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Analysis & Opinion
22.08.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Solzhenitsyn’s Legacy
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

The entire Russian political leadership and cultural elite paid tribute to the great writer, and he was eulogized as a state hero. Solzhenitsyn is renowned in Russia and in the West for his forceful and factual exposure of the criminal nature of the Soviet gulag system through his powerful literary work. Indeed, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and later “The Gulag Archipelago” undermined the ideological foundation of the Soviet system, in ways that no Western propaganda could have ever dreamt of accomplishing.

In fact, he was such an intense opponent of the Soviet system that at some point during his exile to the United States he urged the American government to destroy the Soviet Union by military force. Washington wisely ignored his advice.

Yet Solzhenitsyn never shared the values of a Western liberal democracy. In his famous Harvard speech of 1982, he scolded and condemned the West for moral decay, financial greed and material overindulgence.

When Communism collapsed and the Soviet Union broke up, Solzhenitsyn triumphantly returned to Russia, but never fully embraced Russia’s democracy or the new Russian state within existing borders. He continued to lament the breakup of the “core Slavic State” of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and scolded the new Russian leadership and the Russian society at large for embracing the culture of wild capitalism and material gain.

Solzhenitsyn strongly supported Vladimir Putin’s modernization agenda, and lent his considerable moral and cultural legitimacy to Putin’s course of strengthening the Russian state and restoring Russia as a great power. He never contradicted Putin’s famous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a great historical tragedy.

Yet, of late the Russian society has begun to lose interest in what Solzhenitsyn had been trying to say. His last significant literary work – a rumbling essay on the complicated relationship between ethnic Russians and Jews in Russian history -- has been largely ignored or met with criticism and even with derision. The West was never really interested in Solzhenitsyn’s thinking on Russia’s future and the special Russian way of building a just and prosperous society.

What is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s real legacy for Russia and for the rest of the world? What lessons could and should Russia draw from his works and his life? Could he be viewed as the founding father of modern Russian conservatism that seeks to incorporate traditional Russian values into a modernizing agenda, or do his views guide Russia toward isolationism and stagnation? What impact will Solzhenitsyn’s legacy hold for Russia’s foreign policy, particularly for Russia’s relations with the West? Could Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev be described as disciples of Solzhenitsyn’s teachings of the unique Russian way?


Angela Stent, Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, DC:

Thirty years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was the commencement speaker at Harvard when I received my Ph.D. degree. What he said then and how it impacted his audience made an indelible impression, and embodies the contradictions that separate Russian and Western political culture, further complicating our dialogue.

He began with trenchant criticism of communism and a call for freedom of expression and freedom from tyranny. The students, faculty and parents reacted enthusiastically. But then he directed his ire toward Western culture and values, and began to perplex his audience. The United States was morally corrupt, overly secular, and materialistic. We had lost our spiritual values. Our media pandered to the lowest common denominator. “People have the right not to know,” he intoned, sounding rather Soviet. And he attacked the United States for standing by while little Cuba thumbed its nose at us. Where was our resolve? By the end of his harangue against the declining West, most of his listeners were uncomfortable and confused. This prophet of anti-communism had little good to say about the United States and its freedoms.

While at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn also criticized those Western academics who traced continuity between Tsarist and Soviet Russia—he denied that the autocracy that was overthrown in 1917 had bequeathed a considerable legacy to its Bolshevik successors, who infused traditional methods of centralized authoritarian rule with a revolutionary ideology.

Solzhenitsyn’s greatest legacy will be his sprawling literary works, fusing the voice of conscience with trenchant historical narrative and vivid personalities. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” “The Gulag Archipelago,” “Cancer Ward,” and “In the First Circle” are all compelling works. His fictional depiction of a puzzled Joseph Stalin contemplating Adolf Hitler’s motivations is unforgettable. These masterpieces will ensure his place in history as a major author and moral critic.

His political legacy—at least in the West—will be more mixed. He never felt comfortable living in the United States and kept himself isolated in his Vermont estate. He was a champion of Russian “exceptionalism.” He believed that Russian Orthodox culture was superior to that of the West. He argued with Andrei Sakharov, the proponent of a Western-oriented Russia that, the scientist believed, should aspire to European post-Enlightenment values. He advocated a return to a simple, pre-modern life, and opposed competitive capitalism. In many ways, his ideas appeared to be archaic and far removed from the political discourse in the West.

