As a Catholic and a Pole, it is not easy to translate and publish these letters from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about the Ukraine crisis. Solzhenitsyn writes about a common experience of suffering by Belorussians, Ukrainians and Russians not only at the hands of Communism, but at the hands of Catholicism and Poles. Yet anyone who has studied the 1600s and 1700s and knows something about the troubled and tragic relations between the United Kingdom of Poland and the Russian Empire knows that the suffering Solzhenitsyn writes about is real; no less real than the suffering of Catholic Poles in those times. Now, as then, we are witness to what the Russian mind no doubt sees as another attempt at taking advantage of Russian weakness by planting a False Dimitri into Russian affairs. Anyone who has studied those days, when Polish foreign policy sought to take advantage of a civil war amongst Russian peoples by sending False Dimitris to impersonate Tsars and claim the throne of Russia for themselves will no doubt see a parallel in the present NATO policy of supporting one Ukranian political group over another in a coup that took advantage of Russian and Ukranian weakness. To all those Poles or Americans who will now scream that I am betraying the Catholic and Polish cause by taking the “side” of the “enemy,” I would remind you that the Catholic Cause is the cause of Father Popieluszko, who took the side of his enemy by loving his enemy. It was also the side of a Second Vatican Council that sought to revive the Catholic faith and forever separate the institution of the Church from past avarice.
While Russians are no doubt also guilty of avarice, nothing will be achieved until all sides make amends with one another. Right now, the historic opportunity to move beyond the quarrels of history are being wasted in Ukraine largely because Solzhenitsyn’s appeals for a peaceful resolution, for voting at the local level, for respect for all national minorities, and against historical mythologies combined with unhealthy passions has not been heeded. Understanding is something impossible in War, where only survival and victory are important, and understanding is likely now impossible in southeastern Ukraine. The scars of the present war and its repercussions will determine the course of the next several decades of European history. Let it not be said, however, that everywhere, everyone succumbed to a silly illusion whereby a “resurgent Soviet Union” was to blame, when clearly—hard as it may be for us to so radically shift our paradigms out of Cold War thinking and into the 1600s—this conflict is a resumption of the sad history of those ages that Europe was said to have outgrown and progressed beyond: the ages when people kill one another over language and religion. The sooner we understand that this is the kind of civil war now taking place, the sooner we might have some hope of remedying it. And to those who would intervene: How would Americans, whether Unionists or Confederates, like it if Prussia, Britain, France and Russia decided to take sides in the American Civil War? These final translations of Solzhenitsyn ought to leave no doubt in the minds of Americans that whatever the solution to the Ukraine crisis, it does not rest in Cold War thinking. It rests in understanding the 1600s and the national conflicts in Eastern Europe which preceded Communism. And if Communism has anything to do with this conflict, we should look for lessons not in the Soviet Union, but in the Russian civil war and the Federation of Soviet Republics that preceded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The rest is left to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. –Peter Strzelecki Rieth
Fragment of a letter to the Confederation on Russian-Ukrainian Affairs at the Toronto Institute of Ukrainian Research at Harvard, April 1981, published in Russkoi Mysli 18.06.1981 (published in Russia for the first time in Zvezda in December of 1993):
Esteemed ladies and gentlemen,
My heartfelt thanks for your invitation to the conference. Unfortunately, it has been some years now that my present work has kept me from traveling and partaking in such public events. Your invitation gives me the right, however, to express certain thoughts of mine in written form. I fully agree that Russian-Ukrainian relations are amongst the most important of contemporary problems, at the very least they are essential for our nations. However, I consider it fatal to all if we allow for the excitement of the passions in this matter; the fire of the passions which grows around this matter.
In this present fanning of the flames of the passions, are we not witness to a certain disease we may call “the émigré disease?” It is a certain loss of bearings. If your conference aims for a just dialogue about Russian-Ukrainian affairs, you cannot for a moment lose sight of the relations between nations rather than between groups of émigrés.
I have often said, and will repeat again, that no one can use force to compel some people to remain a part of their country. None of the sides of this conflict can use force, whether against their opponents, against their own people, against the nation, against even the smallest of national minorities which happen to be attached to them—because every minority contains its own minorities. This is why in all cases we must seek to gauge and then respect local opinion. This is why all problems can only be solved by local residents, not by far away émigrés quarreling with one another and deforming all sentiments.
I feel authentic pain at the lack of tolerance present when discussing Russian-Ukrainian relations. (This is fatal to both nations and beneficial only to their enemies.) I feel this pain because I myself am both Russian and Ukrainian in my lineage and, in terms of the relations between these two cultures, I have never noticed any antagonism. I have often written and spoken on the subject of Ukraine and of its nation, of the tragedy of the Holdomor famine. I have many old Ukrainian friends, I have always known about the Russian and Ukrainian suffering which stood in one column as suffering experienced under communism.
