The other Solzhenitsyn
The 100th anniversary of possibly the greatest writer of the tortured 20th century has predictably and justly given rise to numerous encomiums, such as this one from one of the great man's best interpreters. There is no doubt that Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, if not St. John, to whom he has been compared, in his epochal struggle with communist totalitarianism, at the very least drove a key nail in the coffin of communist inhumanity. What he did without any doubt was to open the eyes of the West to the reality of the murderous Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, and also in Eastern Europe, in China, and wherever communism had triumphed. Expose it he did in all of its genocidal fury, the left's unwillingness to 'fess up to it notwithstanding.
All of this is well established, and Solzhenitsyn's reputation as a giant among writers is secure and unshakeable. Yet there is another side to him that justifies us in breaking the Latin admonition "de mortuis nihil nisi bonum," or not speaking ill of the dead. Contrary to what some in the West have argued, it is not his criticisms of the messiness of democracy, or the libertinism of Western society, that are at issue here, but much graver errors of judgment, such as denying the Holodomor, which he called a "loony fable," years after Robert Conquest's magisterial Harvest of Sorrow established the facts of this Stalinist genocide in Ukraine beyond doubt. Or the fact that for over 100 million Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, Romanians, Bulgarians, and other Eastern Europeans, Solzhenitsyn remains a Russian imperialist par excellence and, as such, a mortal danger of the first order. Nor is his devotion to the Russian Orthodox church, for which he is praised by many, a great virtue. That church has always been and remains under Putin a fateful servant of Russian imperialism.
If one was to mark the great writer's sad descent into an apologist for the thugs ruling over Russia today, a good place to start is his return to Russia in the Summer of 1994. Traveling by train from Vladivostok to Moscow, Solzhenitsyn accepted to be squired everywhere by militia cars with blazing sirens and lights like a communist mandarin and then to settle in the exclusive dacha settlement Sosnovka for Soviet leaders and oligarchs. (Link is in Russian.) Things went downhill fast from there. Solzhenitsyn first denounced the reformers Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar as thieves and then threw his support behind Putin after 2006. He did so in words that barely distinguished him from Putin's own malignant propaganda. In just one example, Solzhenitsyn parroted Putin's nonsense about NATO's willful encirclement of Mother Russia that was just about to rob it of its sovereignty. In doing this, willingly or not, the famous author contributed to the creeping re-Stalinization of Russia under Putin.
The end result of all of this is that as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the greatest intellectual enemy of communist totalitarianism, fewer and fewer people remember him or read his books. A recent Russian poll indicates that only 44% of the 18- to 24-year-old cohort have ever heard of Stalin's murderous repressions, and 43% of those who have think they were justified, and 63% are in favor of having Stalin's bust displayed in Russia. The author of The Gulag Archipelago may be turning in his grave, but there is no question that he is at least partly to blame for this sad outcome.
Alex Alexiev is chairman of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies (cbbss.org) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: Kremlin.ru.