Site map
0The virtual community for English-speaking expats and Russians
  Main page   Make it home   Expat card   Our partners   About the site   FAQ
Please log in:
To register  Forgotten your password?   
  Survival Guide   Calendars
  Phone Directory   Dining Out
  Employment   Going Out
  Real Estate   Children
   September 23
News Links
Business Calendar
Phone Directory
 Latest Articles
 Archived Articles
Analysis & Opinion
04.08.08 Never A Fellow Traveler
By Dmitry Babich

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 89, in Moscow, with only four months left before his 90th birthday, naturally spurred an avalanche of discussions on the Internet, on television and in newspapers. He lived the long life of a great man, which, even during its dark pages, was full – if not of happiness, than at least of meaning and controversy. Like many great men, he could be simultaneously tantalizingly interesting and irritating, merciful and unbinding, coarse and understanding. In the century of rapid change and ensuing relativism, he refused to change his convictions, remaining until his last days firmly anchored in the Russian intellectual tradition of the late nineteenth – early twentieth century. Critics even said that he stayed with one leg in the 1920s, denouncing communism, atheism and other evils of wrongly understood modernity with the zeal of a White Guard officer or an ?migr? philosopher. In the 1980s and 1990s this attitude of a writer seemed to be a handicap. Now more Russians realize that being a successor to writers like Leo Tolstoy or to religious philosophers like Sergey Bulgakov is not so bad – and not that easy. Hence a change of attitude in the last four to five years – from formal respect or even irony to true interest and nostalgia.

Born in 1918 in the south of Russia (after his birth in Kislovodsk, the family moved to Rostov-on-Don), Solzhenitsyn lived through all the troubles and upheavals of Russian history of the twentieth century. His impressions and memories of the Soviet power, of which he was almost a peer, were never positive. The atrocities of the “spear-headed” Red soldiers (named so after a special sort of helmets which they wore) were one of the worst recollections of his childhood. Having graduated from Rostov University in 1941, Solzhenitsyn went to war with Nazi Germany, which he fought from 1942 to 1945, from Central Russia to East Prussia. Arrested because of an anti-Stalinist letter that he wrote to a school friend, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in Stalin’s jails, first in a special secret laboratory, where the forced labor of imprisoned scientists was used for military purposes, and later in concentration camps in Kazakhstan. Having returned to free life after two years of exile in Kazakhstan, he started working on his novels while leading the quiet life of a provincial schoolteacher.

Solzhenitsyn woke up famous in 1962, when his story “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published. A story about a day in the life of an ordinary inmate of a concentration camp was a sensation in itself, because officially these camps were not supposed to exist or to have had existed. Solzhenitsyn became a sort of Columbus for the Gulag Archipelago, as his later monumental book on Stalin’s repressions was named.

The Soviet authorities unwillingly “swallowed” “One Day of Ivan Denisovich,” whose publication was sanctioned by none other than the Soviet communist leader of the epoch, Nikita Khrushchev. He hoped to use Solzhenitsyn for the denunciation of his former mentor and tormentor – Joseph Stalin. But soon Khrushchev had to understand something that Western leaders and media realized only later, in the 1970s and 1980s. Solzhenitsyn proved to be a cumbersome and unpredictable “fellow traveler,” quite unfit for any sort of political usage. Instead of limiting himself to criticism of the Soviet system in the framework of the allowed, as Khrushchev had hoped, Solzhenitsyn challenged the very foundations of the Soviet vision of the world and history. In his Gulag Archipelago, the whole Soviet period of Russian history was presented as a chain of unspeakable cruelties and inanities born out of an extremist atheist ideology, which destroys a great country – Russia – in the name of an unachievable utopia. Based on eyewitness accounts and memoirs for lack of documents, a lot of stories recounted in the Gulag Archipelago reach the level of Biblical parables or, rather, anti-parables, since one can learn from them how one should not violate human nature in the name of lofty ideas.

This was more than Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev could stomach. Beginning from 1965, Solzhenitsyn had problems with the KGB, which organized a real hunt for his manuscripts and initiated his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers in 1969. In 1973, as publication of the Gulag Archipelago began in the West, it became clear that there were only two ways out – imprisonment or emigration. The trouble with Solzhenitsyn was that he again refused to play by the rules, trying to stay what he wanted to be – a free writer working in Russia. So, in 1974 he was in fact deported to West Germany against his own will. In 1975, Solzhenitsyn settled in Vermont, United States, where the climate and the landscape resemble those of Central Russia.

