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Why We Need God: Solzhenitsyn's The Red Wheel

Summer 2014 - Vol. 56, No. 3


This essay appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


In his 1983 “Templeton Address,” the controversial Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn blames many of the atrocities of the twentieth century on one cause: “We have forgotten God,” he proclaims.1 Prior to making statements about God’s place in human life, Solzhenitsyn was admired in the West as a dissident who staunchly defended freedom against Communist totalitarianism. But his remarks on the need for divine guidance turned many commentators against the Nobel Prize–winning author. Instead of a freedom fighter, he was branded a zealot, an anti-Semite, and a Russian Orthodox chauvinist.2

Although Solzhenitsyn explains the social consequences of abandoning God in the “Templeton Address” and elsewhere, it is only in his artistic creations that he fully examines the human soul’s longing to be connected with something beyond the mundane. Perhaps it is through art that we most clearly see the human desire for something higher that gives purpose to existence. Most notably, Solzhenitsyn raises the issue in The Red Wheel—his multivolume investigation of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent rise of totalitarianism.

For Solzhenitsyn, World War I was a pivotal event in world history. The brutality of the war vanquished optimistic hopes for progress that had been so prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century. The massacre gave credence to radical, antiestablishment, and nihilist doctrines. The collapse of Austria-Hungary not only undermined the balance of power in Europe; it also caused fierce nationalistic and revanchist struggles. Germans felt betrayed and victimized by the punitive postwar settlement and turned to extremist doctrines to indulge their grievances. Most important, the Bolshevik Revolution—itself an outgrowth of the war—not only established in Russia the worst tyranny in history, but the reaction to it gave perverse credibility to Fascist and Nazi claims of a “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy.”

The Red Wheel is Solzhenitsyn’s lifelong effort to comprehend the Great War’s consequences for Russia and the world. He began writing what he sometimes calls Knots in his youth while still a Communist devoted to Vladimir Lenin. Over the course of a lifetime, he rewrote, researched, and refined the work.

The Red Wheel is concerned not only with understanding historical events; it also attempts to bring to light the ideas that came to dominate Russia and the West as a consequence of World War I. In the aftermath of the war, new antireligious principles began to take hold: Communism, Nazism, and secular humanism. In The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn probes the effects of faith and the lack of it; he transforms characters from believers to the not-so-devout and from atheists to converts. In particular, this paper will focus on four of the book’s characters: two real people—Vladimir Lenin and Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna—and two fictional inventions—Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev and Zina Altanskaya.

Solzhenitsyn is often characterized as a Christian writer who, according to critics, is so fully rooted and enmeshed in a religious horizon that he is incapable of seeing beyond its perspective. Solzhenitsyn is surely a religious thinker, but as is the case with all his views, there is little that is simple or straightforward about his principles. Solzhenitsyn is no more a religious fanatic than he is an unreflective Slavophile. The Red Wheel makes a devastating critique of the cronyism, ineptitude, and injustice of the tsarist regime, especially when it went to war.

Commentators who label the author a narrow-minded sectarian fail to consider either his censure of religion or his complex justification of faith. For example, Solzhenitsyn is critical of the principles of Leo Tolstoy. At the turn of the twentieth century, Tolstoy was more than a noted author. To millions of Russia’s educated class, he was also a spiritual leader who counseled universal respect for human rights, nonviolent resistance to established authority, and passivism.

Solzhenitsyn criticizes Tolstoy’s interpretation of Christ’s message and argues that if applied literally, the Christian maxim to love thy neighbor actually undermines people’s spirit to resist evil (1.417, 548).3 Tolstoy contends that human beings do not and cannot control history and that love of fellow human beings is the best hope for social reform. The two propositions are connected, for if people cannot control history, they need not worry about the consequences of their actions. There is no reason to be prudent, since events will run their course no matter. Thus, people have a right and an obligation to obey the commandment to love their neighbor and not take violent actions against other human beings, even to resist wrongdoing (1.341).

