August 1914

by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenit︠s︡yn

Other authorsMichael Glenny (Translator)
Hardcover, 1972




New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux [1972-


General Samsonov and Colonel Vorotyntsev lead Russian soldiers into battle and subsequent defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914.

User reviews

LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This novel is, perhaps not unexpectedly given the author, a masterpiece. And despite the fact that it lists 9 pages of characters and requires more than 700 pages to cover one battle which took place over a few days shortly after Russia entered the war, it was a relatively easy read, and very
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difficult to put down. Its frequent comparison to War and Peace is not unjustified.

If there is an overriding theme in the book it is of the disconnect between the generals and other commanders far distant from the war arena and the soldiers actually fighting the battles. The soldiers at the front in Prussia could take no action unless the Command Center, headed by the Tsar himself, had given specific orders to do so. Often by the time the orders were received at the front conditions had so changed that to comply with the orders was insanity. The result was a complete rout of the Russian army, to such an extent that the commander in the field committed suicide in the surrounding forest.

I'm not a student of military history (nor do I want to be), but this novel, although focused on a particular battle, can be enjoyed by someone with little interest in military manuevers. A map of the terrain and surrounding towns is provided, but I found it to be of use only in the most general sense. Since I don't have a good understanding of military manuevers, I would have found maps showing the periodic locations of the various armies to have been helpful. As noted, however, this lack did not affect my general admiration for the book.
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LibraryThing member MichaelHodges
Best book I have ever read. Fast paced, historical background of pre and WW1 Rusia under the Tsars. 622 pages
My congrats to Michael Glenny, the english translator for such an excellent english language rendition.
LibraryThing member vanjr
This is a fantastic book with so many aspects it amazes me that one man could write this. For someone interested in Russia, the Great War ( our WW1), the nature of revolution, the USSR, and probably a few other topics there is much to ponder and learn from this book.
The discussion of revolution
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remains pertinent even today. To those who think the overthrow of you tyrannical government is desirable the lessons of Tsarist Russia and the USSR should not be so quickly forgotten. The discussion of the ineptitude of Russian generals should give all in leadership a cold reminder of where we could be in a small way in our jobs.
I have read a lot of Solzhenitsyn and used to say he was not top Russian literature. I was wrong. Maybe he is not the upper echelon to professional literary cast, but to me his works are as masterful as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.
I highly recommend to students of the above topics.
Warning - this starts off disjointed and indeed not all the parts fit together but if you finish this book you will be grateful you persevered the early chapters.
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LibraryThing member Artymedon
The key to this enigmatic books lies within well in its middle (page 398 of the Farrar Strauss and Giroux, New York) first English edition translated in 1972 by Michael Glenny.

It is when Solzhenitsyn narrates a conversation in which two young officers who just finished their third year at the
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Faculty of History and Philology and just were posted at the Sergievsky Heavy-Artillery School, meet by chance in Moscow, a character named Varsonofiev.

They knicknamed him the "Stargazer" because of the way they had seen him look at the ceiling of the library of the Rumyantsev Museum in St Petersburg, due to his peculiar mannerism of, when deep in thoughts, he "stares fixedly over the other readers' head toward the topmost bookshelves and galleries."

Varsonofiev views the two young officers about to join the war front in East Prussia in August 14 as two Narodniks (Russian: народники) who were socially conscious agitators against the Tsardom.

It is likely that this word describes a movement that he, Varsonofiev, had belonged to as these two officers are too young and do not come from the Middle-class the Narodniks came from. One, Kotya, styles himself as an Hegelian attracted by dialectical leaps who lost his parents while Sanya comes from a line of fishermen and peasants.

