November 1916 (Solzhenitsyn)

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. November 1916.

Let’s use the metaphor of a train to introduce the characters. The train leaves with Sanya (from the previous novel) on board. After a few chapters we leave him and see Vorotyntsev. Vorotyntsev actually boards a train and meets the Cossack writer Fyodor. Both Vorotyntsev and Fyodor leave the train and Vorotyntsev’s sister takes him to a party.

One of the things essential for a good novel is pacing. Solzhenitsyn’s other novels have that. This one does not. It’s worth reading, as he prophecies the rise of Antifa. It’s hard reading, though. He intersperses “historical reports” between some chapters. They are fascinating but don’t really contribute to the novel. There is also the problem of a character from page 300 of August 1914 appearing on page 700 of November 1916, and you have to think back to the connections. Nonetheless, it is worth your time.

Into the Maelstrom

If August 1914 was specifically about the encirclement and defeat of Russia, November 1916 explores more of the causes leading to Lenin. There was no fixing Russia. Solzhenitsyn is clear. He outlines several probable courses of action, but there was little chance of their being enacted.

Solzhenitsyn continues his “nodal theory of history,” and in these nodes we see tinier knots within the knot. One of these sub-knots is the problem of the Old Believers, illustrated in a dialogue between Sanya and a chaplain. The Old Believers were Russian Christians who maintained that their traditions were unchanged from time immemorial. Consequently, they opposed the reforms of Patriarch Nikon.

The Old Believers' specific arguments and praxis were often wanting, but the evidence was on their side. In any case, the Tsars, otherwise orthodox good men, attacked them and relegated them to the edge of society. As a result, Russia lost its most pious and monarchical section of society. It also lost a fighting segment whose frenzy in battle could have stopped the Communists.

Unfortunately, the Russian establishment (and church) didn’t simply attack the Old Believers’ bodies. They targeted their souls as well. Sanya mused: “If they refuse communion--burn them: that was Sofia’s decree. If they take communion under protest--burn them afterward. Lower jaws were wrenched open and the ‘true host’ stuffed down their throats. For fear of weakening, of accepting the sacrilegious element, they had sometimes set fire to themselves” (Solzhenitsyn 43).

It isn’t surprising that the Old Believers saw the establishment as the Antichrist. Sanya continued his musing by thinking “Maybe we trampled the finest of our race. Maybe there was no schism.”

From there the narrative moves to an attack on Tolstoy, which is right and proper to do. After the proper bashing of Tolstoy, the priest explains, quite correctly, that war is not the greatest evil. Tolstoy said abolishing the state, while entailing smaller evils, would get rid of the greatest of evils. This is not so. The state was created to protect us from violence (53).

War isn’t the vilest of evils. “An unjust trial, for instance, that scalds the outraged heart, is viler...Or the ordeal at the hands of a torturer. When you can neither cry out nor fight back….All these things are spiritually dirtier and more terrible than war” (53).

We choose not between war and evil, but peace and evil. War is just a specialized form of evil, limited in time and space.

Previous Knots

This part is complicated. He interrupts his narrative to explain some of the history that led to the problems. There was an initial attempt to liberalize (in the good sense of the word) land ownership and put decision-making back into the hands, if not of the people, then of heads of landowning-areas. The problem is that Russian liberalism, like all liberalism, found itself caught between traditionalism and communism (59).

Solzhenitsyn points out that the liberals, while not being revolutionaries, ran interference for them (until the moment the revolutionaries hanged them. Like weak Christians today, they engage left, punch right.

This leads to the Russian idea of the zemstvo. It is a “social union of a given district” (60). At its best it provided a social shield between the lower class and other classes. Tsar Aleksandr II sought to empower the zemstvos and give them more autonomy. This would have functioned as a pressure valve on society, allowing the legitimate criticisms of the monarchy, that it didn’t allow for representation, to find its voice in the land. As a result, “we might have had, with the monarchy intact, a self-governing society, ethical in complexion, and free of party politics.”

