- August 1914
- Bullets, Bottles and Gardenias
- Gringo Rebel
- A Fine Fellow
- Timeline of Revolution
- Battle of Tierra Blanca
- Gray Automobile Affair
- Gringo Rebel
- Gun Running
- John Reed
- Lifelong Friends
- Massacre of Huitzilac
- Nordenskjold Lives!
- Pancho Villa
- Soldier Under 13 Flags
- The Devil's Dictionary
- Villa's Swedish Gunner
- Yaquis capture Acaponeta
- ¡Vamanos Con Pancho Villa!
- Centennial Edition
- Veracruz Expedition
August 1914 and the Anarchist Aunts
Ivor Thord-Gray’s service with the Siberian Storm Division in 1919 is most commonly referenced as a sort of exclamation point on the nearly unbelievable scope of his military career, leaving much yet to be done to develop an understanding of this period. If you want a foundation for the historical context of this period, there is no better place to go than the novels of Alexandre Solzhenitsyn:
“Come, friends, come, brothers, raise your voices,
Hymn destruction’s wondrous feast!” --August 1914
Writing about Solzhenitsyn is like writing about the Rocky Mountains: there are a lot I could say but I would really suggest that you go there. A lifetime is too short to visit it all, in any case.
Here’s a tip to getting around Solzhenitsyn: he wrote in “nodes” – each conceptual unit, each chapter, is fashioned to stand by itself. Having survived the Nazis, the Gulags and stomach cancer before he really got going as a writer, this technique was a defensive device, allowing him to decide just how much to reveal. When Cancer Ward was first published in the Soviet Union, he held back certain nodes of the story which would might have prevented its publication, or landed him back in a Siberian labor camp. Additional material was inserted in subsequent editions, each time pushing the boundaries with the censors. Comparing the various editions of Cancer Ward, one can study which nodes were withheld, giving us some insight into his technique, and a window into the mental prison Soviet Russia.
We can use this as a key to understanding Solzhenitsyn’s “August 1914”. The 1979 edition inserts a series of critical “nodes” in the middle of the book that were not included in the first edition.
The scene as we approach these critical added "nodes": the Russian armies have deployed into Prussia to the point of being dangerously overextended. Rennenkampf is jealous of Samsonov for some perceived slight from back in the disastrous war with the Japanese, and in consequence is holding back his divisions at Allenstein, while implying that he is advancing to close ranks with Samsonov. Meanwhile, Samsonov’s divisions are forced-marched into the sandy pine forests of Tannenburg, oblivious to the catastrophe about the befall them, with the false security of Rennenkampf covering their northern flank. At this critical juncture, in the moment before the tragic destruction of the Russian Second Army, Solzhenitsyn brings us back to the home front, and introduces us to a pair of college students, sisters, in an exchange between the girls and their aunts, two old radicals schooled in the anarchist anti-tzarist 1860’s:
“Tell me, girls, what do you want to achieve in life? What is your ambition?”
The girls exchanged cautionary coughs. Likonya, taking care to purse her bee-stung lips beautifully, vouchsafed a reply: “To live.”
“What do you mean -- to live? Just to live? How do you mean to live?”
They exchanged glances, and tried to avoid answering. But Veronika if pressed would begin speaking as though for the edification of people younger than herself.
“My dear aunts, are you trying to inflict progress on us? Unfortunately, politically progressive generally means culturally retrograde.”
[aunt] Agnessa puffed out an impatient reply with her cigarette smoke: “The answer to that is very simple: our object, the main object common to all of us, is the struggle with autocracy.”
Two little noses, the broader one and the narrower one, wrinkled skeptically.
“When the present order collapses and the chains of oppression fall away, all sorts of opportunities will open up -- in the cultural sphere as in others.”
Likonya darted frightened glances -- probably a well-rehearsed trick.
“What if they don’t?”
“If the opportunities don’t open up?”
“But they will!” the aunts answered in unison. “The guarantee is that we have a healthy intelligentsia, and its upsurge promises a glorious recovery for our sick country. Russia’s past may have been pitiful, its present may be contemptible, but its future will be magnificent.”
“Aunts, aunts” Veronika sighed in good-natured exasperation. “I wonder whether your generation understood what culture is? The cultural life of the nineteenth century was very humdrum.”
They were lost for words. They could only splutter: “Humdrum? Our century? Ours? You just ... don’t ...”
Determined to redeem their nihilist nieces, the aunts weave a tapestry of the idealistic anarchism of the sixties. They are as unaware of the historical catastrophe which is about to befall their beloved culture as is Samsonov of the impending doom of his army. As Solzhenitsyn turns his kaleidoscope through the recollections of the aunts, he momentarily reveals an alternative history of Russia, one which existed in potential, but which was extinguished in the flash of an assassins bomb.
This scene described above would be taking place about the time Thord-Gray, in the Mexican Revolution was meeting with Zapata, 50 months before he deployed with the White Russians against the Bolshevik revolution.