The Great War in Books: Tragedy Unravels in Russia

The story of the Great War in Russia cannot be told in isolation. It’s impossible to separate the conflict, for instance, from the rise to power of Lenin and his band of Bolsheviks, leading directly to a bloody civil war that officially lasted until 1922 (though the killing went on for a lot longer). This, in turn, cannot be understood without looking at the devastating defeat suffered by Russia in its ill-advised war against Japan in 1904–1905, or the ensuing wave of unrest that swept through Moscow, St Petersburg and the rest of the empire, resulting in the creation of the first Russian parliament, the Duma, in 1906.

All these elements play a part in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957), which revolves around a tragic love story played out against the background of the Great War in Russia. The scope of Doctor Zhivago overflows on both ends the confines of the war, but in doing so it maps the effect such a torrid time had not only in shaping the day-to-day lives of ordinary people but also in shaping their character. It is in this respect that Pasternak’s most celebrated work lands its greatest triumph.

boricc81s-pasternak-doctor-zhivago-loquesomosYury Zhivago is a privileged orphan who has been adopted by an established family of Moscow’s middle class. Training to become a physician, he comes to witness the horrors that first triggered the 1905 revolution, as a protest by a group of railway workers turns into a bloodbath once the mounted police decide to break up the demonstration. As a young man with an education, Yury vociferously supports the revolution, not as a violent means to abolish the previous system but as an effective movement that would improve the situation of Russia’s oppressed and disadvantaged groups – and there were plenty of those: women (forget about voting, women couldn’t even get an education), peasants, workers, the Jewish population, and a number of different nations within the empire which didn’t get full (or even any) citizen’s rights.

However, while there is a direct relation between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the latter can be considered neither a product nor even a continuation of the former. In between the two Russia was completely pacified and the most extreme faction of the revolutionary movement was practically eliminated. Not only that, but with the advent of war in Europe had come the most puzzling phenomenon: the Tsar, until then mocked, almost ridiculed, and decidedly unpopular, suddenly became a hero-like figure leading the patriotic fervor that gripped the country.

51ifctr8dql-_sx334_bo1204203200_So much becomes clear from the detailed account another Russian literary dissident, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, gives in his work, August 1914, of the process whereby Russia not only survived the 1905 revolution, but also got (almost) totally over it. August 1914 is an encyclopaedic blend of historical fiction, factual references, autobiography and opinion pieces that the famous Russian writer published in 1971 as the opening book of his monumental series The Red Wheel, which was always doomed to remain incomplete. Approximately 850 pages long, August 1914 is split into two parts: the first one deals directly with the Battle of Tannenberg; the second one provides precious insight into the relevant historical moments of the decade leading up to the break of war. Indeed, it’s in this section, titled “From Previous Knots”, that August 1914 really comes to its own. Especially in Solzhenitsyn’s absorbing portrait of the Russian statesman Pyotr Stolypin, who led the government from 1906 to his assassination in 1911 and successfully enforced peace (in the most draconic of fashions) in a nation rocked by domestic terrorism and social revolt.

In these historical “knots” Solzhenitsyn describes with prodigious clarity the tension prevalent in Russian society in the years leading up to the war – a period dominated above all by contradictions. The Tsar is described as the weakest and most insecure of persons, yet his will is nothing short of the law by mere grace of divine will. Even Stolypin, a committed Tsarist, is forced to find a compromise between the absolutism he so keenly defends and the republican reforms his Tsar promised to make when he approved the creation of the Duma in 1906. At some stage, one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters points out how Russia had entered the war to “save our Serbian brothers,” yet “we oppress all the non-Russian peoples of the Empire.” And at an earlier junction an educated woman (a rarity in Russia at the time) wonders how before the war “no thinking Russian citizen seemed to doubt that the head of the Russian state was a contemptible person” yet just three weeks later patriotic fervor had swept through the entire population, making everyone want to fight to preserve the honor and the health of the Tsar, equated with the health of the country.

