This week’s Times Literary Supplement offers a sad retrospective by Russian writer Zinovy Zinik on Solzhenitsyn’s return home to Mother Russia.
Solzhenitsyn’s status in Russia today would have been deemed peculiar if it were not almost tragic. On the face of it, the outlook is good. He celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday at his private estate near Moscow, which was specially built as a replica of his retreat in Vermont. With the ascent of Vladimir Putin to power, his optimism and belief in the new Russian state grew. He granted an audience to Putin who came to his house to discuss the Russian nation’s current problems; he has accepted state honours and honorary titles. The first parts of the multi-volume edition of his complete works are due to appear in the bookshops this year. Last year, a state television channel showed the ten-part serialization of his novel The First Circle which was narrated by Solzhenitsyn himself. According to witnesses he was moved to tears when he was shown the first episodes. After he endured eight years in labour camps (he was arrested on the front line in 1945 for criticizing Stalin in private correspondence with a friend), exile in Kazakhstan and the threat of cancer, his semi-underground existence in Moscow and fight with the literary establishment after Stalin’s death and during the Khrushchev thaw – after all that, it looks as though the truth has triumphed. Has it?
I am old enough to remember how, as Soviet schoolboys, we were from time to time given a talk by a guest lecturer, an Old Bolshevik, on the horrors of the tsarist regime. The aim was to demonstrate how happy and bright our days in the Soviet paradise were. It is alarming to see that Solzhenitsyn’s legacy is now being used by the new governors of Russia in a similar way. The country has not gone through the process of de-Sovietization, as did the other countries of Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism. Nobody can give a clear answer why, during the period (short as it was) of the total collapse of the totalitarian state, the records of KGB informants were not made public, the main perpetrators of the Soviet genocide inside and outside the USSR were left in peace, the party apparatchiks were allowed to regain their political influence and financial affluence under the new regime. Some suggested that the scale of complicity in Soviet crimes was such that its exposure would have led to a civil war; others blamed Russian fatalism and lack of civic courage. Apart from all this, the new elite started early on adapting the parts of the former state security organs for their own private aims, thereby letting the most sinister elements of the defunct Soviet system take control of the new Russia.
Whatever the causes, we are now faced with a country once again under the thumb of a transformed state security apparatus, divided into warring factions and yet united in destruction of any semblance of political opposition – be it a politically active industrialist or charismatic journalist. The sense of impunity among criminals, old and new, is such that it has a demoralizing effect on the rest of the population: “Everything is permitted” is the person on the street’s opinion. And, since the origin and mores of the new Russian elite are transparent to the outside world, the new establishment is wary of foreigners and outsiders, whips up nationalistic feelings among the populace, and creates an atmosphere of deep suspicion of Western alliances. The West is for shopping, not for learning historical lessons. Russians are not to imitate the Western way of life blindly, we are told; instead they have chosen what is now called “controlled democracy” for the “indigenous population”. In short, the country – with all its current wealth, feverish economic activity and cultural exuberance – might easily sleepwalk into a state which in the good old days was called fascist.
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; silent even when his most cherished idea of saving Russia by strengthening the independence of local government, Swiss-style, was first ridiculed in the press and then trampled over by a presidential decree that reinstalled the central authority of the Kremlin over the whole of Russia. On the whole, Solzhenitsyn avoids public appearances these days and refrains from public utterances. And yet, he found the time and energy to express his approval of the recent cutting off of gas supplies to Ukraine for a discount price “because that country tramples over Russian culture and the Russian language and allows NATO military manoeuvres on its territory”. Oh well. My country, right or wrong.