In my heart, there is no place for a Russian-Ukrainian conflict and if, God forbid, such a conflict should ignite, I can tell you this: Never, under any circumstance will I go or allow my sons to go and take part in a Russian-Ukrainian war. I pledge this no matter how hard various insane people might try to tempt us into such a war.
“A Word to Ukranians and Belorussians,” written and published in the 1990s in “How to organize Russia”:
I myself am, essentially, half Ukrainian. I spent my early childhood growing up to the rhythm of Ukrainian dialect. I spent most of my time on the war front in the bitter realms of Belarus; a nation whose poverty and hospitality I have come to love. I speak now to both not as a foreigner, but as one of them.
Yes, our nation has been divided into three distinct parts only because of the bitter sorrows of the Mongol invasions and of Polish colonization. These recent ideas, that a separate “Ukrainian nation” has existed since the IX century with a separate non-Russian language are all lies. We—all of us—have our origins in our beloved Kiev, “whence Russia cometh” according to the chronicles of Nestor, and whence Christianity cometh to these lands. We were governed by the same Princes. Jaroslav the Wise divided Kiev, Novogrod and all of the lands from Chernihov do Riazania, Muromu and Bielooziera between his sons. Vladimir Monomah was at once the prince of Kiev and of Rostov-Suzdalsk; and it was there, we saw only unity in service to the Metropolitan Bishops. The nation of Kiev Rus built the Principality of Moscow. In Lithuania, in Poland, the Belorussian inhabitants and the Lower Russians all considered themselves Russians and fought against Polonization and Catholization. Returning these lands to Russia was an operative idea in the minds of all of these people as an ideal of unity.
Yes, it is painful and embarrassing to recall to mind the decrees of Alexander II forbidding the use of the Ukrainian language in publications, and later in literature. But, it did not last long. And it was from these murky relics of the middle ages both in terms of state and church politics that the fall of the Russian state system was brought about.
But the hell raising socialist council from 1917 was also brought about as a compromise by politicians rather than as the result of the express will of the nation. And when it left the Federation, announcing the separation of Ukraine from Russia—it did not ask the nation for its opinion.
I already had the chance to answer the questions posed by Ukrainian nationalist émigrés, who all keep telling the Americans that “Communism is a myth, the world was always threatened by Russia, not by Communists.” In the American Senate, there is a resolution that has existed for 30 years proclaiming that it was “Russia” which occupied China and Tibet. Communism was a “myth” that Russians and Ukrainians all experienced on their own hides in the cellars they were forced into by the Cheka since 1918. It is a “myth” of the sort that destroyed both people and crops. It gave up 29 Russian regions to famine, drought and genocidal hunger between 1921-33. Together, we survived Communist collectivization, whipping, and mass executions. Do these bloody experiences not unite us?
In Austria, already in 1848, the residents of Galicia called their National Council the “High Russian Council.” However, in the partition of Galicia under Austria, due to Austrian poison, there was born this bastardized non-national language called “Ukrainian,” littered with German and Polish words, and the temptation was born to unlearn the Russian language of the Carpathian Ruses. The temptation was born for total Ukrainian separatism. This temptation is visible in the leaders of the Ukrainian émigrés today; in their primitivism and ignorance, in their claim that St. Vladimir was a “Ukrainian.” This is insane madness. They say—Long Live Communism so long as Muscovites are terminated!
Of course, we cannot separate ourselves from the pain felt during the deadly suffering of the Ukraine under Soviet times. But why this coup: to slice off Ukraine (and in an area where old Ukraine never existed, in an area of wild fields where the settlers roamed)—in Novorossiya or Crimea, in the Donbas and almost to the Caspian sea? And if we speak of “national self-determination,” then the nation should decide independently about its fate. Without a universal vote, it is impossible to decide the matter.
Today, separating Ukraine means separating millions of families, millions of people: what a concentration of people! Entire Russian gubernatorial regions with Russians in them, so many people who do not know which of the two nationalities to choose as their own! So many with mixed ethnic roots! And within the population itself there is not even a hint of intolerance between Ukrainians and Russians.
Brothers! Why this brutal division? This is a fantasy of Communist Times. Together we survived the Soviet days; together we found ourselves in the jaws of terror, together we were delivered from those jaws! And over these two centuries; how many excellent men were there at the very crossroads of our cultures. Mychailo Drahomanov said “We are indivisible and unmixable.” With a warm heart and with joy, a great path should be opened for Ukrainian and Belorussian culture; not only on the territory of Ukraine and Belarus, but in Greater Russia itself. Without any coercion; without forced Russification (but also without forced Ukrainization, as took place at the end of the 1920s); without any limits on the development of culture and of schools—schools with both languages available to be learned by children, and with parents free to choose which language their child will learn.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is an image of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1974) by Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo and is licensed under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. It appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.