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This becomes the central point of contestation in a polemic launched against Solzhenitsyn by his old friend Dmitri Panin - the 'Sologdin' of Solzhenitsyn's novel The First Circle. I have already said some words about Sologdin/Panin's religious view of the world in my article in the last Church and State. In Soljénitsyne et la réalité

 (I don't think it exists in an English translation) [2] 

[2]  Dimitri Panine: Soljénitsyne et la réalité, translation by Marie-Noëlle Desbrosses and Jacob Gregory, Paris, La Table ronde, 1976,  (first published in Russian 1975). 

Panin insists that the Soviet leadership is irredeemably evil and incapable of reform. The only possible option is revolution. Who will conduct this revolution? Well, one of the possible candidates is ... the working class:

'If the intellectuals have lost the habit of conversing with simple mortals at the bottom of the pyramid I would suggest they go to the Moscow metro around Volkhonka-ZIL ['new working class area in the Moscow suburbs' - footnote] at the time when the workers are going to work or returning home. You just have to look at their faces to see their embittered, if not malevolent, looks, to listen carefully to the sort of gross language they use, to understand this new type of man. They have no illusions; they see the rottenness of the regime, they know what the Soviet con-trick is worth. Their soul is well seasoned, their thought is dynamic and their judgements sound. Anyone who can win their trust will quickly learn that they dream of a popular revolution which will give power to their own representatives and that they despise any arrangements made with the leaders above their heads ...' (pp.106-7)

I quote that because one of the most striking things about the collapse of the Soviet system, and of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe, and indeed the reforms introduced in China, has been the apparent absence of the working class. After all, the whole structure was premised on the idea that the working class was the ruling class and that the state existed to serve their interests. Yet elements easily identifiable as working class seem to have played hardly any role either in demanding reform of the system or in defending it. An obvious exception was 'Solidarity' in Poland. Yet the end result of Solidarity's action as an independent union with a powerful working class base in the Gdansk shipyard was (as the Communist government warned them it would be) the closure of the Gdansk shipyard.

In one of the few scenes in the four volumes of Solzhenitsyn's account of the February revolution - Mars 17 (also not available in English translation) - which feature the working class en masse, Alexander Guchkov, almost immediately after receiving the abdication of the Tsar, goes to address a meeting of workers in Petrograd - St Petersburg was renamed during the war because of the German sounding 'burg'. Guchkov was the leader in the Duma of the Octobrists, the tendency that supported and wanted to give substance to the 'October Manifesto' signed reluctantly by Nicholas II in the wake of the 1905 revolution. The manifesto established a representative parliament - the Duma - and marked the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy. Guchkov had been largely instrumental in the reorganisation of the armaments industry that restored Russian fortunes after the failure in the early stages of the war of the invasion of East Prussia (the subject of Solzhenitsyn's August 1914). He had planned to oblige the abdication of Nicholas in 1916 - one of the themes of November 1916. Solzhenitsyn on the whole likes him but felt that by 1917, when he became Minister of War in the Provisional Government, he was too ill and tired to bring about the reform of the army that he had long wanted. His visit to the Petrograd workers is described as a descent into Hell:

'In the enormous shed with its glass roof, metallic, barred, a huge black crowd of workers was gathered certainly not for the purpose of working - no work was being done these days. A locomotive should have been there being repaired but it wasn't, it had been removed. All that was left was a platform, very high up, narrow with a projecting angle obviously meant for the repair of the engine's superstructure. And that was where Guchkov saw himself constrained to climb. The ladder had no steps, only rounded metal bars, absolutely unsuited for feet wearing rubber soled shoes, above all with a bad leg and hands clutching dirty railings, sticky with tar. Not to mention Guchkov's enormous overcoat which trailed over the steps and twice slid under his feet - the effect must have been comical.

'The platform was very narrow and Guchkov was afraid of falling - happily he was closed in by a little steel bar balustrade. But the sight of the dark, murmuring crowd below him was all the more disagreeable. Everyone was chattering with everyone else but it all blended together and rose like a menacing sea. This crowd pressed together with its uncontrolable machine-like roaring, forced upon him the conviction that the revolution had broken through. Too late! He had obtained the abdication too late. He had prevented nothing. This mass, whose awakening he had always feared, was now well and truly awake.'

Guchkov expects to be invited to speak but instead finds that one of the men who has climbed up with him, has taken the stage:

'And who, comrades, have they put in the new government? Now, when the tide of the people's anger beats more and more furiously against the palace walls, do you think they've called a representative of the working people? ...

'Prince Lvov! His lands are scattered through at least ten provinces. A prince! And the other Lvov is a prince, him too, might be his cousin. And the textile king, Konovalov! He has half the textile industry in his pocket and behold, he's going to be the minister of the whole of industry ... And the Finance Minister is none other than Mr Tereshchenko! Well, who is this Tereshchenko, anyone here know him? Everyone knows him in Ukraine. He's very big in the sugar business, owns about twenty refineries and thousands of acres of land ...'

And so it goes on. How is Guchkov going to address them? 'Gentlemen'? Can he possibly say 'comrades'? He settles for 'fellow citizens' which doesn't go down very well. He announces the Tsar's abdication but immediately spoils any effect that might have had by adding that he has abdicated in favour of his brother Michael. He narrowly escapes with his life.[3]

[3]  Alexandre Soljénitsyne: Mars dix-sept, tome 3, Fayard, 1998 (first published in Russian 1987), pp.60-63.

