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Solzhenitsyn on the crisis of materialism

‘We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism’.

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Solzhenitsyn on humanism and its consequences

‘ … in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the Twentieth century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the Nineteenth Century’.

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Solzhenitsyn on the Western way of life

‘But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.

A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being. Therefore if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores. It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.

All this is visible to observers from all the worlds of our planet. The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.

There are meaningful warnings that history gives a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, the decadence of art, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.

But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?’

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Solzhenitsyn on the direction of freedom

‘Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

And what shall we say about the dark realm of criminality as such? Legal frames (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are many such cases’.

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Solzhenitsyn on the legalism that kills

‘Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure’.

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Solzhenitsyn on a decline in courage

Apart from having a vodka or two, giving thanks to God, and spending some time today reading Solzhenitsyn, I wanted to find some other way to honour the life of a man who has taught me so much and with whose story I have journeyed so intimately. [The fact that my paternal grandmother is Russian and has lived under some of the same conditions as Solzhenitsyn brings his words just a little closer to home for me.] So over the next few days, I will post some excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s famous lecture – ‘A World Split Apart’ – delivered at Harvard University in 1978. The entire lecture can be downloaded here. Here’s Solzhenitsyn on courage:

‘A decline in courage [. . .] may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists. Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?’ – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008): Requiescat in pace

What an enormously courageous and prophetically-astute witness Solzhenitsyn has been to those with ears to hear. Appropriately, tributes are appearing all over the place to honour his life and work. He passed away today at the age of 89:

The obituary in the Chicago Tribune reads: MOSCOW (AP) — Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system, died Sunday. He was 89.

His son, Stepan Solzhenitsyn, said his father died of heart failure.

Solzhenitsyn’s unflinching accounts of torment and survival in the Soviet Union’s slave labor camps riveted his countrymen, whose secret history he exposed. They earned him 20 years of bitter exile but international renown and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

Beginning with the 1962 short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Solzhenitsyn devoted himself to describing the human “meat grinder” that had caught him and millions of other Soviet citizens: capricious arrests, often for trifling and absurd reasons, followed by sentences to slave labor camps where cold, starvation and punishing work crushed inmates physically and spiritually.

His “Gulag Archipelago” trilogy of the 1970s shocked readers by describing the savagery of the Soviet state under dictator Josef Stalin. It helped erase sympathy for the Soviet Union among many leftist intellectuals.

But his account of that secret system of prison camps was also inspiring in its description of how one person — Solzhenitsyn himself — survived, physically and spiritually, in a penal system of soul-crushing hardship and injustice.

The West offered him shelter and accolades. But Solzhenitsyn’s refusal to bend despite enormous pressure, perhaps, also gave him the courage to criticize Western culture for what he considered its weakness and decadence.

Here’s some excerpts from his works:

‘We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. It is for this reason, and not because of the ‘weakness of indoctrinational work,’ that they are growing up ‘indifferent.’ Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity’. – The Gulag Archipelago, 1973

‘Standing there to be counted through the gate of an evening, back in camp after a whole day of buffeting wind, freezing cold and an empty belly, the zek longs for his ladleful of scalding hot watery evening soup as for rain in time of drought. He could knock it back in a single gulp. For the moment that ladleful means more to him than freedom, more than his whole past life, more than whatever life is left to him’. - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written 1959, published 1962

‘He had drawn many a thousand of these rations in prisons and camps, and … he knew no way of standing up for his rights, he, like every other prisoner, had discovered long ago that honest weight was never to be found in the bread-cutting. There was short weight in every ration. The only point was how short. So every day you took a look to soothe your soul – today, maybe, they haven’t snitched any’. – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962

‘And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut …’. – The Gulag Archipelago, 1973

‘On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13. Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov had never been and could never be a superstitious person, but his heart sank when they wrote ‘Wing 13′ on his admission card. They should have had the ingenuity to assign number 13 to some kind of prosthetic or intestinal department’. – Cancer Ward, 1968

‘Sending ‘Gulag’ would be a rash, a very risky, business, but opportunities were few … Right, I would send it. The heart had surfaced from one anxiety only to plunge into another … Two novels of mine appearing simultaneously in the West? A double? I felt like the Hawaiian surf riders described by Jack London, standing upright on a smooth board … on the crest of the ninth wave …’. – The Oak and the Calf, 1980

‘Until I came to the West myself and spent two years looking around, I could never have imagined to what an extreme degree the West had actually become a world without a will, a world gradually petrifying in the face of the danger confronting it…All of us are standing on the brink of a great historical cataclysm, a flood that swallows up civilization and changes whole epochs’. – Testimony to the U.S. Congress, July 8 1975.

