One hundred years ago this month, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk (“acidic waters”), a curative town in the North Caucasian foothills of Russia, which was then wracked by civil war. Earlier that year, 300 miles north at Novocherkassk, the capital of the Don Cossacks, former tsarist officers had proclaimed the formation of a Volunteer Army to reverse the Bolshevik coup of 1917. The force, labelled Whites, would go down in defeat, its survivors compelled to disperse into emigration. But Solzhenitsyn – even though he, too, would be forced from his homeland – subsequently won the White movement's fight with his pen. His novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In the First Circle and Cancer Ward, as well as his nonpareil three-volume literary investigation The Gulag Archipelago, persuasively blackened the Soviet regime at its roots. According to an estimate by Publishers Weekly, by 1976 Solzhenitsyn had sold 30 million copies of his books in some thirty languages, with sales of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago accounting for up to a third of that total. Long after Soviet communism came crashing down in 1991, his evocative works based on a multitude of first-hand experiences of the forced labour camp system retain their potency and urgency. If, as the scholar John B. Dunlop has written, “it is as an artist that Solzhenitsyn will be remembered or forgotten”, then he is destined to endure.
Having earned global acclaim – including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, awarded “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature” – Solzhenitsyn dedicated himself to a literary cycle, The Red Wheel, on Russia's Revolution. Published in Russian between 1971 and 1991, the series derives its name from a detached carriage wheel that revolves in flames in August 1914, the first of four “nodes” through which the author organized these novels of real and invented personages. That intial instalment appeared in English translation in 1972; November 1916, originally in two volumes, followed in 1985, along with a reworked two-volume version of its predecessor. March 1917, in four books, is only now beginning to appear in English, courtesy of University of Notre Dame Press. (April 1917, in two books, awaits.) In the first volume of March 1917, well translated by Marian Schwartz, many haunting passages can be found, such as Nicholas II's confrontation with the icon of Christ following his tormented abdication. Still, the overall four-node roman-fleuve runs to nearly 6,000 pages, in ten volumes, deluging readers.