August 1914

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny
The Bodley Head 1972
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
At the outset of World War I, two Russian armies invaded East Prussia. Using their superbly efficient railway system, the outnumbered Germans concentrated their forces against the Russian Second Army, and in the battle of Tannenberg they surrounded and destroyed its central corps. Solzhenitsyn's novel August 1914 tells the story of Tannenberg from the Russian perspective.

Concentrating more on the "fog of war" at the army and corps level than on the horrors of the front line, Solzhenitsyn has produced one of the best fictional reconstructions of a battle I have read. He exposes with brutal clarity the poor organisation and planning of the Russian army (commands were sent unencrypted over the radio!) and the failings of the Russian leaders, ranging from incompetence and selfishness to outright cowardice. The hero of the novel is an energetic staff officer named Vorotyntsev, who does his best to fix the bungling of his superiors and who refuses to remain silent when it is all over. The other hero is, of course, the ordinary Russian soldier — whenever we are given a close up view of the actual front-line action, things seem mysteriously rosier (and local Russian successes are given disproportionate coverage). No doubt this helped make the book palatable to Russian readers, but it also fits in with Solzhenitsyn's own brand of nationalism.

Solzhenitsyn does indulge in the odd bit of moralising (including a few digs at communism) and there are a few extended passages of philosophising a little reminiscent of those in War and Peace (a novel with which I think August 1914 can stand comparison). A few chapters are also devoted to characters and events far from the battle, obviously laying the groundwork for a sequel. The otherwise tight focus on the battle, however, gives August 1914 a unity and a completeness which makes all this seem a bit out of place.

November 1995

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%T August 1914
%A Solzhenitsyn, Alexander
%M Russian
%F Glenny, Michael
%I The Bodley Head
%D 1972
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0370014650
%P 645pp