This historical fiction is the first book in the "Red Wheel" series by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., a division of Macmillan.
August 1914 was written for adults but this book is studied in high schools.
In August 1914, Russia's severely disorganized army suffers a number of significant losses against the Germans due to poor communication and the corruption of the military's leadership. Solzhenitsyn's novel, overflowing with characters of various social classes and complex battle plans, examines Russian hierarchies and traditions in relation to the nation's ability to sustain itself in a world of change and technology. Many of the questions Solzhenitsyn's characters contemplate reflect the author's views of war: He may not have been in favor of it, but he believed true Russians should nevertheless step up and play their part.
Sanya Lazhenitsyn, a Tolstoyan pacifist who volunteers for the army because he "feels sorry for Russia" ponders the question "How can one serve the kingdom of God on earth?" Most characters have a Christian (Russian Orthodox) mind-set and desire to serve God; they do so through ritual prayers and worship of Mary and the saints. Several characters experience premonitions that they feel are from God about the direction of the war. Solzhenitsyn is decidedly Christian and suggests through his characters that holiness comes from searching pure-heartedly for God, while the destruction in the world can be linked to those who practice evil and deceit.
Aleksandr Samsonov, a nonfictional Russian general encircled by the Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg, is a devoted believer in God who finds satisfaction in concentrated, dedicated prayer. He prays fervently for the soldiers and that God will provide clarity as Samsonov leads the army. As war disasters mount, Samsonov feels that it is as though Christ and the Virgin Mary have rejected Russia; he ultimately "sacrifices" himself through suicide and becomes the scapegoat for all of the poor decisions leading to Russia's defeat. Most other military leaders in the book lie, disobey orders and cover up the truth to save themselves; critics call them "incompetent and stupid" in their efforts to evade responsibility. For example, with Samsonov dead, the generals find it convenient to claim he single-handedly lost the war for the nation.
Other Belief Systems
Irina, a wealthy Russian woman, believes in reincarnation and finds it "beautiful" to blend elements of Christianity and Eastern religions. Some of the soldiers "superstitiously fear angering God with their idle chatter." Tsarist General Nechvolodov thinks that "life was brought to us by some unknown force, we don't know where it came from or why." Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev, an energetic staff officer, says he knows when he will die because an old Chinaman told his fortune.
Profanities include son of a b--ch, d--n, s---, b--tard, h--- and the f-word. God's name is also taken in vain. The book contains war images of wounded soldiers and different deaths.
Sanya tries to refrain from activities, such as dancing because of the desires they create in him. Vorotyntsev has an erotic dream about making love to a woman. Arsenii (Senka) Blagodaryov, a brave peasant soldier, says making love to his wife is as sweet as sucking marrow from a bone. A peasant in the beer house tells a dirty joke about a woman lying spread-eagle on a bed. Sergeant Major Terenty Chernega, overseer of artillery, compares a mission to the chest of an old woman waddling along.
Solzhenitsyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Comment on Varsonofiev's quote: "Intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility."
- Sanya struggles with how to react to the war and tries to determine his part in it. How was his decision right? How was it wrong?
- Some critics say Samsonov is a Christ figure, especially in his death. In what ways do you see Christian imagery? What part does his suicide play in this scenario? Do you agree with critics?
- Solzhenitsyn's view on war was that whether we like that it happens or not, we should support our nation. Do you agree? Explain your answer.
- Do you agree with Solzhenitsyn's idea that "revolution" was too drastic and that social progress needed to happen gradually? Do any events in the history of your nation support your opinion? What experiences or studies have led you to this conclusion?
- How do you think Solzhenitsyn felt about generals? Common soldiers? Who do you think he blamed for the disastrous outcome of the war? Who do you blame for it?
- How are educated people (the "intellegencia") portrayed in this novel? Is it a fair portrayal or a poor one?
- Do you believe there is a connection between godliness and patriotism? Explain.
Note: Alcohol: Soldiers and officers drink and sometimes get drunk.
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