And in speech delivered at Harvard in June 8, 1978, he described the problems of both East and West as ‘a disaster’ rooted in agnosticism and atheism. They are ‘the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness … It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility’.

An interview with Solzhenitsyn

Der Spiegel have published this absolutely fascinating interview with Aleksander Solzhenitsyn [who, sadly, died today]:

SPIEGEL: Alexander Isayevich, when we came in we found you at work. It seems that even at the age of 88 you still feel this need to work, even though your health doesn’t allow you to walk around your home. What do you derive your strength from?

Solzhenitsyn: I have always had that inner drive, since my birth. And I have always devoted myself gladly to work — to work and to the struggle.

SPIEGEL: There are four tables in this space alone. In your new book “My American Years,” which will be published in Germany this fall, you recollect that you used to write even while walking in the forest.

Solzhenitsyn: When I was in the gulag I would sometimes even write on stone walls. I used to write on scraps of paper, then I memorized the contents and destroyed the scraps.

SPIEGEL: And your strength did not leave you even in moments of enormous desperation?

Solzhenitsyn: Yes. I would often think: Whatever the outcome is going to be, let it be. And then things would turn out all right. It looks like some good came out of it.

SPIEGEL: I am not sure you were of the same opinion when in February 1945 the military secret service arrested Captain Solzhenitsyn in Eastern Prussia. Because, in his letters from the front, Solzhenitsyn was unflattering about Josef Stalin, and the sentence for that was eight years in the prison camps.

Solzhenitsyn: It was south of Wormditt. We had just broken out of a German encirclement and were marching to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) when I was arrested. I was always optimistic. And I held to and was guided by my views.

SPIEGEL: What views?

Solzhenitsyn: Of course, my views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against my conscience.

SPIEGEL: Thirteen years ago when you returned from exile, you were disappointed to see the new Russia. You turned down a prize proposed by Gorbachev, and you also refused to accept an award Yeltsin wanted to give you. Yet now you have accepted the State Prize which was awarded to you by Putin, the former head of the FSB intelligence agency, whose predecessor the KGB persecuted and denounced you so cruelly. How does this all fit together?

Solzhenitsyn: The prize in 1990 was proposed not by Gorbachev, but by the Council of Ministers of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, then a part of the USSR. The prize was to be for “The Gulag Archipelago.” I declined the proposal, since I could not accept an award for a book written in the blood of millions.

In 1998, it was the county’s low point, with people in misery; this was the year when I published the book “Russia in Collapse.” Yeltsin decreed I be honored the highest state order. I replied that I was unable to receive an award from a government that had led Russia into such dire straits.

The current State Prize is awarded not by the president personally, but by a community of top experts. The Council on Science that nominated me for the award and the Council on Culture that supported the idea include some of the most highly respected people of the country, all of them authorities in their respective disciplines. The president, as head of state, awards the laureates on the national holiday. In accepting the award I expressed the hope that the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.

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.

SPIEGEL: All your life you have called on the authorities to repent for the millions of victims of the gulag and communist terror. Was this call really heard?

Solzhenitsyn: I have grown used to the fact that, throughout the world, public repentance is the most unacceptable option for the modern politician.

SPIEGEL: The current Russian president says the collapse of the Soviet Union was the largest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He says it is high time to stop this masochistic brooding over the past, especially since there are attempts “from outside,” as he puts it, to provoke an unjustified remorse among Russians. Does this not just help those who want people to forget everything that took place during the county’s Soviet past?

Solzhenitsyn: Well, there is growing concern all over the world as to how the United States will handle its new role as the world’s only superpower, which it became as a result of geopolitical changes. As for “brooding over the past,” alas, 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.

SPIEGEL: Including the Russians.

Solzhenitsyn: 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.

SPIEGEL: To accept one’s guilt presupposes that one has enough information about one’s own past. However, historians are complaining that Moscow’s archives are not as accessible now as they were in the 1990’s.