This flare of popularity didn’t last long, though, as we see both in August 1914 and in Doctor Zhivago, where Yury’s deployment as a trench line doctor provides the reader with first-hand impressions, as it were, of the conflicting emotions running through the army, and by extension the Russian population at large. While some still dream of the revolution, others resist the advances of nationalism, mainly because they don’t feel like they belong to the nation. Moreover, as the initial success of the Russian army is followed by setback after setback throughout 1915 the discontent becomes more noticeable, more undisguised. Pasternak builds a subtle case, one step at the time, for considering the 1917 revolution a direct consequence, not of the 1905 one, but of the Allies’ failure to end the war within a few months, as originally advertised.


Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Source:

The start of that series of setbacks is precisely the focus of the first part of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which retells the details of the catastrophic Battle of Tannenberg, a categorical defeat by the Russian army just a few weeks into the war. Combining tremendously critical sections narrated by the fictional protagonist Vorotyntsev with equally critical non-fiction sections (physically separated from the main body of the novel by adopting a smaller font size), Solzhenitsyn provides the reader with a punctilious account of the events of August 23–31, 1914 which culminated in the defeated General Samsonov committing suicide and Russia facing the threat of having to sign a separate peace. Solzhenitsyn deliberately plays down the success of the campaign against Germany up to the Battle of Tannenberg but he does so in order to focus not so much on what went wrong but in how easily the greatest defeat in Russian military history could have been avoided. Then again, it is the privilege of hindsight to enjoy 20/20 vision – and it’s worth mentioning that though August 1914 was first published in 1971, the final, revised edition with the addition of “From Previous Knots” only came out in 1981, almost seventy years after the start of the First World War.

Disastrous as Tannenberg might have been, however, Tsar Nicholas dismissed the idea of turning his back on the Allies, keeping Russia in the war. The second book of Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel deals with this period, and more specifically with the rarified atmosphere prevalent in Moscow and Petrograd two years later, towards November 1916, when the shock caused by the mass retreat of 1915 had already been assimilated and the situation had become more stable. November 1916 is not so much concerned with details of the war (though over the course of a thousand pages there is plenty of room for that too) as it is with the state of affairs of the so-called home front. That is the main reason why the author has chosen to set his novel during a period of relative calm in terms of the war itself – a period in which it was rather the tension created by internal strife which threatened Russia most. In this respect Solzhenitsyn focuses on three main aspects.

The first one is the agrarian question, which naturally involves the production, distribution and purchase of food in the country but which serves as an introduction to the greater struggle of town versus village in Russia. With the peasantry holding the country’s grain and the government moving to control the price of foodstuff the faceoff between the two becomes inevitable. A strong political undertow runs through this issue, as Russia’s peasantry still suffered the legacy of serfdom, nominally abolished less than fifty years before. While rural Russia had contributed as many as 11 million soldiers to the army, the village was still in a strong position in 1916, for it held the provisions that would feed the country. But a combination of extreme incompetence as well as avarice led to a breakdown in the traditional system of harvesting and distributing the grain, which in turn translated into scarcity. Solzhenitsyn describes with great lucidity the processes that lead to regulated systems, the black market, hyperinflation, and ultimately an economic crisis that weighed heavier on the townsfolk than any of the tragic stories of war in the trenches.

238388The second matter of critical importance to November 1916 is the Jewish question, perhaps the most high-profile aspect of a wider issue of internal immigration arrived from Russia’s western borders. With the Russian army conceding vast expanses of land in what is described as “the great 1915 retreat”, Germany had been able to claim hundreds of miles, taking Warsaw, threatening Minsk, and forcing the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people. All of the territory lost was part of the Pale of Settlement to which Russia had confined for many generations its Jewish population, which like the peasantry (and the serfs before them) didn’t enjoy full citizen rights. Once the country’s six million Jews were given license to move to cities, misgivings and prejudice flourished among Russians – but, Solzhenitsyn asks through his characters, is it reasonable to expect the Jewish community to fight wholeheartedly for Russia when Russia has never fully recognized them as one of its own?

