Nepali Times
The Gulag chronicler


MOSCOW?Prophets, it is said, are supposed to be without honour in their homeland. Yet Moscow has just witnessed the extraordinary sight of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, dissident and once-exiled author of the Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, receiving what amounts to a state funeral. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was chief mourner.

So, even in death, Alexander Solzhenitsyn will, it seems, remain a force to be reckoned with. But will he be a force in keeping with the liberating vistas of his greatest works?

Sadly, art in Russia is always used to reinforce the narcissism of power. Solzhenitsyn was used in this way twice. The paradox is that, in the Soviet era, his art was used, briefly, as a force for liberation, because Nikita Khrushchev allowed the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in order to buttress his anti-Stalin thaw.

In today's supposedly free and democratic Russia, however, Solzhenitsyn is idealised for his nationalism and Orthodox messianism, his contempt for the West's supposed decadence, all messages that Putin's regime proclaims loudly and daily.

The old Soviet iconography has broken down completely. Despite heroic efforts, not even Putin could restore Lenin, Stalin, and the old Soviet pantheon. Yet the Kremlin understands that something is needed to replace them as Russia adapts to its new oil-fueled autocracy. Solzhenitsyn, one of the most famous and heroic dissidents of the Soviet era, now seems certain to become a towering figure in the iconography of Putinism.

For Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of the gulag system enforced by the KGB, the desire to see Russia as a great nation, its eternal spirit superior to the West's vulgar materialism, found him in old age supporting an ex-KGB strongman. Putin once said that there is no such thing as an ex-KGB man and sees the Soviet Union's collapse as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of modern times. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn accepted Putin as a 'good dictator'.

It is a sad testament to Russia's current mindset that it is Solzhenitsyn the anti-modernist crank who is being remembered, not Solzhenitsyn the towering foe of Soviet barbarism and mendacity. Today, his writing is seen as buttressing the state, not individual freedom. Works such as The Red Wheel series of novels, a tedious account of the end of Imperial Russia and the creation of the USSR or his last book A Hundred Years Together on the history of Russian-Jewish coexistence, seem backward, preachy, conservative, unenlightened, at times even anti-Semitic. They smack off Solzhenitsyn's own grim authoritarianism.

Both Putin and Khrushchev sought to use Solzhenitsyn for their own purposes. Putin vowed to revive the moral fibre of the Russians, their glory and international respect. Under him, Khrushchev Solzhenitsyn's work was used to liberate the country from the grip of Stalinism. Khrushchev knew that he was undermining the entire Soviet era up to that point. But, with Khrushchev's overthrow in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev lost no time in restoring orthodoxy and purging books that threatened the Party's reputation. Solzhenitsyn was banned, driven first underground and then into exile.

One lesson of the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe is the value of having truly democratic-minded figures lead the escape from communism. Poland had Lech Welesa; Czechoslovakia, V?clav Havel. Both kept their countries calm during wrenching transitions. Russia, sadly, had no one with the moral authority to soothe people's passions. Only Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov came near to Walesa and Havel in terms of moral authority. But Sakharov was dead by the time communism collapsed, and Solzhenitsyn's ideas were too conservative, too tied to Russian nationalism, for him to become a symbol of democracy in a multi-national Soviet Union.

The tragedy of Solzhenitsyn is that although he played a mighty role in liberating Russia from totalitarianism, he had nothing to say to ordinary Russians after their liberation, except to chastise them. Yet perhaps one day we Russians will escape our false dreams, and when that day comes, the heroic Solzhenitsyn, the Solzhenitsyn who could never surrender or be corrupted, will be restored to us. But it is now that we need that olzhenitsyn most.

Project Syndicate

Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at The New School in New York.

Solzhenitsyn's published works:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962; novel)
An Incident at Krechetovka Station (1963; novella)
Matryona's Place (1963; novella)
For the Good of the Cause (1964; novella)
The First Circle (1968; novel)
Cancer Ward (1968; novel)
The Love-Girl and the Innocent (1969; play
August 1914 (1971).
The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes) (1973?1978)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)