The Prophet and the Commissars

Authors_photo1 Nina L. Khrushcheva in Project Syndicate:

For Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of the gulag system enforced by the KGB, the desire to see Russia as a great nation, its eternal spirit superior to the West’s vulgar materialism, found him in old age supporting ex-KGB man Putin, who once said that there is no such thing as an ex-KGB man and who sees the Soviet Union’s collapse as the greatest geo-political catastrophe of modern times. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn seemed to accept Putin as a “good dictator,” whose silencing of his critics enhances Russia’s soul. 

It is a sad testament to Russia’s current mindset that it is Solzhenitsyn the anti-modernist crank who is being remembered, not Solzhenitsyn the towering foe of Soviet barbarism and mendacity. Today, his writing is seen as buttressing the state, not individual freedom. Works such as The Red Wheel series of novels, a tedious account of the end of Imperial Russia and the creation of the USSR, or his last book, written in 2001, entitled Two Hundred Years Together on the history of Russian-Jewish coexistence, seem backward, preachy, conservative, unenlightened, at times even anti-Semitic, and smack of Solzhenitsyn’s own grim authoritarianism.

Both Putin and Khrushchev sought to use Solzhenitsyn for their own purposes. Putin vowed to revive the moral fiber of the Russians, their glory and international respect. To achieve this goal he sought to restore high culture to a position of primacy in Russian life, and to put mass media in its (politically) subservient place. Putin held up Solzhenitsyn as a model for those who stand for the ideal of Great Russia – “an example of genuine devotion and selfless serving of the people, fatherland, and the ideals of freedom, justice, and humanism.”