August 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — Reviewed by Guy Portman
Set in the years leading up to The Revolution, this monumental book is Solzhenitsyn’s interpretation of a turbulent period in his country’s history, beginning with the outbreak of World War I. We follow Russia’s invasion of East Prussia, a hapless campaign, culminating in the near destruction of the Second Army at the Battle of Tannenburg, and the suicide of its commanding general, the blundering Alexander Samsonov.
Subsequent sections encompass the life of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, and his assassin, the privileged socialist Dmitri Bogrov, who is implicated as an informer for the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. Another segment is devoted to Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s last monarch.
Blending fact and fiction, August 1914 is a history novel that sees the author deviate from his familiar theme of Communist oppression, staged in gulag and cancer ward. Its eight hundred plus pages, dense prose, excruciating detail and challenging vicarious approach will deter many.
This is a presumptuous text with a didactic tone that leaves its ever-controversial creator open to accusations of hubris. Whilst August 1914 appealed to this reader, a Solzhenitsyn devotee, he would argue that the author’s consummate ability to develop character is eroded somewhat by the relentless detail and historical discourse.