After Varsonofiev describes to the youngsters how important is the perfect development of their "Soul", the later then argues that the best social order "is not susceptible to be arbitrarily constructed, or even to being scientifically constructed-everything is allegedly scientific nowadays." He then warns them not to be "so arrogant as to imagine that you can invent an ideal social order, because with that invention you may destroy your beloved "people".
Then Varsonofiev / Solzhenitsyn defines history in these terms: History - his long thin head nodded up and down -"history is not governed by reason"....."History is irrational, young men. It has its own, and to us perhaps incomprehensible, organic structure." and p. 411: "History grows like a living tree. And as far as the tree is concerned, reason is an ax: you'll never make it grow better by applying reason to it. Or if you prefer, history is a river; it has its own laws which govern its flow, its bends, the way it meanders. Then along come some clever people who say that it's a stagnant pond and must be diverted into another and better channel: all that's needed is to choose a better place and dig a new river bed. But the course of a river can't be interrupted - break it off only an inch and it won't flow any longer. And we're being told that the bed must be forcibly diverted by several thousand yards. The bonds between generations, bonds of institution, tradition, custom, are what hold the banks of the river bed together and keep the stream flowing." Then Sanya asks Varsonofiev: "Where should one look for the laws that govern the flow of the river?" "That's the riddle. It may be that they are unknowable." says Varsonofiev sighing. Then he concludes:"The laws of the perfect human society can be found only within the total order of things. In the purpose of the universe. And in the destiny of man."

Conversely, Solzhenisyn's novel can be interpreted as an attempt to build an historical novel through the eyes of various Russian participants in the advance and surrounding of Samsonov's Second Army between Allenstein and Willenberg in East Prussia. This was named by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg "the (Second) Battle of Tannenberg".
In fact the author prefers to give the reader a fragmented and "irrational" rendition of the chaos of this battlefield as he feels that even in this pandemonium the soul of the Russian people is stronger than Hindenburg's coordinated artillery fire. So what is the Author's conclusion over this important historical event? Let's go back to Varsonofiev's explanation: "Important questions always have long, tortuous answers. And no one can ever answer the most important question of all." Or as Solzhenitysn says:"The answer to a riddle is short, but there are seven leagues of truth in it." P. 622: Untruth did not begin with us; nor will it end with us.
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LibraryThing member Mockers
Heavy going, strange style, but once you get over the culture shock with this one it's rewarding. But long...! My god!
LibraryThing member maiamaia
Not really a novel, more a detailed war plan. All the characters are really well fleshed out, then he just drops them after one chapter - what does happend to them? Suspect he wrote a series, or planned to. Long. Detailed map in back cover of this edition, guttingly i got to page 351 before i
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realised. One of clearly many books, like Dr. Zhivago, written as a direct riposte to War and Peace - suspect it forms a Russian genre. Only read if you liked the war parts of War and Peace, or are very interested in the fall of tsarism/first world war/rise of communism. Clearly fictional but contains lots of his original research. Gripping and well written, but not really a novel - history presented as fiction.
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LibraryThing member RonManners
" Solzhenistsyn is Russia's greatest living writer, a amn whose spirit stands in solitary splendour against tyranny and oppression. August 1914 is his greatest book, a vast panoramic epic of war, its heroism and its tragic bearing on the destiny of a nation. Of it he has said,'it is the main task
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of my life'.
Taken from the back cove
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LibraryThing member MathMaverick
As always, Solzhenitsyn's writing is excellent. Not a page turner by any stretch, but certainly maintained my interest. I can't wait to read November 1916.
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
This is a long novel about the opening of WWI on the eastern front, and spends a great deal of its time exposing the corruption and horrible inefficiency of the Czarist regime. Nonetheless, a very readable effort, especially for the militarians among us.
LibraryThing member setnahkt
Leo Tolstoy meets meets Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who, for obvious reasons, will be “A.S.” for the duration of this review). The first book in a tetrology on the Communist revolution in Russia; the entire series is titled The Red Wheel (and red wheel images crop up) and consists of this book plus
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November 1916, March 1917 and April 1917.

