An Epitaph for Solzhenitsyn

Writing in the Moscow Times Alexei Bayer (a Russian) offers a fitting epitaph for Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

Post-Soviet Russia is a curious place. It revels in unbridled jingoism that Soviet propaganda would have envied while renaming streets to honor dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But these may not be so incompatible after all.

In the early 1970s, when Solzhenitsyn was habitually tarred in Pravda, a political joke made rounds:

In the 25th century, a history teacher asks her students: “Who was Lenin?” Nobody has any idea. “What about Stalin?” she persists. Dead silence. “Brezhnev?” A tentative hand goes up: “A minor despot in the Age of Solzhenitsyn?”

The joke hits the nail on the head. Few people remember Brezhnev, and Lenin and Stalin have become mere symbols. As for Solzhenitsyn, while his influence on contemporary Russian literature may be modest, in politics and ideology Russia is certainly living out his era.

“Moscow 2042,” is Vladimir Voinovich’s biting look at senescent communism. The 1986 novel satirizes Solzhenitsyn’s triumphal return from his Vermont estate to Moscow, astride a white horse restoring a caricatured old regime. When it became possible for him to return in the late 1980s, many people expected Solzhenitsyn to be on the first plane to Moscow, to lead the extraordinary change occurring in Russia. But Solzhenitsyn dawdled, returning only in 1994, after the revolution was long over.

Nevertheless, his influence on contemporary Russia is difficult to overestimate. The dissident movement in the 1960s and 1970s consisted of many strains, but the two main factions, temporarily allied against the oppressive regime but incompatible in their competing visions, were pro-Western liberals led by physicist Andrei Sakharov and nationalist conservatives exemplified by Solzhenitsyn.

There is no question as to who prevailed. Sakharov has a remarkably ugly Brezhnev-era boulevard named after him, but democratic reforms he advocated mostly failed in the 1990s. Sakharov’s surviving acolytes gravitate toward the coalition called The Other Russia and are classified as opponents of the Putin-Medvedev regime. Sakharov would not have welcomed Russia’s involvement in the South Ossetia conflict.

Solzhenitsyn has always railed against the West and cautioned against transplanting its democracy onto the Russian soil. He reveled in Russia’s spiritual heritage, Orthodox faith and statist tradition, with a strong authoritarian component. This is now Russia’s official ideology and its main elements, including a strong anti-Western bias and belief that Russia is somehow special, have been starkly on display during the conflict with Georgia.

In his 1990 essay on rebuilding Russia, Solzhenitsyn wrote about replacing the Soviet Union with a Slavic core. Russia is now part of the Russia-Belarus Union.

This pseudo-Union shows what is wrong with today’s Russia and what has always been wrong with Solzhenitsyn’s political creed. It is mainly literary fiction. Russia’s spirituality, its anti-Western rhetoric and its “special path” are all fiction, too. In reality, it is a thoroughly corrupt country whose leaders hide their wealth offshore, consume vast quantities of luxury imports and educate their children at elite schools abroad. As cynical as other authoritarian leaders, they mask their incompetence and venality by wrapping themselves in the flag — as they have so successfully done in the Caucasus.

In the 19th century, a writer in Russia was more than a mere literary figure. He or she was a prophet, a national conscience, almost an alternative center of power. This was Solzhenitsyn’s role in the Soviet Union, but his efforts to remain a national conscience in the 21st century turned into a pathetic farce. He lent his support to former President Vladimir Putin and, specifically, to Russia’s erratic, pubescently aggressive foreign policy. For all his courage in standing up to the Soviet regime, he might be remembered as an ideologist of Russia’s senseless military forays into its former colonies.

6 responses to “An Epitaph for Solzhenitsyn

  1. I wouldn’t be too quick to suggest that Sakharov would criticize a Russian military thrust into Georgia’s gut, were he alive to witness American political chicanery in August 2008. Not so very long ago, similar opinions surrounded generally-benign Mikhail Gorbachev, and yet given Gorbachev’s strident television pronouncements on American expansionism, not even a fool can remain so equivocal as to suggest that the father of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” would side with the U.S. in yet another war with strong ties to Washington.