And yet, November 1916 is above all concerned with the impossibly complex political game that governed Russia at the time and that eventually led to its demise. Bulky chapters of historical context provide a detailed analysis of the origins of the Progressive Bloc and the Kadet movement, which would be pivotal in the triumph of the Bolsheviks. Solzhenitsyn provides transcripts of secret meetings as well as parliamentary sessions, and he goes deep into the psyche of several key figures such as Guchkov and Shlyapnikov, but the text most vividly comes to life in the extensive sections that deal with Lenin’s exile in Switzerland between 1908 (“the year of loneliness”) and 1916. Solzhenitsyn paints a harrowing picture of a determined, headstrong, manipulative and obsessive intellectual bent on destroying the establishment at all costs – but only so long as he sits at the top of the ensuing new world order. Indeed, Lenin’s character emerges in November 1916 very much as the polar opposite of the effete and weak-willed Tsar Nicholas II, making it all the more obvious to the reader how and why the former came to gain the upper hand.

The story of Lenin’s rise to power is also the story of the end of Russian involvement in the Great War, for implicit in Germany’s efforts to smuggle the most fanatical Bolshevik back into Russia was the understanding that a revolutionary government would be warm to the idea of signing a separate peace, leaving Germany with only the western front to fight. In this respect, the events of 1917, first the meltdown of the Tsar’s government in March, which led to his abdication, and six months later the revolt that replaced Alexander Kerensky’s interim government with the chaos of myriad people’s committees (soviets), were truly the prelude to the Bolsheviks’ disentanglement from a global conflict in order to focus on securing control of the country. But this is where history and life most sharply differ, because while the violence and the misery of the years that followed the October Revolution can, and probably must, be seen as distinct to those which preceded it, in reality the suffering to which the Russian people was subjected remained frighteningly similar.


Boris Pasternak. Source:

Pasternak, an intellectual sympathetic to the revolutionary cause in his youth, delivers a telling portrayal of these circumstances through the experiences of his protagonist, Yury Zhivago, who embraces the end of the war, the abdication of the Tsar and the prospect of a fairer future with enthusiasm. But upon his return to Moscow from the front Yury is confronted in full with the reality of a country deliberately turning its world upside down. Initially he’s willing to give it a go, as is his wife, Tonya, justifying the radical nature of the changes they undergo by acknowledging that in the past the wealthy really did live a decadent lifestyle. Alas, you can only fool yourself to a certain degree, but when food and firewood become an inaccessible luxury the Zhivagos come to terms with the fact that this is not the way things are meant to be.

Given their wealthy background the Zhivagos are particularly prone to being lynched in the city, so their safest option becomes escaping to Siberia, where they manage to carve a relatively peaceful existence for themselves. This is Pasternak at his most poignant, subtle best as he allows his characters to fall into the rhythm of their experience, however challenging, however constricted, and to find fulfillment in the most mundane of achievements. Yury Zhivago is Pasternak’s vehicle to demonstrate that even in abject poverty happiness is possible. But he is also the perfect example of how vulnerable individuals are in the face of major collective forces working around them – in the face, after all is said and done, of fate.

Tonya and Yury live separate lives in Siberia but in their own way they both succeed in building around themselves an environment they can come to treasure, a place they can call home. Except the historical circumstances – the ruthlessness of the revolution, the tensions of the civil war – conspire to tear down their hopes and expectations time and again. Eventually, Yury comes to understand that this is not the same revolution he advocated for in his youth: this is a new upheaval “born of the war, bloody, pitiless, elemental, the soldier’s revolution, led by the professionals, the Bolsheviks”. Unfortunately, in revolution disillusionment isn’t really an option.

The First World War proved to be the harbinger of the most radical transformation western civilization had ever undergone. Its impact was felt in every aspect of individual and collective life, from the dismemberment of empires to the empowerment of women or to the development of new technologies in both armament and medicine. Within this complex relation of changes and reactions the Great War must be seen as the ghastly climax of a period deeply steeped in paradox. In this respect, Russia provides us with the perfect case study to understand how radically different were the directions in which the opposing forces were pulling – and just how much was at stake.




Parts of this essay were published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on September 15, June 30, and January 27, 2018 as separate installments of The Great War in Books series focusing on Doctor ZhivagoNovember 1916 and August 1914 respectively.

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