We should not confuse or conflate Russian President Vladimir Putin with Soviet leaders, such as Josef Stalin. They are as different as the proverbial chalk and cheese. Nowhere is this more evident than the way in which Mr. Putin has shown himself to be a great admirer of the anti-Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The Special Counsel investigation into the nature and extent of the Russian government’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, possibly harming Hillary Clinton’s campaign and thereby helping Donald Trump, is receiving plenty of media attention. It has also united the socialists of the Democratic Party with neo-conservative elements in the GOP prompting a new wave of Russophobia reminiscent of the Cold War. This odd ménage between socialists and conservatives will not surprise those who understand history and its uncanny way of making strange bedfellows. One thinks perhaps of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which united the Soviet Union and the Third Reich in a short-lived peace agreement, or one thinks of the alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States during World War Two. What is more surprising is the way that Russophobia is affecting those who should know better.
Regardless of whether or not the Russian government helped President Trump get elected, we need to understand that modern Russia is not the same beast as the Soviet Union. Indeed, the very fact that Russia can be perceived as siding with Mr. Trump against Mrs. Clinton should cause us to question the presumption and prejudice which conflates modern Russia with the Soviet Union. In similar vein, we should not confuse or conflate Russian President Vladimir Putin with Soviet leaders, such as Josef Stalin. They are as different as the proverbial chalk and cheese and as opposed to each other as are Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Nowhere is this more evident than the way in which Putin has shown himself to be a great admirer of the anti-Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn first met Putin in September 2000 when the latter was newly-elected as Russian President. Wishing to establish his anti-communist credentials, 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.” In January 2006, a film adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s anti-communist novel The First Circle was broadcast on state television, something which would have been utterly unthinkable during the dark days of the Soviet Union. In June 2007, President Putin signed a decree honouring Solzhenitsyn “for exemplary achievements in the area of humanitarian activities.” Solzhenitsyn’s failing health prevented his being able to attend the pomp and circumstance of the official awards ceremony so Mr. Putin, as a mark of respect, visited Solzhenitsyn’s residence later the same day 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. Within days of the award ceremony in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn’s wife, Natalia, during her keynote address at an international Solzhenitsyn conference at the University of Illinois, gave an invaluable insight into the sort of things that her husband might have discussed with Putin during their meeting. 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. (Such evils are not confined to Russia!) In his discussions with Mr. Putin, Solzhenitsyn was reiterating the sort of ideas he had sought to discuss 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.
In November 2007, Mr. Putin visited Butovo cemetery, outside Moscow, the site of mass executions of Christians during the communist era, 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 hundreds of victims of communism.
In August 2008, only two weeks after Solzhenitsyn’s death, Mr. Putin signed a personal decree renaming Moscow’s Great Communist Street (ulitsa Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya) “Alexander Solzhenitsyn Street.” On the first anniversary of Solzhenitsyn’s death, President Putin 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.”
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.” Since it is utterly unthinkable that Solzhenitsyn’s anti-communist classic would ever be adopted as required reading in the socialist-dominated high school system in the United States, we can see that Russian high school students are getting a much better education in the evils of communism than are American high schoolers.
This past December, on the centenary of Solzhenitsyn’s birth, President Putin unveiled a huge statue of Solzhenitsyn in Moscow. In his speech at the unveiling, Mr. Putin condemned the “totalitarian system which brought suffering and severe trials to millions of people,” and praised Solzhenitsyn for his courage in criticizing the Soviet system and for his call for a return to traditional morality. The latter was a reference to Solzhenitsyn’s staunch Christian faith and his call for Russians to look to their traditional religion for moral strength. The centenary of Solzhenitsyn’s birth was “for us,” said Mr. Putin, “not only a day of remembrance and respect, but above all an occasion to revisit his literary, social as well as philosophical heritage, which is woven into the very fabric of the 20th century and continues to be up-to-date—for us, for Russia, and for the world.” Recalling his own personal meetings with Solzhenitsyn, President Putin praised “his wisdom, his prudence and his deep understanding of history.” We’ll let the rest of Mr. Putin’s speech speak for itself:
Solzhenitsyn’s heart and soul, his thoughts were filled in equal measure with pain for the Fatherland and unlimited love for it. These feelings fueled all his work. He clearly delineated the true, genuine, people’s Russia and the totalitarian system, which brought suffering and severe trials to millions of people. But even being in exile, Solzhenitsyn would not tolerate anyone to speak evil or scornfully of his homeland, and opposed any manifestations of Russophobia.
A man of integrity, an exceptionally principled person, Solzhenitsyn never wanted to be comfortable. In his writings, in his literary, journalistic and social activity, he openly and consistently defended his views and convictions, and argued the unconditional value of the morals that provide for a healthy society.
Without understanding the country’s past there can be no meaningful movement into the future, Solzhenitsyn believed. Therefore, he directed his efforts toward finding and designating ways to improve Russia, so that the hardest and most dramatic trials that befell our country would never happen again, so that our multiethnic people would live in dignity and justice.
This is how he saw his mission, his goals and the meaning of his service.
Friends, the centenary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a landmark occasion for the whole country. Many events have been timed to this date to perpetuate the memory of our great compatriot.
One of them is the unveiling of a monument in the writer’s native town of Kislovodsk, and the opening of his memorial museum in Moscow, as well as conferences, exhibitions, lectures, productions and theatrical adaptations of his works in many regions. But the most important thing is that Solzhenitsyn’s voice is still being heard. His thoughts and ideas resonate in people’s minds and hearts.
Popularising his work, encouraging and introducing new young readers to it is the best thing we can and must do to honour his memory. I must certainly express special gratitude to Natalia Solzhenitsyn for her tireless work and her truly invaluable contribution to the preservation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s legacy.
In her own brief speech at the unveiling of her husband’s statue, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow Natalia Solzhenitsyn stressed the Christian symbolism of the statue. Referring to one of Solzhenitsyn’s best known and most loved stories, “Matryona’s Home,” Mrs. Solzhenitsyn said that she was “especially delighted that on the monument’s right side is Matryona, the true Christian who can be found in any village and city across our land.”
Perhaps, with Russophobia on the rise and the warmongers beginning to raise their ugly heads, we should also think of Matryona and the many good Christians in the villages and cities across Russia. Showing solidarity with them and with our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, we should join all men of good will in fighting the culture of death with the love of life. In the face of the unholy alliance of Democrats and neo-conservatives, we should praise the Lord and pray for peace.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, courtesy of Unsplash.