It was never to be. Later tsars considered zemstvo “networking” to be revolutionary activity, and so cut their own legs out from under themselves. The socialist outsiders soon moved in. Solzhenitsyn here introduces one of his heroes, Shipov. Shipov came up with a brilliant networking system that would have staved off socialism, if it were to be realized (69). Rural districts elect county “zemstvo assemblies,” which elect provincial assemblies, and the provinces an all-Russian assembly.

Can the Monarchy Hold?

The hero of the story is Vorotyntsev. I use the word advisedly. He is actually a terrible husband. He’s home from the front. Through him we see that the Germans weren’t so much the bad guys. Russia and Germany had more in common with each other than with England and France. Vorotyntsev knows the Tsar is incapable of correcting society, but it would be far worse to throw one’s lot with the forces of revolution.

We see the true genius in Solzhenitsyn’s writing in that he is capable of giving air-tight cases for and against monarchy.

Against the Monarchy

1) Tsar Nicholas allowed himself to get played by entering the war. The terms of the war were dictated to him by Britain and France (207).
2) Nicholas smarted from his defeat in the Japanese War, where he was perceived as not taking an active enough role. He decided to assume full command of the military in this war. That was a big mistake.

Nodal Point: The Russian army was defeated in the West in 1914-1915. “One of the most destructive consequences of our defeat in the West was the flood tide of refugees. The waters had risen and no governmental channel could control them” (220).

Another problem was Russia’s size and army: it was too big. It fought upon old Napoleonic principles. What was needed was “an army of crack troops” (278). Russia’s supply lines were unwieldy. She was still doing logistics for moving huge numbers of horses in a railway age.

Of all people a female history professor gives a moving defense of monarchy.

For the Monarchy

A female professor, Olda Andozerskaya, gives a most unprogressive defense of the monarchy. It’s romantic, far-fetched, but quite beautiful (and no worse than 2020, or 2016 or 2012 or 2008 get the idea).

1) Monarchy does not mean stagnation. “A cautious approach to the new, a conservative sentiment, does not mean stagnation. A farsighted monarch carries out reforms--but only for those whose time is ripe. He does not go at it mindlessly, as some republican governments do, maneuvering so as not to lose power” (340).

2) An established line of succession saves a country from destructive rebellions. Political strife is reduced. We might respect a republican government because of Romans 13 (JBA), but we don’t actually respect it. We know they probably lied to get to office and even if they do fulfill their promises, it’s only to pay off a debt.

3) Persuading a monarch is no more difficult than a republican government. A republican government has to persuade the public, and that public is often at the mercy of ignorance, passion, and vested interest (341).

4) A monarchy doesn’t necessarily make slaves of the people. A commercial republic is just as likely to de-personalize them. Why is subordinating myself to a faceless electorate (e.g., Dominion voting machines and the unelected bureaucracy behind them) preferable to a monarch?

5) Solzhenitsyn faces the biggest objection to monarchy: what happens when you get an idiot? His answer is probably the best in the literature: “”The accident of birth is a vulnerable point, yes. But there are also lucky accidents. But a talented man at the head of a monarchy, what republic can compare? A monarch may be sublime, but a man elected by the majority will almost certainly be a mediocrity” (342).

Solzhenitsyn goes on to list that republican governments have their own Achilles'’ heels: ambitious politicians, a morass of red tape hampering reform, etc. And his interlocutor asks a very uncomfortable question: why should we suppose equality and freedom to be preferable to honor and dignity? Maybe they are, but we rarely hear arguments to the point.

Anytime a republican points out that monarchies make tyrants possible, the monarchist should reply that a republic is just as likely to descend into anarchy and civil war.

Alas, but nothing gold can stay. Andozerskaya is not a fair maiden. She has a morally tainted past. Solzhenitsyn is telling us that she, too, is an ideology. True, she is a better ideology than liberal democracy. She doesn’t have the body count of Marxism, but in the end she, too, will fail.
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