In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the greatest classic of anti-communist literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” is now compulsory reading in all high schools. We don’t need to like Vladimir Putin. We don’t need to admire him. But we do need to acknowledge that Russia has moved on from the evils of socialism, even as we are in danger of embracing those very same evils.

The recent film, The Death of Stalin, should be shown to all those millions of millennials in the United States who still harbor romantic delusions about communism. According to the findings of a poll, as reported in the Washington Times last year, almost a third of millennials expressed an admiration for Karl Marx and almost a quarter admired Lenin. The same poll showed that millennials are far less likely than previous generations to have a negative view of communism. Only thirty-six percent said they had a “very unfavorable” impression of an ideology which has killed tens of millions of people in the past century. As tragic and comic as this ignorance is, it is no more tragic and comic than the ignorance of those who insist of conflating contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, seeking thereby to reignite the Cold War with its nuclear doomsday option of Mutually Assured Destruction, the acronym of which is quite literally and appropriately MAD!

As a means of exposing those who insist of seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin as a reincarnation of Josef Stalin, it would be good to look at Putin’s relationship with the great Soviet dissident and anti-communist hero, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose centenary we celebrate this year.

On September 20, 2000, Solzhenitsyn met the newly-elected Russian President, Vladimir Putin, for the first time. Mr. Putin was at pains to illustrate that he had Solzhenitsyn’s approval of his government’s policies. A year later, in August 2001, Mr. Putin stated that, prior to his education reforms, documents had been sent to “very different people, known and respected by the country, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.”[i] In spite of such praise, Solzhenitsyn retained his right to criticize the government vociferously. Like the character of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Solzhenitsyn was not a “tame lion.” On the contrary, he was prone to bite the hand that paid him compliments. On December 14, 2000, he made a rare public appearance to accept a humanities award at the French Embassy in Moscow, using the occasion to attack the policies of post-communist Russia. In his acceptance speech, and during the news conference that followed it, he delivered what the Moscow Times described as a “devastating criticism of Boris Yeltsin’s decade.” Nor did Mr. Putin escape his wrath, whom he criticized for making several “political mistakes,” not least of which was Mr. Putin’s recent decision to reinstate the melody of the Soviet hymn as the national anthem.[ii]

In January 2006, billboards, featuring Solzhenitsyn’s bearded and benignly beaming face, appeared all over Moscow advertising the forthcoming broadcast on state television of a film adaptation of his novel, The First Circle. As his grandfatherly features looked out across the Moscow streets it seemed that the face of sanity and sagacity had finally replaced the ominous portrait of Big Brother: the face of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, et cetera ad nauseam, had finally made way for the irrepressible survivor of the Gulag.

The First Circle premiered on January 29 and ran for ten nights. The first episode was the most watched program in the entire nation, narrowly edging out Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3. Fifteen million viewers watched each of the ten episodes, seven and a half hours of viewing, shown without commercial breaks. Solzhenitsyn, now eighty-seven, had written the screenplay and narrated long passages. He was also a consultant during the filming, advising the crew on how to recreate the claustrophobic environment of the Gulag. He was pleased with the result, and the film’s director, Gleb Panfilov, reported that Solzhenitsyn had tears in his eyes when he saw the edited version.[iii]

On June 5, 2007, President Putin signed a decree honouring Solzhenitsyn “for exemplary achievements in the area of humanitarian activities.” Responding to news of the award on her husband’s behalf, Natalia Solzhenitsyn told reporters that he hoped that Russia would “learn from the lessons of destroying itself in the twentieth century and never repeat it.”[iv] Solzhenitsyn’s failing health prevented his being able to attend the pomp and circumstance of the official awards ceremony at a hall in the Kremlin on 12 June, his wife once again serving as his representative. Yet, later the same day, as a mark of the respect, Mr. Putin visited Solzhenitsyn’s residence to present the award in person. According to Russian press reports, the two men discussed Solzhenitsyn’s ideas about the political situation in contemporary Russia at some length.[v]

Then as now, many in the West seemed confused and bemused by Solzhenitsyn’s evidently comfortable relationship with Mr. Putin, and some were quick to sense a hypocritical rapprochement between Solzhenitsyn and what they perceived to be the new totalitarianism in Russia. Such misreadings of the man were put to rest by Natalia Solzhenitsyn in mid-June, within days of the award ceremony in Moscow, during her keynote address at an international Solzhenitsyn conference at the University of Illinois. Among the many aspects of modern Russia with which her husband “by no means agrees” were the party-dominated nature of the legislature, the absence of meaningful local self-government and the rampant corruption that continues to plague Russian society.[vi]

In an endeavor to put the Putin-Solzhenitsyn relationship into perspective, Daniel Mahoney, author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology and co-editor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, insisted that it was “a terrible mistake to assume that Solzhenitsyn is an uncritical supporter of the status quo in Russia today.” Nonetheless, “he surely credits Putin for taking on the most unsavoury of the oligarchs, confronting the demographic crisis (it was Solzhenitsyn who first warned in his speech to the Duma in the fall of 1994 that Russians were in the process of dying out), and restoring Russian self-respect (although Solzhenitsyn adamantly opposes every identification of Russian patriotism with Soviet-style imperialism)…. The point is,” Mahoney concluded, “that Solzhenitsyn remains his own man, a patriot and a witness to the truth.”[vii]

In actual fact, although Solzhenitsyn had certainly come in from the cold since his days as a dissident, he was only pursuing in his discussions with Mr. Putin what he had sought to pursue with the Politburo of the Soviet Union thirty-four years earlier in his Letter to Soviet Leaders. The only difference was that Mr. Putin was prepared to listen to Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom, and to discuss it with him in person, whereas the communist old guard had sought to silence him. If Mr. Putin was really prepared to listen to Solzhenitsyn’s warnings about the population implosion caused by the culture of death, or about the need to tackle corruption, or the necessity of strong local democracy, or the difference between true nationalism and chauvinistic imperialism, why should Mr. Putin be criticised for listening or Solzhenitsyn for speaking his mind?

