I was really excited to see this book had finally been translated into English, having just read the old (and terrible) Michael Glenny hack job translation of 'August 1914.' It was a bit slow to pick up, but this is my favourite writer, so I knew that once it got going, it would be as impossible to put down as all of his other books. Unfortunately that was not the case. I abandoned it in frustration midway through the first of the six miniature research papers, on the history of the Kadet movement, and didn't return to it and start all over again till three and a half years later. This time I didn't give up at any point, though it wasn't easy getting through most of the small-print material in the non-fiction chapters. I really believe that he did want to educate his fellow Russians on a period in their history which isn't well-taught or well-understood instead of showing off the mammoth research he did on this book, but surely there could have been a way to convey that same information without interrupting the narrative a total of six times to bring the reader this tedious material, a mixture of non-fiction narrative and long quotes from the historical figures being discussed. Maybe, like in some of his other books I've read, have page references in the back to what was being talked about there, have footnotes, or a general introduction or afterword on the history behind the story. I know this is his life's work, the second of the four books that were the obsession of his writing life (thankfully he's lived long enough to finish them), but the information would have been gotten across just as well had these six chapters been cut out or had the information presented in the course of the fictional story, the way a good historical fiction writer presents historical events and figures important to the story. It was also hard to keep track of who was who, with all of these names, like Markov, Uncle Khvostov, Nephew Khvostov, Maklakov, Rodzyanko, Protopopov, Milyukov, Krivoshein, St?rmer, and Shipov, as well as who had been dismissed by the Tsar, whom Rasputin and the Tsarina were trying to get rid of, who was a Centrist, Rightist, Kadet, Leftist, ultra-Leftist, ultra-Rightist, a Duma member, or one of the Tsar's ministers. I love Russian history, but this was way too much information to process. The only non-fiction chapters I felt belonged there were the final two, the Duma transcripts, which read more like part of a story than a detached research paper.
The scope of this book is far wider than 'August 1914,' and there are far more characters to keep track of. A number of characters from that book also appear here, in varying degrees of importance. The most important recurring character is Colonel Georgiy Vorontyntsev; here we also get to meet his wife Alina, his baby sister Vera, and their childhood nanny. Since the time during which this book takes place, late October to mid November of 1916, was primarily a time of stalemate, the majority of the action takes place on the homefront. The chapters that do involve the characters in the military don't include any battles. It's hard to not see why revolution occurred when it did--everything on the homefront is going to the dogs, what with fixed grain prices for the peasants, rising prices for the people in the cities, anti-German pogroms, men between the ages of 38 and 41 being called into the military, along with boys who were born in 1898, the youngest possible class who can serve, Russia bankrupt, the strange behaviour of the Tsar, the replacement of the popular but ineffective Supreme Commander of the army, Nikolasha, with his great-nephew the Tsar himself, and the world shutting off its banking with Russia. Everyone was humiliated and angry, from the Tsarists to the revolutionaries living in exile abroad. The Tsar was a genuinely nice fellow, but kept making all of the wrong moves and making revolution even more inevitable.
Some people don't like this book because it has so many different characters, but that's the point--it's showing how these events affected all of these different classes of people, at all levels of society, how each of them reacted to it. It's harder to summarise, and very exhausting to read (I read it in two weeks, surprising given the sheer length), but the ending is really beautiful, a classic final thought. It was worth it just to read the end.