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December 17, 2003 by AK

Solzhenitsyn turned 85, continued

Solzh is a nationalist in that he centers his analysis of Eurasian politics around what he sees as the interests of the Russian people — or, if we translate Rus’ as Ruthenia, of the Ruthenians. In Rebuilding Russia (Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiyu, 1990), published when the USSR was still there, he recommends Moscow to give immediate independence to all non-Slavic republics but, if possible, keep together the union’s Slavic-speaking core: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (and possibly the multiethnic Kazakhstan where Russian was, and is, in wide use). There are many reasons why this did not happen. Just two sentences from Rebuilding Russia:

We should make a rigid choice between the Empire, which is, first and foremost, bringing our undoing upon ourselves, and spiritual and physical salvation of our people. <...> To keep a great Empire means to exhaust our own people.

.No, Solzhenitsyn is no imperialist. This is what a reviewer has to say about The Russian Question (1995):

“The Russian Question” is a brief (particularly by Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s standards, one hundred and ten pages is incredibly brief) and idiosyncratic look at five hundred years of Russian history, in which Mr. Solzhenitsyn develops the theory that Russia has been at its best when it concerned itself with internal development and at its worst when it pursued expansionist policies.

This is in contrast to what I said earlier: “Authoritarian rule developed largely as a response to these challenges [external threats and the need to access the seas]. When they were gone–by Catherine II’s reign–the despotism evolved into a more enlightened monarchy relying on the support of the privileged landed gentry.” I don’t stand 100% behind this; indeed, there were rudimentary democratic institutions in pre-Petrine Russia, but most were gone by Catherine’s time, while the dictatorship of the landed gentry solidified. Also, one has to distinguish between expansionism and self-defense.

Further in Rebuilding Russia, Solzhenitsyn discusses different varieties of democracy and relationships between democracy and liberty. He ends up favoring “democracy of small spaces”, i.e., the Swiss model where, on the lowest level, direct democracy is still possible. (He recounts, with pleasure, elections in the canton of Appenzell.) For the transition period, Solzh offers a complex two-tier system of government that should prevent the old, centralized bureaucracy from stiffling the fledgling grassroot democracy. But, he keeps reminding us, true freedom is impossible without morality, in particular, voluntary self-limitation of individuals. I don’t see anything anti-democratic about Solzh’s proposals, quite the opposite. But when I, young and foolish, read Rebuilding Russia for the first time, in 1990, it seemed utopian and nonsensical.

Solzhenitsyn has always spoken with sympathy of minorities and peoples oppressed by Moscow (granted, all but Jews); of exiled Chechens, he wrote almost adimiringly. The flip side of his sympathy, however, is a heavy emphasis on the ethnic as opposed to the national. Yet such is his worldview. It is not uniquely Russian; when a Western journalist rushes to declare a Russian thinker/writer a peculiarly local phenomenon, it’s a blooper. Search the pool of Western intellectuals for the past three or five centuries, and you’re bound to find a congenial one to any Russian. When Boris Paramonov, a witty Radio Liberty culture man, claims:

By this spiritual type, Solzhenitsyn is rather a man of European Reformation, a Puritan. He is a person for whom work is a natural and goal-setting form of religious zeal,

he may be wrong in his assessment, but he is right in looking for a similar cultural context outside of Russian history.

TBC


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