However, if, as Solzhenitsyn suggests, human beings can influence the course of history, then Tolstoy’s interpretation of Christ’s love commandment is irresponsible. It results in the acquiescence of moral people, who embrace nonviolence, to the dominance of people willing to use force. Allowing the strong and violent to have their way surely cannot be the goal of moral principles. Hence, prudent opposition to malevolence must not be abandoned.

Solzhenitsyn acknowledges that Tolstoy’s views are noble in theory. But, in practice, they encouraged people to accept fate, which led some in prominent Russian military circles not to prepare adequately for war. Tolstoy’s teachings also created unrealistic expectations about social reform, bordering on naive perfectionism. Those ideals led much of the educated class to hate all things Russian. Even sensible reforms, such as those of Petr Stolypin—Russian prime minister under Tsar Nicholas II from 1906 to 1911—were dismissed by much of Russia’s intellectual elite because they did not measure up to Tolstoy’s ideals.4 Ironically, at the same time, pacifist beliefs became a justification to avoid military service—a kind of self-serving use of moral idealism (1.417–18).

Moreover, the leaders of the tsarist regime used religion almost as a superstition (1.818–19). The tsar and his leading officers prayed for success in war, rather than adequately preparing for it (1.716, 818–20, 831). Perhaps it was because Orthodoxy became little more than a supplication for success among Russia’s ruling classes that the two “heroes” of The Red Wheel, Stolypin and Vorotyntsev, pay scant attention to it when devising their actions (1.575).

Religion not only makes people too acquiescent; it can, paradoxically, make believers too narrow-minded and sectarian. Solzhenitsyn powerfully portrays the religious hatreds and persecution aimed at Russia’s Old Believers. Moreover, as Aleksandr Guchkov explains ironically in November 1916  (volume 2 of The Red Wheel), “the Jewish question” became “the greatest . . . most acute . . . urgent . . . and . . . characteristic” of all of Russia’s problems (2.43–45, 529).5 Solzhenitsyn presents the tendency of religion to elicit malice in a poetic passage:

God’s truth was like “Mother Truth” in the folktale. Seven brothers rode out to look at her, viewed her from seven sides and seven angles, and when they returned each of them had a different tale to tell: one said she was a mountain, one . . . a forest . . . one a . . . town. . . . And, for telling untruths, they slashed . . . each other . . . and with their dying breaths bade their sons slash . . . each other . . . to death (2.56).

Finally, and more generally, Solzhenitsyn shows how almost all educated people of prerevolutionary Russia found traditional religion stifling, parochial, and unconvincing (1.30–39, 65). He points out that there was a fundamental disagreement between enlightenment and religion (1.341). This gulf is even more acute in the modern age, since truth is judged by the rigor of scientific proof. The dispute between reason and revelation has never been more apparent or intense (1.803–6).

* * *

Why, then, is religion important to us? Solzhenitsyn’s view of the importance of religion is manifest in the way he presents four characters. For many people, religion is the basis of morality and hardly any questions are raised about its veracity. Although religion may in reality be a culturally learned set of behaviors, the unsophisticated acceptance of its dictums is exactly what has made it critical to civilization. All religions teach duty toward others and place limits on individual selfishness; religion is one of the foundations of human community.

Despite her lofty position, or perhaps because of it, Tsarina Alexandra—the last of the Romanov queens—spends time comforting wounded soldiers in her private hospital. In The Red Wheel, she claims to feel “closer than ever to the wounded when she prayed with them” (2.956). Her beliefs may be considered naive by sophisticated people, but religion has taught her responsibility.

Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union, is also dedicated to other people. As Solzhenitsyn depicts him, Lenin wants to usher in a society that will rid the human race of inequality, injustice, and suffering. Lenin believes that he is more committed to the perfection of society than others and, therefore, does not feel beholden to any standards above or beyond his own judgment. He “never took his opinions from anyone else but always had his own” (1.485). Everyday activities such as the pursuit of wealth, care for the family, or concern for the particular problems and anxieties of people around him, Lenin either ignores or dismisses as irrelevant. His wife is totally dedicated to his well-being; she supports him financially, takes care of the chores of daily life, obeys his every command, and even receives his mistress into the family (1.186–87).