On June 23, 2007, the German weekly magazine, Der Spiegel, published an interview with Solzhenitsyn. Not surprisingly, the recent controversy over his acceptance of an award from Vladimir Putin was one of the key questions asked. The question, and Solzhenitsyn’s reply, warrant quotation in extenso:

Der 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 country’s low point, with people in misery; this was the year when I published the book Russia in Collapse [Russia in the Abyss]. 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 in to 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.

Asked whether the Russian people had learned the lessons of their communist past, Solzhenitsyn responded optimistically, referring to the “great number of publications and movies” on the history of the twentieth century as “evidence of a growing demand” for greater knowledge of the recent past. He was particularly pleased that the state-owned television channel had recently aired a series based on the works of Varlam Shalamov, whose Kolyma Tales is a classic of Gulag literature. The television adaptation showed “the terrible, cruel truth about Stalin’s camps,” said Solzhenitsyn. “It was not watered down.”

Solzhenitsyn also expressed pleasure at “the large-scale, heated and long-lasting discussions” that had followed in the wake of his own republished article on the February Revolution. “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.”

A large part of the interview was devoted to Solzhenitsyn’s perennial desire that Russia develop “local self-government” and his regret that power was too centralized under Mr. Putin’s leadership. He cited his personal experience of local democracy during his years in exile in Switzerland and Vermont and held such models of “highly effective local self-government” worthy of emulation in Russia.

Discussing the cooling of relations between Russia and the West, Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of the history of the previous fifteen years highlighted the sharpness with which he viewed contemporary events. When he had returned to Russia he discovered that the West was “practically being worshipped.” 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.” The positive view of many Russians towards the West began to sour following “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 worsened as NATO sought to widen its influence to the former Soviet republics. “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 disillusionment, a crushing of ideals.”

As for the West, it was “enjoying its victory after the exhausting Cold War” and was observing the anarchy in Russian under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. It seemed as though Russia was becoming “almost a Third World country and would remain so forever.” In consequence, the re-emergence of Russia as a political power caused unease in the West, a panic “based on erstwhile fears.” It was “too bad” that the West was unable to distinguish between Russia and the Soviet Union.

At the beginning of August 2007, barely a week after Der Spiegel had published the interview with Solzhenitsyn, during which he had made reference to the Christian martyrs killed at the hands of the communists at the Butovo cemetery outside Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church sponsored a commemoration of these very martyrs at the cemetery itself. President Putin and his government were conspicuous by their absence at the event, a fact for which they were roundly condemned in the Russian press. Three months later, in an apparent act of penance for his earlier sin of omission (if one can use such language about the motives and actions of politicians), Mr. Putin visited Butovo and issued a statement about the evils of ideology and about the millions who had perished at the hands of the communist regime. On the same day, the Orthodox Church canonized hundred of victims of communism.

Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, 2008, a few months short of his ninetieth birthday. Only two weeks later, it was announced that Moscow’s Great Communist Street (ulitsa Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya) was to be re-named “Alexander Solzhenitsyn Street,”[viii] an honour bestowed by a personal decree from President Putin.

On the first anniversary of Solzhenitsyn’s death, Vladimir Putin sent a telegram to his widow in which he described Solzhenitsyn as “a global individual, whose creative and ideological heritage will always hold a special place in the history of Russian literature and in the chronicles of our country.”[ix]

In October 2010, it was announced that The Gulag Archipelago would become required reading for all Russian high school students. In a meeting with Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Mr. Putin described The Gulag Archipelago as “essential reading”: “Without the knowledge of that book, we would lack a full understanding of our country and it would be difficult for us to think about the future.”

What more need be said? In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the greatest classic of anti-communist literature is now compulsory reading in all high schools. If the same could be said of the high schools of the United States, we would not have the endemic historical and political ignorance that has led to the widespread sympathy for communism among young Americans. In light of this, and in light of Mr. Putin’s evident admiration for Solzhenitsyn, let’s not try to pretend that Russia is a communist nation. We don’t need to like Vladimir Putin. We don’t need to admire him. But we do need to acknowledge that Russia has moved on from the evils of socialism, even as we are in danger of embracing those very same evils.

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[i] Pravda, 29 August 2001

[ii] Moscow Times, 14 December 2000

[iii] New York Times, 9 February 2006

[iv] The Moscow, 6 June 2007

[v] Alexis Klimoff, e-mail to the author and others, 12 June 2007

[vi] Daniel Mahoney, a speaker at the Solzhenitsyn conference, e-mail to the author and others, 22 July 2007

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] BBC News website, 18 August 2008

[ix] RIA Novosti (Russian Information Agency Novosti) news despatch, 3 August 2009

The featured image file comes from the website of the President of the Russian Federation and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.  It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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