Alexander Solzhenitsyn's signature
To mark the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's memoir of exile, My American Years, the German magazine Der Spiegel recently published an interview with the 88 year-old Russian writer. While many Westerners today argue that Putin's Russia is resurrecting the Soviet Union, Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who actually survived the Gulag, has a very different view of modern Russian history.
A photo of Solzhenitsyn taken upon his release from the Gulag in 1953
In the years since 1994, when he returned to a hero's welcome in post-Soviet Russia, Solzhenitsyn has received both praise and criticism in his homeland. One modern Russian commentator, writing a few months ago here at Russia Blog, described Solzhenitsyn as "an aging prophet hurling thunderbolts". In America, his remarks have often been ignored, especially since his famous commencement address delivered to Harvard University graduates in 1978. In that speech, Solzhenitsyn attacked what he saw as a rising tide of spiritual decay and materialism in the West, which seemed to be losing the will to defend itself and the moral principals that made it great. Needless to say, some people did not care for this jeremiad and have subsequently ignored the old dissident. But regardless of whether one agrees with Solzhenitsyn's worldview, he has certainly earned the right to speak about the state of his country, and to tell the West where he believes Russia has come from and where it is going.
Here are some excerpts from the Der Spiegel article:
On Russia's President, Vladimir Putin:
"Vladimir Putin -- yes, he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag. As for service in foreign intelligence, that is not a negative in any country -- sometimes it even draws praise. George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA, for example..."
"Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible -- a slow and gradual restoration. These efforts were not noticed, nor appreciated, immediately. In any case, one is hard pressed to find examples in history when steps by one country to restore its strength were met favorably by other governments."
On the Need to Build Democracy from the Grassroots Up in Russia:
"I have always insisted on the need for local self-government for Russia, but I never opposed this model to Western democracy. On the contrary, I have tried to convince my fellow citizens by citing the examples of highly effective local self-government systems in Switzerland and New England, both of which I saw first-hand."
"In your question you confuse local self-government, which is possible on the most grassroots level only, when people know their elected officials personally, with the dominance of a few dozen regional governors, who during Yeltsin's period were only too happy to join the federal government in suppressing any local self-government initiatives."
"Today I continue to be extremely worried by the slow and inefficient development of local self-government. But it has finally started to take place."
On Conflating the Russian Federation with the USSR:
"...that conflation of 'Soviet' and 'Russian', against which I spoke so often in the 1970s, has not passed away either in the West, or in the ex-socialist countries, or in the former Soviet republics. The elder political generation in communist countries was not ready for repentance, while the new generation is only too happy to voice grievances and level accusations, with present-day Moscow a convenient target. They behave as if they heroically liberated themselves and lead a new life now, while Moscow has remained communist. Nevertheless, I dare hope that this unhealthy phase will soon be over, that all the peoples who have lived through communism will understand that communism is to blame for the bitter pages of their history."
"If we could all take a sober look at our history, then we would no longer see this nostalgic attitude to the Soviet past that predominates now among the less affected part of our society. Nor would the Eastern European countries and former USSR republics feel the need to see in historical Russia the source of their misfortunes."
"One should not ascribe the evil deeds of individual leaders or political regimes to an innate fault of the Russian people and their country. One should not attribute this to the 'sick psychology' of the Russians, as is often done in the West. All these regimes in Russia could only survive by imposing a bloody terror. We should clearly understand that only the voluntary and conscientious acceptance by a people of its guilt can ensure the healing of a nation. Unremitting reproaches from outside, on the other hand, are counterproductive."
On How Russians View the West:
"When I returned to Russia in 1994, the Western world and its states were practically being worshipped. Admittedly, this was caused not so much by real knowledge or a conscious choice, but by the natural disgust with the Bolshevik regime and its anti-Western propaganda."
"This mood started changing with the cruel NATO bombings of Serbia [in 1999]. It's fair to say that all layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings. The situation then became worse when NATO started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by literally millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one fell stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc."
"So, the perception of the West as mostly a 'knight of democracy' has been replaced with the disappointed belief that pragmatism, often cynical and selfish, lies at the core of Western policies. For many Russians it was a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals."
On Why the West Needs a Strong Russia:
"At the same time the West was enjoying its victory after the exhausting Cold War, and observing the 15-year-long anarchy under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In this context it was easy to get accustomed to the idea that Russia had become almost a Third World country and would remain so forever."
"When Russia started to regain some of its strength as an economy and as a state, the West's reaction -- perhaps a subconscious one, based on erstwhile fears -- was panic...but even before that, the West deluded itself -- or maybe conveniently ignored the reality -- by regarding Russia as a young democracy, whereas in fact there was no democracy at all. Of course Russia is not a democratic country yet; it is just starting to build democracy."
"It is all too easy to take Russia to task with a long list of omissions, violations and mistakes....but did not Russia clearly and unambiguously stretch its helping hand to the West after 9/11? Only a psychological shortcoming, or else a disastrous shortsightedness, can explain the West's irrational refusal of this hand.No sooner did the USA accept Russia's critically important aid in Afghanistan than it immediately started making newer and newer demands. As for Europe, its claims towards Russia are fairly transparently based on fears about energy, unjustified fears at that."
"Isn't it a luxury for the West to be pushing Russia aside now, especially in the face of new threats? In my last Western interview before I returned to Russia (for Forbes magazine in April 1994) I said: "If we look far into the future, one can see a time in the 21st century when both Europe and the USA will be in dire need of Russia as an ally."
On the Quiet Revival of the Russian Orthodox Church:
"Do not forget what a horrible human toll the Russian Orthodox Church suffered throughout almost the entire 20th century. The Church is just rising from its knees. Our young post-Soviet state is just learning to respect the Church as an independent institution. The 'Social Doctrine' of the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, goes much further than do government programs. Recently Metropolitan Kirill, a prominent expounder of the Church's position, has made repeated calls for reforming the taxation system. His views are quite different from those of government, yet he airs them in public, on national television..."
For a printable version of the Der Spiegel article, click here.
News clip about Natalya Solzhenitsyn receiving an award from President Putin on behalf of her husband at the Kremlin - and Putin visiting the author at his home. A few years ago, Solzhenitsyn refused to accept an award from Russia's then President Boris Yeltsin, declaring that he could not accept awards from a leader who had brought misery to his people