Solzhenitsyn: It’s a complicated issue. There is no doubt, however, that a revolution in archives took place in Russia over the last 20 years. Thousands of files have been opened; the researchers now have access to hundreds and thousands of previously classified documents. Hundreds of monographs that make these documents public have already been published or are in preparation. Alongside the declassified documents of the 1990′s, there were many others published which never went through the declassification process. Dmitri Volkogonov, the military historian, and Alexander Yakovlev, the ex-member of the Politburo — these people had enough influence and authority to get access to any files, and society is grateful to them for their valuable publications.

As for the last few years, no one has been able to bypass the declassification procedure. Unfortunately, this procedure takes longer than one would like. Nevertheless the files of the country’s most important archives, the National Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF), are as accessible now as in the 1990’s. The FSB sent 100,000 criminal- investigation materials to GARF in the late 1990s. These documents remain available for both citizens and researchers. In 2004-2005 GARF published the seven-volume “History of Stalin’s Gulag.” I cooperated with this publication and I can assure you that these volumes are as comprehensive and reliable as they can be. Researchers all over the world rely on this edition.

SPIEGEL: About 90 years ago, Russia was shaken first by the February Revolution and then by the October Revolution. These events run like a leitmotif through your works. A few months ago in a long article you reiterated your thesis once again: Communism was not the result of the previous Russian political regime; the Bolshevik Revolution was made possible only by Kerensky’s poor governance in 1917. If one follows this line of thinking, then Lenin was only an accidental person, who was only able to come to Russia and seize power here with German support. Have we understood you correctly?

Solzhenitsyn: No, you have not. Only an extraordinary person can turn opportunity into reality. Lenin and Trotsky were exceptionally nimble and vigorous politicians who managed in a short period of time to use the weakness of Kerensky’s government. But allow me to correct you: the “October Revolution” is a myth generated by the winners, the Bolsheviks, and swallowed whole by progressive circles in the West. On Oct. 25, 1917, a violent 24-hour coup d’etat took place in Petrograd. It was brilliantly and thoroughly planned by Leon Trotsky — Lenin was still in hiding then to avoid being brought to justice for treason. What we call “the Russian Revolution of 1917” was actually the February Revolution.

The reasons driving this revolution do indeed have their source in Russia’s pre-revolutionary condition, and I have never stated otherwise. The February Revolution had deep roots — I have shown that in “The Red Wheel.” First among these was the long-term mutual distrust between those in power and the educated society, a bitter distrust that rendered impossible any compromise, any constructive solutions for the state. And the greatest responsibility, then, of course falls on the authorities: Who if not the captain is to blame for a shipwreck? So you may indeed say that the February Revolution in its causes was “the results of the previous Russian political regime.”

But this does not mean that Lenin was “an accidental person” by any means; or that the financial participation of Emperor Wilhelm was inconsequential. There was nothing natural for Russia in the October Revolution. Rather, the revolution broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.

SPIEGEL: Your recent two-volume work “200 Years Together” was an attempt to overcome a taboo against discussing the common history of Russians and Jews. These two volumes have provoked mainly perplexity in the West. You say the Jews are the leading force of global capital and they are among the foremost destroyers of the bourgeoisie. Are we to conclude from your rich array of sources that the Jews carry more responsibility than others for the failed Soviet experiment?

Solzhenitsyn: I avoid exactly that which your question implies: I do not call for any sort of scorekeeping or comparisons between the moral responsibility of one people or another; moreover, I completely exclude the notion of responsibility of one nation towards another. All I am calling for is self-reflection.

You can get the answer to your question from the book itself: “Every people must answer morally for all of its past — including that past which is shameful. Answer by what means? By attempting to comprehend: How could such a thing have been allowed? Where in all this is our error? And could it happen again? It is in that spirit, specifically, that it would behoove the Jewish people to answer, both for the revolutionary cutthroats and the ranks willing to serve them. Not to answer before other peoples, but to oneself, to one’s consciousness, and before God. Just as we Russians must answer — for the pogroms, for those merciless arsonist peasants, for those crazed revolutionary soldiers, for those savage sailors.”

SPIEGEL: In our opinion, out of all your works, “The Gulag Archipelago” provoked the greatest public resonance. In this book you showed the misanthropic nature of the Soviet dictatorship. Looking back today, can you say to what extent it has contributed to the defeat of communism in the world?

Solzhenitsyn: You should not address this question to me — an author cannot give such evaluations.

SPIEGEL: To paraphrase something you once said, the dark history of the 20th century had to be endured by Russia for the sake of mankind. Have the Russians learned the lessons of the two revolutions and their consequences?