The current debate in Russia about identity and finding a usable past reverberates with many of the arguments that Solzhenitsyn made. Russia as a unique, spiritual, organic civilization superior to that of the excessively materialist West is a recurring theme today, when conservative Russians wrestle with these issues. Solzhenitsyn embodied the twentieth century incarnation of Slavophile views. He did not view Ukraine as a separate country, favored a union of Slavic countries, and his writings on this issue raised considerable controversy.

Inasmuch as some members the current Russian political class may share these views, Solzhenitsyn’s ideas could continue to influence Russian foreign policy. But he was the articulate and passionate exponent of a set of views shared by a broader segment of the Russian population. In that sense, he advocated ideas that were unfashionable during the Soviet era, but found considerable resonance before and after the Soviet period. These theories define Russia and the West as culturally and politically distant, coming from contrasting traditions and destined to move in different orbits.


Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

It may take 50, 100, or even more years before historians acquire a proper understanding of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s legacy. For his contemporaries, however, he is first of all the literary giant who almost single-handedly delivered the most powerful weapon in the East – West ideological confrontation with his works. This weapon helped the West to defeat the “evil empire” with the collateral result of crushing the Communist International and “reeducating” the European left, which to some extent was sympathetic to the Soviet experiment.

History knows other cases when words were more powerful than guns. Without going into dangerous religious waters one could point to Karl Marx, who published a powerful indictment of a capitalist system which eventually led to the enslavement of nearly half of mankind. And it took Solzhenitsyn to undo the work of Marx. For this, the world and especially Russia should be forever grateful to this man. However, when it comes to modern times, Solzhenitsyn’s ideas of rebuilding his native land did not find too many followers, at least so far.

This may change eventually, due to the deep disappointment of ordinary Russians with the course of post-communist reforms and the West in general. It was broadly expected that after liberation from communism, Russia will turn to the West and become another member of the happy European family. Therefore, Solzhenitsyn’s rejection of the Western ideals and search for some mysterious “third way” for Russia had been met with disdain even by his fellow dissidents, and by such a moral beacon of Russia’s pro-western liberals as Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov.

By race, religion, history, and great culture, Russia undoubtedly belongs to the West, whatever some East European leaders and fresh NATO aspirants might say. Unfortunately, instead of embracing its prodigal son and helping it to make the transition from a totalitarian system to freedom less painful, the West flatly turned it down, and instead started the process of encircling Russia militarily and isolating it economically through pipeline politics and some other means. This may prompt some Russians to go back to Solzhenitsyn works and review his “third way” ideas that were dismissed as utopian or even dangerous by some pro-Western intellectuals in the not-so-distant past.

At this point, the only hope for Russia’s integration with the West lies with Old Europe, but since Europeans are looking at this process solely from the energy prism, this may not be enough to turn things around. Medvedev’s appeals to Europe to think about a new security system with Russia as its integral part are largely ignored.

In any event, neither the West nor the “third way” proponents can stop the globalization process which will make all their efforts of Russia’s isolation obsolete. One should only examine the world’s demographic trends and the economic interdependence of nations to realize that our planet is quickly becoming a global village, where one cannot possibly isolate almost any country, definitely not such a huge one as Russia, which boasts astronomical resources of oil, gas, fertile agricultural land, fresh water, and other vitally important commodities.

Coming back to Solzhenitsyn, one should not have expected him to know all the answers and always be right. He is neither God nor a prophet, and he had his share of mistakes which he admitted himself. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn deserves our admiration for what he did, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Solzhenitsyn may eventually be canonized by the Slavic Orthodox Church. Indeed, his life was a series of miracles, from surviving Stalin’s Gulag where millions perished to recovering from deadly cancer, and, most importantly, to achieving a great moral victory over his Soviet tormenters.