Lenin is so self-centered that he does not accept frailties of others—in fact he “never” forgives “a mistake . . . no matter who made it” (1.184). Although he strives to improve the lot of humanity, he has very little empathy for actual people. Inessa Armand, his mistress, is “the only human being whose moods he sensed and responded to” (1. 185). Because he hardly considers the needs of others, except in regards to his goal of bringing about revolution, he “never” feels “ashamed” (1.188).

Vorotyntsev is a fictional character who always seems to be present at critical moments in the war and during the revolution. Solzhenitsyn places him in all the key turning points of Russia’s defeat in World War I and its descent into chaos and revolution. It is as if Solzhenitsyn, who experienced battle as a military officer in World War II, placed his younger soldier-self into the narrative. Vorotyntsev is almost never wrong in his assessments of the tactical and strategic situation of the war or of the rise of revolutionary fanaticism. He is Solzhenitsyn’s reflection on how Russia might have avoided catastrophic losses in the war, the victory of Bolshevism, and the tyranny of Communist rule. Solzhenitsyn’s assessment of the political situation during the war and revolution is indicative of his views on the complex relationship between the earthly and spiritual realms. Had Russia not lost the war, Communism would not have taken power, and its fiercely antireligious doctrine would not have crushed the religious traditions, spiritual longings, or moral fiber of the Russian people.

No two human beings seem more different than Lenin and the fictional hero of The Red Wheel, Vorotyntsev. One is an intellectual, the other a warrior. One wants to destroy Russia, the other protect it. But Lenin and Vorotyntsev share many personality traits. Both are totally committed to their respective causes and both depend on their wives for domestic peace and security, making it possible for them to pursue broader public issues. Neither has a great deal of empathy for those around them. Lenin does not feel obliged to thank anyone. “It never occurred” to Vorotyntsev “to show . . . how much he appreciated” the sacrifices his wife made for his career; “he was just not very sensitive” (2.86). Both men seem to care for their wives even while engaging in torrid affairs with other women—they compartmentalize their romances in the same way that they separate their private from public activities. Both men are unused to deep personal emotions and are taken aback by the passion they feel toward their lovers.

Lenin and Vorotyntsev are, of course, not really alike. They are doppelgängers—mirror images of each other. Vorotyntsev is courageous, public-spirited, and patriotic—all attributes Lenin deplores. Vorotyntsev embodies the classical virtues (2.521). He would have made an excellent Roman legionnaire or guardian in Plato’s Republic. But like the guardians, it is not clear whether Vorotyntsev’s devotion is needed in times of peace. Vorotyntsev does not love war itself, but he esteems above all else the utter and complete sacrifice required in times of war (1.98, 103). “The only sentiment” his “masculine heart can fittingly cherish is love of country or community or of mankind at large” (1.108).

Most men are not like Lenin and Vorotyntsev. For the vast majority, private concerns are more important than participation in the public arena. For them, money, personal advancement, success, and dedication to family and friends outweigh commitment to the common good. There is much common sense in this point of view, for although people depend on society and government to provide security and a modicum of justice, even the best social order cannot make individuals happy, content, or fulfilled. The events that truly affect us are personal. The exhilaration of falling in love, the pride and joy of witnessing a child born, the anguish of a lost love, the sorrow at the death of someone dear, or the guilt and remorse of having failed to discharge a responsibility, just to name a few, are the experiences that truly shape men’s inner lives—their deepest hopes and fears.