    LA RUSSOPHOBE RESPONDS: Sure you wouldn’t, Misha, because you are a neo-Soviet stooge and an idiot.

  2. I saw your inane post on the arrival of the American “relief” warship in the Black Sea, over on the Amsterdam website, La Russ: If indeed you’re so willing for Russia to “bring it on,” I suggest you join the CIA and report for duty in the Caucasus. Do beware, however, that some lucky Russian sniper will likely have your forehead in his sights before long, given your apparently non-existent military experience.

    (I was voluntarily facing Russian steel in the field long before you were the excess seed dribbling down your mother’s inner-thigh, my boy. If I’m a neo-Soviet stooge, then you’re a particularly virulent strain of a neocon skinhead.)

    Still, if clearly recognizing when Moscow’s right makes one a “neo-Soviet stooge and an idiot,” then I thank you for the compliment, son. Much obliged.

    You’ve light years to go before you can even dream of catching up with “Russia Blog,” my wayward friend.

  3. What Russia did to Georgia will not go unpunished, Carma is a M F so I suggest that you and your other comrades go repent. Georgia will survive; it was not born yesterday as you probably know, but Empires far more powerful than russia have rotten from inside throughout the history, and trust me, Russia is no different.
    And before you globilize this war and make it about a poor little russia defending herself from Georgia/US, think how many people have died since Russian “peace keepers” entered georgian territory.. Not to mention that big “compassionate ” russia seddled on a white horse defending Caucasian Nationalities as you still call them because most of you can’t identify them properly, is a little far fetched idea, since as history shows Russia has never cared for little “nationalities” in wild Caucasian mountains. Ossetians and Abkhazians have yet to learn the bitter lessons of russian love so well manifested in relationship to chechnya and georgia but there time is coming as well.
    It was Georgia and Georgians who encouraged these people to sustain their national identity via educating them on there native languages and providing them with all the means so they could remember who they were, but Misha do you know how many ossetian schools are there in Northen Ossetia? the answer is big ZERO.
    So shame on you and on Russia for acting like nothing but a street gang, hungry street gang at that..

  4. The Russian invasion of Georgia this month would likely have never happened without ongoing American interference in the trans-Caucasus, maka. The Georgian people are a great people, as are the Russian people and the American people–but this is a fight directed not by ‘the people,’ but largely by American businessmen who’re concerned with Russia’s growing wealth and military power and our own increasingly tepid influence on the international market and diplomatic scene. Granted, our economy remains the strongest and most vibrant in the world, but our ongoing “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan have considerably depleted our military, our bank account, and our prestige with the world-at-large. My heart goes out to the peoples’ of Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, and yet I must find fault with the U.S. and Tbilisi for enabling the war in Georgia by first embedding as it’s leader an American-educated Saakhashvili, and thereby further threatening total military encirclement of Russia.

    It says a great deal in that both Solzhenitsyn and Gorbachev became far more nationalistic in their overall demeanor in the wake of the fragmentation of the USSR. Indeed, even Sakharov might well have leaned in his county’s direction once Georgian missiles began falling on South Ossetia.

  5. Misha,
    Before Georgian missiles started falling on Samachablo ( that is a real name of “South Ossetia”) there were numerous violations of georigan air space by russan “peace keepers”, that are very well documented, not to mention that russian “peace keepers “never defended Georgian nationals from ossetian criminals and warlords who became wealthy robbing Georgian villages , besides being on russian KGB payroll.
    Ossetians sold their national identity and pride to russians, and so did abkhasians, nobody could ever do that to Georgians. In 100 years their descendants will not even know where they came from and who they really are. Georgia and
    Georigans will still be around.

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