Solzhenitsyn: It seems they are starting to. A great number of publications and movies on the history of the 20th century — albeit of uneven quality — are evidence of a growing demand. Quite recently, the state-owned TV channel “Russia” aired a series based on Varlam Shalamov’s works, showing the terrible, cruel truth about Stalin’s camps. It was not watered down.

And, for instance, since last February I have been surprised and impressed by the large-scale, heated and long-lasting discussions that my previously written and now republished article on the February Revolution has provoked. I was pleased to see the wide range of opinions, including those opposed to mine, since they demonstrate the eagerness to understand the past, without which there can be no meaningful future.

SPIEGEL: How do you assess the period of Putin’s governance in comparison with his predecessors Yeltsin and Gorbachev?

Solzhenitsyn: Gorbachev’s administration was amazingly politically naïve, inexperienced and irresponsible towards the country. It was not governance but a thoughtless renunciation of power. The admiration of the West in r eturn only strengthened his conviction that his approach was right. But let us be clear that it was Gorbachev, and not Yeltsin, as is now widely being claimed, who first gave freedom of speech and movement to the citizens of our country.

Yeltsin’s period was characterized by a no less irresponsible attitude to people’s lives, but in other ways. In his haste to have private rather than state ownership as quickly as possible, Yeltsin started a mass, multi-billion-dollar fire sale of the national patrimony. Wanting to gain the support of regional leaders, Yeltsin called directly for separatism and passed laws that encouraged and empowered the collapse of the Russian state. This, of course, deprived Russia of its historical role for which it had worked so hard, and lowered its standing in the international community. All this met with even more hearty Western applause.

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.

SPIEGEL: It has gradually become clear to everyone that the stability of Russia is of benefit to the West. But there is one thing that surprises us in particular: When speaking about the right form of statehood for Russia, you were always in favor of civil self- government, and you contrasted this model with Western democracy. After seven years of Putin’s governance we can observe totally the opposite phenomenon: Power is concentrated in the hands of the president, everything is oriented toward him.

Solzhenitsyn: Yes, 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. In Yeltsin’s time, local self-government was actually barred on the regulatory level, whereas the state’s “vertical of power” (i.e. Putin’s centralized and top-down administration) is delegating more and more decisions to the local population. Unfortunately, this process is still not systematic in character.

SPIEGEL: But there is hardy any opposition.

Solzhenitsyn: Of course, an opposition is necessary and desirable for the healthy development of any country. You can scarcely find anyone in opposition, except for the communists, just like in Yeltsin’s times. However, when you say “there is nearly no opposition,” you probably mean the democratic parties of the 1990s. But if you take an unbiased look at the situation: there was a rapid decline of living standards in the 1990s, which affected three quarters of Russian families, and all under the “democratic banner.” Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore. And now the leaders of these parties cannot even agree on how to share portfolios in an illusory shadow government. It is regrettable that there is still no constructive, clear and large-scale opposition in Russia. The growth and development of an opposition, as well as the maturing of other democratic institutions, will take more time and experience.

SPIEGEL: During our last interview you criticized the election rules for State Duma deputies, because only half of them were directly elected in their constituencies, whereas the other half, representatives of the political parties, were dominant. After the election reform made by president Putin, there is no direct constituency at all. Is this not a step back?

Solzhenitsyn: Yes, I think it is a mistake. I am a convinced and consistent critic of “party-parliamentarism.” I am for non-partisan elections of true people’s representatives who are accountable to their regions and districts; and who in case of unsatisfactory work can be recalled. I do understand and respect the formation of groups on economical, cooperative, territorial, educational, professional and industrial principles, but I see nothing organic in political parties. Politically motivated ties can be unstable and quite often they have selfish ulterior motives. Leon Trotsky said it accurately during the October Revolution: “A party that does not strive for the seizure of power is worth nothing.” We are talking about seeking benefit for the party itself at the expense of the rest of the people. This can happen whether the takeover is peaceful or not. Voting for impersonal parties and their programs is a false substitute for the only true way to elect people’s representatives: voting by an actual person for an actual candidate. This is the whole point behind popular representation.

SPIEGEL: In spite of high revenues from oil and gas exports, in spite of the development of a middle class, there is a vast contrast between rich and poor in Russia. What can be done to improve the situation?

