Walking to the podium to deliver the commencement speech at Harvard University in June 1978, a mere eight years after having won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking literary work The Gulag Archipelago which documented the horrors of the Soviet prison camp system, Alexander Solzhenitsyn – a man who had fought valiantly for his country against Nazi Germany as a commanding officer in the Red Army, but who was imprisoned for anti-Soviet activities – had become a symbol of the country’s underground dissident movement as well as a towering voice on the international stage that unflinchingly shed light on the horrors of Stalinism.
On that day more than 40 years ago, he stood before the crème-de-la-crème of American students and proceeded to shock his audience by launching into a tirade against the West, the United States in particular, for what he saw as its lack of spirituality and traditional values, as well as its embrace of a free press and democratic exceptionalism.
Solzhenitsyn left much of the audience, including many of his literary and political supporters in Washington, perplexed by what they saw as an unexpected and unwelcome attack on a country that had given him shelter after the Soviet Union forced him into exile.
This past December 11th would have marked Solzhenitsyn’s 100th birthday. Despite the fact that more than a decade has passed since his death, his legacy remains highly controversial and widely misunderstood both in his homeland and in the West.
That a man who lived and deeply ascetic life and who saw himself as carrying on in the tradition of Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in documenting the good and evil in Russian character, Solzhenitsyn’s embrace of Russian chauvinism and orthodox nationalism should have been of little surprise to those familiar with that particular strain of Russian culture.
His One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, which George Kennan, the legendary American diplomat and architect of the US Cold War policy of containment, described as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levelled in modern times”, painstakingly chronicled the sufferings of his compatriots under Joseph Stalin and Solzhenitsyn spent most of the 1960s and early 1970s struggling against the Kremlin, building a following amongst the liberal, pro-democracy dissidents.
Despite his standing up to the KGB and his commitment to exposing the horrors of state terror, he forever remained a child of the system that he railed against. Having been a member of the first generation of Russians born and raised under the banner of Marxism-Leninism, his youthful commitment to Communism and the Soviet state morphed into a wholehearted embrace of Russian Orthodoxy and reactionary pan-Slavism by the time he was released from the gulag.
Cheered by his European, then American, hosts after being exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Solzhenitsyn’s firebrand disdain for the culture and politics of both Europe and the United States, what are now referred to as “Western Values”, quickly manifested itself as he withdrew into near-seclusion in the mountains of Vermont.
Solzhenitsyn remained an implacable critic of the Kremlin as his years in exile wore on, going so far as to refer to the Soviet Union as a “parasitic state” – language that was well-received in the climate of the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s.
He refused frequent invitations from reformist Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to return to the country and help with the latter’s programmes of perestroika and glasnost, saying, ”What has five or six years of perestroika brought us but a halfhearted reshuffling of the party Central Committee and an ugly, fake election system with only one goal: for the Communist Party not to lose power?”
Though lauded for his stridently anti-Soviet rhetoric, lost below the surface to most Western observers was Solzhenitsyn’s call for Orthodox Christian, i.e. Russian supremacy, over the territories that had been under Moscow’s and St. Petersburg’s wings for centuries.
This message was tinged with his usual beliefs that Western popular culture had corrupted Russians more than the Soviet state that he had grown up with as a boy on the steppes and foothills near his birthplace in the North Caucasus.
While denouncing free enterprise and the future of democracy in Russia, Solzhenitsyn spent much of the latter part of his life advocating for the establishment – even if the other republics prefer otherwise of a unified Slavic nation comprised of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, as well as large swathes of Kazakhstan and the Baltic States that had been Russified. In his mind, this would put an end to a Soviet that had “sapped the Russian heartland for years”.
Though pleased by the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse in late 1991, the bearded, overtly devout, and frequently arrogant Solzhenitsyn was appalled by the country that he found upon his return in the summer of 1994.
Solzhenitsyn had arrived in Russia at time when the country was reeling from the transition to a free market economy and was less than a year removed from bloody street battles in central Moscow after a constitutional crisis saw a hardline pro-Soviet lead government institution, the now-defunct Congress of Peoples’ Deputies and its Supreme Soviet, face off against the administration of then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin which culminated in the latter sending tanks and elite army units onto the Russian capital’s busy streets to shell the now-iconic white facade of the Russian parliament building.