Prizes and awards were bestowed upon Solzhenitsyn in the West, as governments on both sides of the Atlantic saw him as a powerful weapon in fighting the Soviet Union. But instead of denouncing the Soviet authoritarianism and praising the Western democracy, Solzhenitsyn again said unpleasant things, which embarrassed the people who considered themselves his new sponsors and – consequently – masters.

“If you ask me: do I want to have the modern West as a model for my country, I will have to respond: no, I can’t recommend your society as an ideal for our reform,” Solzhenitsyn said in his famous Harvard speech in 1978. “There is an undisputable fact: human characters became weaker in the West and stronger in the East. During the last six decades [under communist rule], our people and nations of Eastern Europe in the last 30 years went through a tough school of soul searching… The pressure of dangerous and unhappy life molded characters which are stronger, deeper and more interesting than characters formed by the orderly Western life.”

Most of the historians of Russian fiction believe that the Harvard speech marked the beginning of the West’s disillusionment in Solzhenitsyn, which ultimately led to nearly utter oblivion in the 1990s and a lot of critical remarks against Solzhenitsyn’s acceptance of President Vladimir Putin’s policies in 1999-2008.

“I think this disillusionment was natural, and that it was shared by many people in Russia too,” said Lazar Lazarev, 84, the Editor in Chief of the Voprosy Literatury (Problems of Literature) magazine and an acquaintance of Solzhenitsyn since his days in Moscow in the 1960s. “It was rooted in Solzhenitsyn’s political position, which he revealed already during his stay in the United States. His polemics against the people, whom he derogatively called ‘pluralists’ and who were his friends since his Gulag days – historian Lev Kopelev, for example, -- did not add to his popularity among the Russian liberal intellectuals.”

Lev Kopelev, a former Soviet dissident historian and also a victim of Stalin’s repressions, and was the prototype of imprisoned engineer Lev Rubin in Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The First Circle,” died in 1997 in Cologne, where he had lived in exile since 1980.

When Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, a lot of people compared him to a Messiah returning – not to Jerusalem, but to Babylon. Russia, still in pangs after the market reforms of the early 1990s, made a big media event out of the writer’s arrival in Vladivostok and subsequent train trip via Russia, but little more than that. Most people in the country were not ready to accept Solzhenitsyn’s teaching of “voluntary limitation of consumption” and his other ideas. Criticism in liberal media turned more and more acerbic, and in 1998 television stopped broadcasting Solzhenitsyn’s television presentations, in which he spoke on political and social issues, as well as about his impressions from meeting his readers. Only later, having acquainted themselves with Westernized lifestyles, did people start taking a deeper look at Solzhenitsyn’s writings.

“Only a superficial person might consider Solzhenitsyn’s critique of modern society as some more grumbling from an old man,” said Anatoly Kurchatkin, a Russian fiction writer and an author of several articles on Solzhenitsyn’s work. “He was a great man. And the ideas of great men have a tendency to be appreciated only later. Now, as ecology and consumerism become more of an issue in Russia, no one laughs at the ‘voluntary limitation of consumption’ anymore. As for the shallowness of the character of modern men, this is also a universally recognized problem. Look at modern fiction and movies. Where are the characters which one can imitate or – at least – remember?”

Solzhenitsyn’s last and probably most controversial book was his treatise on the life of Jews in Russia, “Two Hundred Years Together.” Long plagued both by accusations of anti-Semitism and by suspicions about his own “non-Russian” origin (the KGB spread rumors that his true name was Solzhenitser), Solzhenitsyn tackled the delicate problem in a fundamental way, refusing to see the czarist rule in Russia as a chain of “anti-Semites on the throne.”
The result was best summarized by late Alexander Bovin, the former Russian ambassador to Israel in 1990s and an avowed friend of the Jewish state, whose representatives praised Bovin many times for his balanced position on the Middle Eastern conflict.

“After all, anti-Semitism in Russia is not so much a Jewish question as a Russian one, because this phenomenon is frequent in Russia,” Bovin said in one of his last interviews before his death in 2002. “Solzhenitsyn is fighting against an inferiority complex among the Russians, which is in fact the basis of anti-Semitism.”
The source
Copyright © The Moscow Expat Site, 1999-2023Editor  Sales  Webmaster +7 (903) 722-38-02