Solzhenitsyn: I think the gap between the rich and the poor is an extremely dangerous phenomenon in Russia and it needs the immediate attention of the state. Although many fortunes were amassed in Yeltsin’s times by ransacking, the only reasonable way to correct the situation today is not to go after big businesses — the present owners are trying to run them as effectively as they can — but to give breathing room to medium and small businesses. That means protecting citizens and small entrepreneurs from arbitrary rule and from corruption. It means investing the revenues from the national natural resources into the national infrastructure, education and health care. And we must learn to do so without shameful theft and embezzlement.

SPIEGEL: Does Russia need a national idea, and what might it look like?

Solzhenitsyn: The term “national idea” is an unclear one. One might think of it as a widely shared understanding among a people as to the desired way of life in their country, an idea that holds sway over the population. A unifying concept like that can be useful, but should never be created artificially or imposed top-down by the powers-that-be.

Over the latest historical periods these concepts have been developed in France, for example after the eighteenth century, in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Poland etc. When the whole discussion of “developing a national idea” hastily began in post-Soviet Russia, I tried to pour cold water on it with the objection that, after all the devastating losses we had experienced, it would be quite sufficient to have just one task: the preservation of a dying people.

SPIEGEL: But Russia often finds itself alone. Recently relations between Russia and the West have gotten somewhat colder, and this includes Russian-European relations. What is the reason? What are the West’s difficulties in understanding modern Russia?

Solzhenitsyn: I can name many reasons, but the most interesting ones are psychological, i.e. the clash of illusory hopes against reality. This happened both in Russia and in 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. 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.

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.

SPIEGEL: The West associated it with the ex-superpower, the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn: Which is too bad. 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.”

SPIEGEL: You have read Goethe, Schiller and Heine in the original German, and you have always hoped that Germany would be something of a bridge between Russia and the rest of the world. Do you believe Germans can still play this role?

Solzhenitsyn: I do. There is something predetermined in the mutual attraction between Germany and Russia. Otherwise, this attraction would not have survived two ghastly World Wars.

SPIEGEL: Which German poets, writers and philosophers have influenced you the most?

Solzhenitsyn: Schiller and Goethe were very much present in my childhood and adolescence. Later I was drawn by Schelling. I highly appreciate the great German musical tradition. I can’t imagine my life without Bach, Beethoven and Schubert.

SPIEGEL: The West knows nearly nothing about modern Russian literature. What is, in your opinion, the situation in Russian literature today?

Solzhenitsyn: Periods of rapid and fundamental change were never favorable for literature. Significant works, not to mention great works, have nearly always and everywhere been created in periods of stability, be it a good or a bad stability. Modern Russian literature is no exception. The educated reader today is much more interested in non-fiction — memoirs, biographies, and documentary prose. However, I do believe that justice and conscience will not be cast to the four winds, but will remain in the foundations of Russian literature, so that it may be of service in brightening our spirit and enhancing our comprehension.

SPIEGEL: The idea of the influence of Orthodox Christianity on the Russian world can be traced throughout your works. What is the moral qualification of the Russian church? We think it is turning into a state church today, just like it was centuries ago — an institution that in practice legitimizes the head of Kremlin as the representative of God.

Solzhenitsyn: On the contrary, we should be surprised that our church has gained a somewhat independent position during the very few years since it was freed from total subjugation to the communist government. 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. As for “legitimizing the head of Kremlin,” do you mean the funeral service for Yeltsin in the main cathedral and the decision not to hold a civil funeral ceremony?

SPIEGEL: That too.

Solzhenitsyn: Well, it was probably the only way to keep in check public anger, which has not fully subsided, and avoid possible manifestations of anger during the burial. But I see no reason to treat the ceremony as the new protocol for the funerals of all Russian presidents in the future. As far as the past is concerned, our Church holds round-the-clock prayers for the repose of the victims of communist massacres in Butovo near Moscow, on the Solovetsky Islands and other places of mass burials.

SPIEGEL: In 1987 in your interview with SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein you said it was really hard for you to speak about religion in public. What does faith mean for you?

Solzhenitsyn: For me faith is the foundation and support of one’s life.

SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of death?

Solzhenitsyn: No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me — he died at the age of 27 — and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.

SPIEGEL: Anyhow, we wish you many years of creative life.

Solzhenitsyn: No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.

SPIEGEL: Alexander Isayevich, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp.

Source: Der Spiegel