Prophets are supposed to be without honor in their homeland. Yet Moscow has just witnessed the extraordinary sight of Alexander Solzhenitsyn — the once-exiled author of the Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich —– receiving what amounts to a state funeral, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acting as chief mourner.
So, even in death, Solzhenitsyn will, it seems, remain a force to be reckoned with. But will he be a force in keeping with the liberating vistas of his greatest works?
Sadly, art in Russia is always used to reinforce power. Solzhenitsyn was used in this way twice. The paradox is that, in the Soviet era, his art was used as a force for liberation, because Nikita Khrushchev allowed the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in order to buttress his anti-Stalin thaw. In today’s supposedly free Russia, however, Solzhenitsyn is idealized for his nationalism and Orthodox messianism, his contempt for the West’s supposed decadence, all messages that Putin’s regime proclaims loudly and daily.
The old Soviet iconography has broken down completely; despite heroic efforts, not even Putin could restore Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and the old Soviet pantheon. Yet the Kremlin understands that something is needed to replace them as Russia adapts to its new oil-fueled autocracy. Solzhenitsyn, one of the most famous and heroic dissidents of the Soviet era, now seems certain to become a towering figure in the iconography of Putinism.
Throughout his presidency, Putin repeatedly invoked Russia as an ancient, powerful, and divinely ordained state going back a thousand years, a civilization separate from the West, neither Communist nor a Western liberal democracy. That message echoes Solzhenitsyn’s famous commencement address at Harvard in 1978: “Any ancient deeply rooted autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking. For 1,000 years, Russia has belonged to such a category.”
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, he sought to restore culture to a position of primacy in Russia, and to put media in its 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.”