* * *

If society cannot resolve all our problems, it must be true that we decide our own fate. We must make choices and inevitably the issue of morality arises because we wonder about what choices to make. Perhaps this is the point Solzhenitsyn is attempting to make by introducing Zina, a minor and seemingly out-of-place character in the grand sweep of World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Zina is a headstrong, attractive, and liberated young woman. She is exactly the kind of self-directed person that the individualist doctrine of the Enlightenment holds up as an ideal. She is not fettered by the mores of society, pays little attention to the authority of the church, and rejects the advice of her family and friends. She decides to have an affair with a married man whom she finds attractive. Although he makes her happy at first, the consequences of the union are devastating. Zina gets pregnant and has a child. The father takes little responsibility as a parent. Zina becomes a single mother with little social, familial, or spiritual support. She takes out her resentment at having been jilted by having an affair with another married man. Spitefully, she breaks up his marriage by blackmailing him into telling his wife. Then, when her former lover beckons her to a tryst, she hesitates, but finally succumbs to her passions. While she is away, her infant gets sick and dies.

In the stunning last chapter of November 1916, we see her inconsolably lost, wandering the streets, unsure how she will cope with the death of her baby. She finds herself, almost unconsciously, in a church. Her inner dialogue shows her guilt and pain at having left her child to seek the sensual pleasure of a lover. She is irritated with herself. She wavers between guilt, rationalization, anger, denial, and casting blame on others for her misdeeds. She justifies, defends, and excuses her behavior, almost at the same time as she finds herself reprehensible and her guilt unbearable. We can almost witness the line between good and evil dividing her soul. But when she sees an icon in the church, it creates a sense in her that there may be a knowing, caring being who sees her anguish, obliges her to understand and take responsibility for her actions, and helps console her sorrow.

Even if Lenin had succeeded in establishing a perfectly ordered society, could it have nullified the consequences of Zina’s destructive choices? How could even the most just regime repair her heartbreak at having lost a child and neglected her duties?

All morality begins with an awareness of how our actions might affect others. We put ourselves in the place of others and feel—or imagine we feel—their joys and sorrows. A moral sense arises from envisaging how others perceive our behavior. Unlike the disembodied “good” that was the standard of morality in the classical world or an imaginary “impartial spectator” that Adam Smith6 claims creates the sentiment for morals, the biblical God is not an abstraction, but a conscious personal being. That consciousness forces us to face our own inner motivations. Of course, it is not as if God were physically present. But belief in God guides us into an internal dialogue; we must explain and justify our actions to another. We are obliged to follow the advice of Socrates, “know thyself,” never an easy task when we have done something wrong. Accepting God as another conscious being gives us that kind of awareness of the inner self sorely lacking in Lenin and not fully developed in Vorotyntsev—but ironically present in the simple piety and charity of the tsarina.

Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel presents a phenomenological account of religion—his art shows us the various effects of religious principles on the human soul. Religion can make us carelessly optimistic, supinely parochial, or self-righteously violent. Yet, what would we be without religion?

Instead of religion, Lenin wants the transformation of the human condition. He is not motivated solely by the prospect of personal gain. He hopes to institute a social system that resolves life’s existential uncertainty, a project that gives meaning to his life and guidance to his adherents. Lenin is supremely confident, perhaps to overcompensate for the doubts that complicate and obscure all difficult choices. He believes that Marxist philosophy has resolved the ambiguity of being. However, despite what Marx claims, our lives are perpetually shrouded in mystery. Thus, in order to master the elusive character of existence, Lenin must assert his will against other people to make them obey, against nature to make it bountiful, and against being to make it orderly. Since he rejects any notion of a creature superior to himself, he is tempted to become a tyrant. He has no inner dialogue to check his ambition or ameliorate his cruelty.

One of the reasons that the high ideals of Marxist political reform became repressive and violent, according to Solzhenitsyn, is that Marxism seeks to conquer chance. It wants to make individuals free from contingency, anxiety, and material shortages. It wants to put people in full control of their destiny. Nevertheless, such a goal is impossible to achieve, because the beginning, end, and purpose of our lives are not fully comprehensible. So long as the mystery surrounding human life persists, the totalitarian temptation will be attractive to some because it seeks to stamp out ambiguity (1.342; 2.480–96, 574–601).