This process may take a long time, but a very symbolic gesture in this direction has already been made this week. It was always annoying, to say the least, when looking at the Moscow map to find the names of the streets or Metro stations picked from communist vocabulary or named after some Bolshevik or Soviet leaders. What a delight it was when I have heard the news that the Moscow city government gave the “Large Communist Street” near the “Taganka” square the name of the great Russian patriot “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.”


James George Jatras, Director, American Council for Kosovo, Washington:

In early 1975, having recently received my undergraduate degree in political science and trying to figure out what to do next, I was working as a stockroom boy at a liquor store. My companion in that exalted job, himself a recent college graduate (our foreman was a high school dropout), mentioned to me in passing that he was reading an interesting book by some Russian guy. He couldn't describe exactly what kind of book it was, a difficulty that was understandable only upon reading it, which he suggested I do. And so I plowed through the first volume of “The Gulag Archipelago.”

I can't say that the experience was earth shattering, or at least not right away. But in my case, it began to accomplish what is not the easiest task in the world: forcing a callow 20-year-old American simply to think, not to accept at face value what he is being told by all the smart and beautiful people. That doesn’t just mean rejecting deceptions from the government and mass media (it of course includes that), but even more the demands of prevailing opinion, the tyranny of fashion, the myths of progress and social determinism.

In retrospect, although I didn't know it at the time, reading “Gulag” was a critical juncture without which I don’t think I’d have become who I am today. Not only might I not have freed myself from the liberal pap that was de rigueur for my age and class, I have no assurance I’d be a Christian and a partisan in the uphill battle to preserve what is left of the broader cultural patrimony that includes America and Russia no less than Europe.

I mention this otherwise uninteresting autobiographical fragment only because, based on my personal acquaintance, there are a lot more people than one might suppose of my generation in America and in Europe who can look back on a similar formative experience. Especially among those of us loosely described as “conservative” (whatever that generic label means nowadays), but not only among conservatives, one of the first holes punched in the psychological dike of ignorance and passive acceptance of lies typifying the contemporary hive mentality came with reading Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn is hailed by his admirers as a great writer, a prophet, a visionary, the conscience of Russia. His detractors excoriate him as a crank, an authoritarian, a nationalist, a reactionary, or perhaps even worse, irrelevant. But I believe his impact on Russia and the world will manifest itself only with the passage of time, as the moral and intellectual seeds planted in countless souls over the past thirty years grow and mature. This can be called the micro-effect in history, reverberating among many thousands, perhaps millions, of individuals unknown to each other, as opposed to the cyclonic macro-effect of a Muhammad, a Peter the Great, a Napoleon, or a Mao.

We must keep in mind the time lag in the unfolding of historical phenomena. In retrospect, we can say that the destructive influence of Marx, Darwin, and Freud starting in the mid-19th century and into the first decades of the 20th was the font from which flowed the ideological pathologies that have reigned from the First World War and continue, alas, today. On a similar timeline, we can expect that we have not yet seen the revolution that someday will be attributed to Solzhenitsyn. Of course “revolution” would be the wrong word. A self-described opponent of all revolutions and all ideologies, his impact will be seen as a true counterrevolution, a restoration, a rallying of the remnant of our once-great civilization.

That such a rallying might prevail is hardly inevitable. In fact, at this point, the odds that the Western Civilization can recover from the toll of two autogenocidal World Wars, a Cold War, and the now-brewing Cold War II, are disheartening. But if there is hope, or at least the possibility of our going down fighting, it will in large part reflect the fact that so many of my contemporaries had once picked up “Gulag,” or “First Circle,” or “Ivan Denisovich,” or August 1914.


Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Solzhenitsyn's legacy is first of all one of courage, moral truth, and artistic independence, none of which is high on the list of categories desired either by the current state or by its Soviet predecessor. For these attributes, he will remain immortal.

It is difficult to see him as the father of modern Russian conservatism because there are so many different schools of the conservative mood, and few of them are original in their conservatism, including Solzhenitsyn. One need only read late Tsarist conservatives and the original Eurasianists to grasp this.

So ultimately, I believe that it is his example and fearlessness that will be the legacy, not his political views or misconceptions of Russian history, which are standard fare for conservatives but wholly useless as a guide to the future.
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