The crass Capitalism, poverty, crime, lack of authority, and, most importantly, modern Russia’s lack of a central idea or concept of who and what the country was deeply troubled Solzhenitsyn and brought out the worst of his chauvinistic leanings.
While most acknowledge the power and significance of The Gulag Archipelago and his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in his later years Solzhenitsyn was dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, reactionary Russian nationalism, and pro-Putinism.
In his later years, Solzhenitsyn often spoke approvingly of Russia’s “restoration” under Vladimir Putin, whom he said had righted the wrongs of the Yeltsin years, particularly relating to the protection of Russian-speaking Slavs in areas where they were a minority – a thinly veiled reference to Yeltsin’s disastrous invasion and subsequent defeat in Chechnya in 1994-1996.
His praise for Putin’s restoration of a one-man police state was dovetailed by comments made on Russian television that Solzhenitsyn harboured deep-rooted fears of a Jewish conspiracy against the Russian people, a deeply troubling statement that came under further scrutiny after he published a widely panned historical work that discussed relations between Jews and non-Jews in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
The book was highly criticised for Solzhenitsyn’s false assertion that the tsarist-era pogroms were a localised grassroots problem and that Jews – not Orthodox Slavs – who members of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary movement were the driving force behind the reign of terror and the mass purges that occurred in the years immediately after the 1917 October Revolution.
By the time Solzhenitsyn died in August 2008, just a day after Russian tanks rolled across the mountainous border that separates the Russian Federation from Georgia, he had largely been confined to the sidelines. Still regarded as an important chronicler of 20th-century history, he was more often than not seen as an aloof madman and a reactionary imperialist, with a strong anti-Semitic streak, who had overstayed his welcome and usefulness to society.
Most had assumed that his death was, in fact, also the end of a certain strain of Russian nationalism. But in the 10 years since Solzhenitsyn’s life came to an end, Putin, guided by a spiritual and political guru, Alexander Dugin, whose resemblance and political ideology is eerily close to that of Solzhenitsyn’s. Putin has come to embrace and act of much of what Solzhenitsyn had called for dating back to his days as a gulag prisoner.
In his 1990 essay on rebuilding Russia, Solzhenitsyn called for the re-establishment of Rus, the medieval kingdom that was made up of parts of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, with its capital city in Kyiv, the modern Ukrainian capital.
Solzhenitsyn also called for the protection of Russian speakers and Russian culture, while acknowledging that the Soviet government had treated its Ukrainian citizens poorly, but denounced the concept of independence for either Belarus or Ukraine as a farce.
“We all together emerged from the treasured Kyiv, ‘from which the Russian land began,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “White Russians (Belarusians) and Little Russians (Ukrainians) acknowledged that they were Russians and fought against Polonisation and Catholicism,” Solzhenitsyn wrote at the time, while also denying the existence of a genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet state in 1932-1933, an event known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor.
Having invaded and effectively annexed areas of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, while establishing the Eurasian Customs Union – an entity that all but re-imposes the authority of Moscow on many of the former Soviet republics – Putin has successfully taken the steps towards reconstructing a new Russian empire that is rooted in much of what Solzhenitsyn advocated long before the terms “spheres of influence” or “Russian interference” entered into the world’s lexicon. They most certainly pre-dated the use of one of Putin’s most recent pet projects – reviving the tsarist-era dream and Solzhenitsyn ideal “Novorossiya” in eastern and southern Ukraine.
A century after his birth, this begs the question of where Russia could have been at the end of the second decade of the 21st century had there been bigger roles for the country’s more principled and truly forward-thinking dissidents in shaping a future for Russia that would be without the crushing of dissent or rule by one man.
If that were the case, surely new statues would be unveiled by a less autocratic Russian government to mark the courage of individuals like Andrei Sakharov, Boris Nemtsov, Yelena Bonner, Natan Sharansky, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova, Garry Kasparov, and the recently-deceased, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, all of whom were or are more than just Russia’s true human rights icons, they are the symbols of what the country could and should be.