Tsarina Alexandra is as unsophisticated as Lenin is worldly, as conservative as he is radical, as enmeshed in the cultural norms of early-twentieth-century Europe as Lenin is opposed to them. Alexandra’s naivety makes her gullible and, of course, events have shown how disastrous that credulousness was for the royal family and Russia. Yet, despite her power and privilege, Alexandra is restrained from evil deeds by religious principles that have been filtered through cultural norms. She accepts the contingencies of life because she sees them through traditional religious categories. Thus, she does not attempt to remake human nature or solve the riddle of being—with all the violent actions such a monumental task entails. Instead, she endeavors to live up to the Christian principle of love thy neighbor by helping those she can. Religion acts on her in the manner it has always done in human civilization: it curbs her baser longings and reminds her of her civic and personal obligations.

Vorotyntsev would have made an excellent officer in the Roman legions. Although ferocious in battle, Roman soldiers had a strong sense of civic duty and loyalty to the ancient laws of Rome. There was little regret for the butchery they visited on their enemies. Roman soldiers did not fall prey to unease and uncertainty about their violence toward others. If they wondered at all about the propriety of their actions, they were comforted by a religion that vindicated their behavior. Since Roman deities were gods of the city, the fate of the legionnaires’ souls was measured by the success of Rome.

The problem with pagan religions and with Vorotyntsev’s attitude toward existence is that civil creeds do not attend to the inner life of human beings. They care more about the success of the political community than for the destiny of individuals. Those few Romans who understood the shortcomings of dedication to a civil religion pretended to be pious and “with a smile of pity and indulgence,” says Edward Gibbon, “diligently practiced the ceremonies of their fathers.”7

 Christianity eventually conquered Rome—one of the most powerful empires in history—without having to draw a sword. It offered human beings a moral code beyond the borders of the city and a deity who was willing to converse with the deepest longings of the soul. “I delight in the law of God,” says St. Paul, “in the inner man” (Romans 7:22).

Zina is not of much importance to the fall of the tsar, Russia’s defeat in World War I, or the rise of Bolshevism. She is a peripheral character, much like the early Christians whom Roman authorities ignored or disdained. Nevertheless, Zina’s travails show us what religion at its best does for our lives. It reinforces and strengthens the natural sense of empathy with other human beings. It seeks to diminish, without attempting to abolish, our all-too-human regard for ourselves. It makes us answer to a higher power that, in turn, obligates us to consider honestly the appropriateness of our choices. It comforts us in times of sorrow. It provides a mechanism for comprehending the mystery of life and death without attempting the impossible task of subjecting being to the human will. ♦


James F. Pontuso is Charles Patterson Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College. He has written or edited six books, published more than eighty articles, reviews, and essays, and taught or lectured in a dozen countries.

  1. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Templeton Address,” The Solzhenitsyn Reader, eds. Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Daniel Mahoney, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), 576–84.
  2. David G. Rowley, “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Russian Nationalism,” Journal of Contemporary History 32, no. 3 (July 1997): 321–37; Mark Steel, “A Reactionary Called Solzhenitsyn,” The Independent, August 6, 2008, Richard Pipes, “Solzhenitsyn’s Troubled Prophetic Mission,” St. Petersburg Times 1397 (August 8, 2008),; Olga Carlyle, “Solzhenitsyn’s Invisible Audience,” and Richard Pipes, “In the Russian Intellectual Tradition,” in Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, ed. R. Berman (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1980), 39–42, 115–22; Cathy Young, “Traditional Prejudices: Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” Reason, May 2004,; Christopher Hitchens, “The Man Who Kept On Writing,” Slate, (August 4, 2008), See also Daniel J. Mahoney, “Traducing Solzhenitsyn,” First Things 145 (August/September 2004), 14–17,
  3. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, August 1914, trans. H.T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989). Volume 1 of The Red Wheel is hereafter cited in text with page numbers.
  4. For a discussion of Stolypin, see Daniel J. Mahoney, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Ascent from Ideology, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 65–97.
  5. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, November 1916, trans. H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993). Volume 2 of The Red Wheel is hereafter cited in text with page numbers
  6. Adam Smith explains: “I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person who I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the person judged of.” See Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 164.
  7. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, ch. 1,