I have posted an entry at the new economist.com blog on Europe about Solzhenitsyn. you can find it here
While praising Solzhenitsyn’s bravery, and the role that the Gulag Archipelago and other books played in exploding Western illusions about the evil empire, Zinik makes some trenchant criticisms of Solzhenitsyn’s style and substance.
Gradually Solzhenitsyn became convinced of his God-given powers to bring down the Soviet regime and secure the renaissance of a Russian nation that would renew its commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church. His open “Letter to the Soviet Leaders” was followed by addresses and encyclicals to the Russian people (sometimes beginning in a Stalinist fashion with “Dear Compatriots . . .”) on a variety of subjects: from urging people to boycott the mendacious Soviet state institutions to reviving obsolete and archaic Slavic vocabulary uncontaminated by the influence of the Latin world.
The book’s authors, Zinik reckon, want to portray Solzhenitsyn as a moderate conservative, not the nationalist bigot of (some) popular interpretations. That, argues Zinik, is a fair reflection of his early views, but not of the way he has applied them, particularly of late.
He cannot comprehend the political value of the right to disagree, of agreeing to disagree, an attempt (quite successful) at cohabitation of those with opposing views. He didn’t learn in the West that political ideas have no spiritual value without practical application. And in practice, his views on patriotism, morality and religion attracted the most reactionary elements of Russian society – from top to bottom.
Solzhenitsyn used to be a good listener; he is evidently a great writer when he records other people’s voices; the trouble starts when he assumes his own voice.
It is not just Solzhenitsyn’s public stance that Zinik criticises, but also his treatment of those close to him
…incurring Solzhenitsyn’s disapproval made people act against their better judgement and those who had fallen foul of him were ostracized. He banished from his life everyone whom he suspected of disloyalty, including the most insightful and trustworthy of his biographers, Michael Scammell. For Solzhenitsyn and his defenders it was the only way to preserve the memory of the horrors of Stalinism for future generations; for his detractors, his civic zeal was just a cover for megalomaniacal vanity.
As a result
After his involuntary move to the West in 1974, his influence on the ranks of the exiled Russian intelligentsia was catastrophic. One of his first political actions was an attempt to disseminate through the Western mass media the list of those dissident figures who in his opinion could, in one way or an other, be suspected of collaboration with the KGB. The libellous and whimsical character of such allegations prevented newspapers from publishing this absurd list. But the damage had been done. He unsuccessfully tried to tarnish the reputation of the most prophetic literary thinker and novelist of the epoch, Andrei Sinyavsky, because Sinyavsky had ridiculed Solzhenitsyn’s simplistic view of Russian history and the patriotic role of literature.
Since the collapse of Communism, things haven’t improved.
It was clearly a shock for Solzhenitsyn to discover that his role had ceased to be regarded as that of a spiritual leader of his people. Initially, his well-publicized comeback to the motherland was clouded by his admirers’ disappointment with their prophet’s outdated political wisdoms and Solzhenitsyn’s own disapproval of the way the country had liberated itself from the shackles of Communism. For a short time, he had a weekly fifteen-minute television programme called Meetings with Solzhenitsyn. It was dropped after a few months owing to a lack of audience response, to be replaced by a programme featuring the Italian parliamentarian and porn queen, La Cicciolina.
Solzhenitsyn’s status in Russia today would have been deemed peculiar if it were not almost tragic.
Solzhenitsyn’s qualified support for Putin attracts Zinik’s particular scorn
Solzhenitsyn once dedicated his life to the fight against the regime in which the state security machine made everyone feel an accomplice in turning the country into a prison camp. He has now become part of a society where the mass media are reduced to self-censoring impotence, Soviet style; dissident artists and writers are regularly beaten up; journalists who expose corruption and the abuses of centralized political power are murdered. And yet Solzhenitsyn is silent
Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago as a cautionary tale for the West. Perhaps it is the time for the Russians to reread it from their own historical perspective.
The response from Daniel Mahoney is scathing. Zinik, he says
recycles all the same tired charges of “stale traditionalism” in literature and politics, authoritarianism, and neo-Stalinist rhetoric—as if the old fights have to be re-fought one more bloody time.
The truth is
Solzhenitsyn remains—as he has been for decades now—a thoughtful and passionate advocate of “repentance and self-limitation,” a critic of the “lie” in all its forms, an advocate of what he calls a “clean, loving, constructive Patriotism” as opposed to a radically nationalist bent” that “elevates one’s nationality above a humble stance toward heaven.” In contrast to the consensus that increasingly dominates in both liberal and conservative circles in the West, Solzhenitsyn saw Russia in the 1990s—with its criminal corruption, unholy alliance of oligarchs and unrepentant communists, its betrayal of the rule of law and a genuine market economy in the name of a misguided “market ideology”—as a new “Time of Troubles” for his beloved homeland. He has a balanced view of Russia today in no small part because he does not identify the 1990s as a period of true democratic reforms as so many people mistakenly do in the West.
And that is the rub. So much of the argument about what is happening in Russia now is really about what happened in the 1990s. For some, it was a period when misguided reformers ruined “the state”, creating a period of chaos from which Russia is only now recovering. For others, it was a forlorn but almost heroic attempt to create a democratic state and market economy on the rubble of an evil empire.
It may be useful to call the former category Gosudarstvennik, an almost untranslatable Russian word usually but inadequately rendered as “statist”. For them, order counts more than law, respect more than popularity. The latter category are often (but equally adequately) called “reformers”. They are often pro-western, self-consciously middle-class, eager (at least in theory) to have the rule of law, especially where protection of private property is
Such categories are crude and incomplete, of course. For the gosudarstvenniky Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Soviet past may make him unacceptable. And for the reformers, his conservatism and religiosity may be unpalatable.
What can be said safely is that unless you have read such classics such as Ivan Denisovich, Gulag, and the First Circle recently, it might be good to take another look and see what relation if any you can see to Russia now. And it might also be an idea to read the new book–if only to see how Solzhenitsyn’s views have evolved over time.