Andozerskaya, one of the first women professors of history, faces students who are baffled at the fact that she wants them to study medieval papal bulls written in Latin rather than things they regard as relevant for the day, and responds that human beings are not merely the result of material forces but have a spiritual life, and out of that spiritual life comes the possibility and power of personal responsibility. This idea, the importance of personal responsibility, is the core of the book, I believe. It is seen in another form in Vorotyntsev, whose competence is rooted in his own sense of personal responsibility, and who is foiled by the fact that he is almost the only one with this sense. And it makes sense, if you think about it. When faced with the failure of everything, what other answer can there be except taking responsibility oneself? As one of the proverbs says, "You shouldn't have searched in the village but in yourself" (p. 632).

Favorite Passage: I would have expected something with the toy lion, which is the part I remember most vividly about the book from when I first read it in high school, but reading it this time I was particularly struck by this passage:

At this point General Kluyev's cup of endurance ran over. "To avoid useless bloodshed," the commander of the two center corps ordered the white flag to be raised--when he had twenty batteries of guns, still intact, after being dragged halfway around Prussia, against only eight German batteries, and when his tens of thousands of men dispersed through the forest were faced in this sector by not more than six German battalions.

"To avoid bloodshed"--golden words. Every human action can be disguised with a coating of gilt. "To avoid bloodshed" sounds noble and humane; who could argue with that? One might perhaps raise the objection that the truly farsighted way of avoiding bloodshed would have been not to become a general.

However, it turned out that there was no white flag; they were not, after all issued to units in the Table of Equipment along with the regimental colors. (p. 574-575)

Recommendation: The work is written in a way that requires slow reading; for instance, one sometimes does not know who a chapter is describing until well into the chapter, and there are a great many characters to try to keep straight, who are, in the Russian way, as likely to be referred to by their first name as their last and by a nicknames as by either. But if you can set for yourself a block of time, it is well worth the marathon. Highly recommended.


Quotations are from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, August 1914, Michael Glenny, tr. Bantam (New York: 1974).

1 comment:

  1. Yes, "August 1914" is highly recommended. Solzhenitsyn tells multiple tales, all intimate in their own way, equally contributing to the whole narrative.


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