In another scene featuring workers en masse, Timothy Kirpichnikov, the NCO whose refusal to fire on unarmed demonstrators was one of the sparks that lit the February revolution, sees a demonstration of armed workers supporting the Bolsheviks:

'A black crowd, not less than a thousand strong, carrying red flags and placards, some with only one pole, others with two - still impossible to read the inscriptions - with, leading them, several rows of workers armed with rifles and, flanking the column, marshals, also armed. Even before they had come close enough to see why they were marching, Kirpichnikov, spitting on the ground, whispered to Martov:

'"That's where they've gone, our rifles. All this time we haven't had them and headquarters wouldn't supply them. No-one has the right to be carrying rifles except the army" ...

'In the front row and at the sides the armed men were displaying their bayonets to great effect but those in the middle were marching peaceably, advancing like soldiers ding their job, and some of them were waving their caps at the public without it being very clear if they meant "hurrah" or "down with ...". They watched them pass: not very gay, their bearing, they'd been working since morning, they were already tired, their faces were dirty, covered with black dust or soot, their clothes stained and greasy.

'Timothy went up to them:

'"Who are you?"

'"We're from the New Lessner factory, Vyborg quarter.

'"Who else is with you?"

'" All the factories are marching behind us. And the bourgeoisie won't stop us!"

'The whole length of the procession there were women, very excited, and teenagers. They raised their fists and, when the band was a long way off, one could hear:

'"Down with the Provisional Government! Down with that pig, Miliukov. Down with the fat cat bourgeoisie, bloodsuckers!"

'Kirpichnikov certainly resented the workers for demanding an eight hour day [in wartime - PB] and not wanting to produce the shells the army needed - but their life wasn't easy, you could see that, and this Lessner, he was certainly one of those fat cat bourgeois ...' [4]

[4]  Alexandre Soljénitsyne: Avril dix-sept, Fayard, 2009 (first published in Russian 1991), pp.515-518.

The point here is that this is a world that is alien to Solzhenitsyn despite his own experience in the camps. It is a class of people he feels, in his dislike of large scale industry, ought not to exist and who live outside the exchange of ideas which is his delight and the strength of his novels, a delight in ideas that embraces even the Social Democrats. Yet, as he well knows, it was the existence of this world, and the ability of Social Democrats to move in it, that largely accounts for the continual leftward pull that is a main theme of The Red Wheel.

Two examples from the recently published biography of Stalin by Stephen Kotkin :

'The Georgian branch of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party assigned him to Chiatura, a hellhole in western Georgia where hundreds of small companies employed a combined 3,700 miners and sorters to extract and haul manganese ore. Witte’s father, the midlevel tsarist official, had opened Chiatura’s manganese deposits around the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1905, thanks to Sergei Witte’s integration of Russia into the new world economy, the artisanal, privately held mines had come to account for no less than 50 percent of global manganese output. Tall piles of the excavated ore dominated the “skyline,” waiting to be washed, mostly by women and children, before being exported for use in the production of German and British steel. With wages averaging a meager 40 to 80 kopecks per day, rations doused in manganese dust, and “housing” under the open sky (in winter workers slept in the mines), Chiatura was, in the words of one observer, “real penal labor (katorga)”—but the laborers had not been convicted of anything. Even by tsarist Russia standards, the injustices in Chiatura stood out. When the workers rebelled, however, the regime summoned imperial troops as well as right-wing vigilantes, who called themselves Holy Brigades but were christened Black Hundreds. In response to the physical attacks, Jughashvili helped transform Social Democratic agitation “circles” into red combat brigades called Red Hundreds. By December 1905, the worker Red Hundreds, assisted by young radical thugs, seized control of Chiatura and thus of half of global manganese output.' (p.76)

'the waves of militancy that Durnovó and Stolypin had crushed erupted again in a remote swath of deep Siberian forest in late February 1912. More than 1,000 miles north and east of Irkutsk on the Lena River—the source of Lenin’s pseudonym from his Siberian exile days—gold-mine workers struck against the fifteen-to-sixteen-hour workdays, meager salaries (which were often garnished [sic - PB] for “fines”), watery mines (miners were soaked to the bone), trauma (around 700 incidents per 1,000 miners), and the high cost and low quality of their food. Rancid horse penises, sold as meat at the company store, triggered the walkout. The authorities refused the miners’ demands and a stalemate ensued. In April, as the strike went into its fifth week, government troops subsidized by the gold mine arrived and arrested the elected strike committee leaders (political exiles who, ironically, wished to end the strike). This prompted not the strike’s dissipation but a determined march for the captives’ release. Confronted by a peaceful crowd of perhaps 2,500 gold miners, a line of 90 or so soldiers opened fire at their officer’s command, killing at least 150 workers and wounding more than 100, many shot in the back trying to flee. The image of workers’ lives extinguished for capitalist gold proved especially potent: among the British and Russian shareholders were banking clans, former prime minister Sergei Witte, and the dowager empress. Word of the Lena goldfields massacre spread via domestic newspaper accounts—overwhelming, in Russia, news of the Titanic’s contemporaneous sinking—and spurred empirewide job actions encompassing 300,000 workers on and after May Day 1912. The vast strikes caught the beaten-down socialist parties largely by surprise. “The Lena shots broke the ice of silence, and the river of popular resentment is flowing again,” Jughashvili noted in the newspaper. “The ice has broken. It has started!” The okhranka [internal intelligence] concurred, reporting: “Such a heightened atmosphere has not occurred for a long time. … Many are saying that the Lena shooting is reminiscent of the January 9 [1905] shooting” (Bloody Sunday). Conservatives lashed out at the government for the massacre, as well as at the gold company’s Jewish director and foreign shareholders. A Duma commission on the goldfields massacre deepened the public anger, thanks to the colourful reports provided by the commission chairman, a leftist Duma deputy and lawyer named Alexander Kerensky.' (p.125) [5]

[5]  Steven Kotkin: Stalin, Vol. I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2015 (first published in hard cover 2014).