I don’t know if it’s the translation, or A.S. or what, but August 1914 is disappointing. It’s not bad; it’s just not War and Peace which is what it seems to be trying to be. The book is centered around the Tannenberg Campaign in WWI, when, in accordance with the provisions of the Dual Alliance and at the urgent request of France, Russian troops advanced into East Prussia. The Germans were surprised since they hadn’t expected the Russians to mobilize that quickly; eventually several divisions were withdrawn from the Western Front and sent east. The overextended Russian 2nd Army was isolated, dissected and defeated in detail. (The transfer of troops from the west may or may not have something to do with the German failure in front of Paris. A.S. doesn’t go there.)

So we start with interesting accounts of various characters - a family of wealthy Ukrainian farmers, a somewhat confused young man who may or may not be a radical, a staff officer in the Russian army. You might think we’re on Tolstoyian territory, with the Rostovs, Pierre, and the Bolkonskys. But at that point everything seems to fall apart; the only character really followed is the staff officer, Colonel Vorotyntsev. (Although there’s a brief appearance by Lenin, who’s not favorably portrayed). Then, A.S. jumps backward to another “knot” - his term for a historically important time - and discusses the careers of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin and his assassin. Then further backward to the accession of Tsar Nikolai. Then back to the climax of the Tannenberg campaign. Some of this is done as narrative, and some as tedious historical essays in A.S.’s own “voice”. The intent here, I suppose, is to piece together the events leading to the collapse of Russia, but it doesn’t work very well. There’s some interesting stuff here; A.S.’s rehabilitation of Stolypin, for example. Stolypin has always been a convenient bogeyman - portrayed as a brutal reactionary whose mass executions galvanized the people and brought on the Revolution. Here he’s portrayed as a Russian patriot who makes difficult decisions at a difficult time. The body count produced by Revolutionary terrorists was pretty amazing; I had no idea so many had fallen to the bomb and gun. Stolypin comes across as amazingly restrained.

There’s a disturbing undercurrent of antiSemitism. In particular, the chapters on Stolypin have a number of references to “Jewish propaganda” as an instrument in turning the opinion of the United States against Russia. I’m not sure what to make of this; it’s possible - barely - to make the case that A.S. is speaking with Stolypin’s “voice” here, but personally that just doesn’t seem right. On the other hand, A.S.’s other works don’t show any particular antiSemitism; in fact in The Gulag Archipelago A.S. says that the only person who ever treated him kindly in the gulag was a Jewish prison guard. If I can bring myself to crawl through the other books, we’ll see. (To be fair, A.S. doesn’t seem to like the Finns very much, either).

I don’t know how much of my annoyance is due to the translation; any Russian work has a plethora of patronymics and unfamiliar names but the translator really can’t help that. One thing, though, is A.S.’s use of archaic Russian measurement units - distances are in versts, weight in puds, and areas in dunyims. Oddly, weapon calibers are in inches (!) or millimeters. Miles and pounds or kilometers and kilograms would have been useful. I’m also not sure about some of the historical accuracy of the military narrative. At one point a battery of 4.2 inch mortars makes an appearance - I can’t find any reference to a weapon like that in Russian use until the 1930s. At a critical narrative moment a light machine gun is shoved out the window of a German staff car - again, I can’t think of such a weapon in German service in 1914. Finally, although a large scale map of East Prussia is included, some small maps detailing the unit actions in the narrative and a general map of Russia would have been great.

My overall impression is that this book needed an editor with enough guts to take on a literature Nobelist and say, “A.S., there’s whole chapters here you need to rewrite or throw out.” Didn’t happen. Only recommended if you have a lot of extra time and are willing to invest even more in picking up some historical background, or if you’re already familiar with the history and want something that’s not quite a novel and not quite a historical narrative.
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LibraryThing member JBarringer
I don't usually find war novels funny, but the series of mishaps that shape this story are either absolutely hilarious or unthinkably horrible, or both.


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