It is a conceit of the modern world that history is governed by reason. Reason is like an axe to the living, growing tree of history, with its convoluted branches, each cell and molecule emerging as a matter of sheer contingency, one building upon the next—so that great events arise from innumerable plots and threads. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a series of exhausting books, totaling thousands of pages, about unreason in history and the subsequent creation of the modern world, in which the axe of reason, as he puts it, is rare, and when it does fall sometimes creates absolute terror.
The Red Wheel, with its “discrete” “nodes” or “knots,” is composed of August 1914, November 1916, March 1917, and April 1917, with March 1917 alone accounting for several long volumes. This is the principal work of the Nobel laureate’s life, to which Solzhenitsyn dedicated several decades and into which poured all his thoughts about the senseless chaos of the modern and postmodern worlds, all told through the prism of that most contingent of events, the Russian Revolution. That signal event begins with a complex and bungled war and ends with a shaky Bolshevik coup that set in motion a death machine virtually unrivaled in history. And none of this might have happened had Russia’s resolutely effective and moderate prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, who pursued a “middle line of social development,” not been assassinated in September 1911 at the Kiev opera house.