Solzhenitsyn and the Russian Question

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The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn produced predictable reactions from Western commentators. Yes, they said, he was a moral giant for so bravely exposing the evils of the Soviet penitential system in The Gulag Archipelago; but he later compromised his moral stature by failing to like the West and by becoming a Russian nationalist. A perfect example of this reasoning was Anne Applebaum’s piece in The Guardian. Herself the author of a history of the Gulag, she wrote,

In later years, Solzhenitsyn lost some of his stature …thanks to his failure to embrace liberal democracy. He never really liked the west, never really took to free markets or pop culture.

Such comments reveal more about their author than about their subject. We are dealing here with something I propose to call geo-ideology: the alas now widespread prejudice that “West” and “democracy” are identical concepts. In the minds of such commentators, moreover, the “West” is also identical with “free markets” and “pop culture.” The “West,” apparently no longer means “the Christian religion” or even that body of inheritance from the magnificent treasure-house of the cultures of Athens and Rome. Instead it means MTV, coke and Coke. At every level these assumptions are false. Let us start with “free markets,” the endlessly repeated shibboleth of the globalisers. By what possible criterion can Russia be said to have a less free market than the United States of America, or than the majority of European Union member state? One of the key measure of the freedom of a market is the amount of private income consumed by the state. The income tax rate in Russia is fixed at a flat rate of 13% – a fraction of the 25% or so paid in the US, 33% of so paid in the United Kingdom and the 40% or more paid in continental Europe. As for pop culture, Russia unfortunately has plenty of it. Her youth are just as imbued with it, unfortunately, as the youth of Europe and America. The comments also fail to present the reader with any serious analysis of Solzhenitsyn’s political position. The author makes vague and disparaging references to the unsuitability of Solzhenitsyn’s “vision of a more spiritual society” and to his “crusty and old fashioned nationalism” – judgements which appear to owe much to the Soviet propaganda she says she rejects. But she fails to allow the reader to know just what she means. Surely, on the occasion of a man’s death, it might be opportune to tell people about what he thought. Anyone who reads Solzhenitsyn’s astonishing essay from 1995, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century, will see that this caricature is nonsense. There is nothing irrational or mystical about Solzhenitsyn’s political positions at all – and he makes only the most glancing of references to the religion which, we all know, he does indeed hold dear. No, what emerges from this essay is an extremely simple and powerful political position which is easily translated into contemporary American English as “paleo-conservatism.” Solzhenitsyn makes a withering attack on three hundred years of Russian history. Almost no Russian leader emerges without censure (he likes only the Empress Elizabeth [1741–1762] and Tsar Alexander III [1881–1894]); most of them are roundly condemned. One might contest the ferocity of Solzhenitsyn’s attacks but the ideological coherence of them is very clear: he is opposed to leaders who pursue foreign adventures, including empire-building, at the expense of the Russian population itself. This, he says, is what unites nearly all the Tsars since Peter the Great with the Bolshevik leaders. Again and again, in a variety of historical contexts, Solzhenitsyn says that Russia should not have gone to the aid of this or that foreign cause, but should instead have concentrated on promoting stability and prosperity at home.

While we always sought to help the Bulgarians, the Serbs, the Montenegrins, we would have done better to think first of the Belorussians and Ukrainians: with the weighty hand of Empire we deprived them of cultural and spiritual development in their own traditions… the endless wars for Balkan Christians were a crime against the Russian people… The attempt to greater-Russify all of Russia proved damaging not only to the living national traits of all the other ethnicities in the Empire but was foremost detrimental to the greater-Russian nationality itself … The aims of a great Empire and the moral health of the people are incompatible … Holding on to a great Empire means to contribute to the extinction of our own people.

There is literally nothing to separate this view from the anti-interventionist anti-war positions of Pat Buchanan (author of A Republic not an Empire) or Ron Paul. After dealing with both the horrors of Communism, Solzhenitsyn of course turns his attention to the terrible chaos of the post-Communist period. Here again, his concern for the Russian people themselves remains consistent. He writes,

The trouble is not that the USSR broke up – that was inevitable. The real trouble, and a tangle for a long time to come, is that the breakup occurred along false Leninist borders, usurping from us entire Russian provinces. In several days, we lost 25 million ethnic Russians – 18 percent of our entire nation – and the government could not scrape up the courage even to take note of this dreadful event, a colossal historic defeat for Russia, and to declare its political disagreement with it.

Solzhenitsyn is right. One of the most lasting legacies of Leninism, which remains after everything else has been swept away or collapsed, was the decision to create bogus federal entities on the territory of what had been the unitary Russian state. These entities, called Soviet republics, contributed only to the creation of bogus nationalisms and of course to the dilution of Russian nationhood. They were bogus because the republics in question did not, in fact, correspond to ethnic reality: Kazakhs, for instance, are and remain a numerical minority in Kazakhstan, while “Ukraine” is in fact a collection of ancient Russian provinces (especially Kiev) and some Ukrainian ones. This bogus nationalism allowed the Soviet Union to present itself as an international federation of peoples, rather like the European Union today, but it was exploited by Russia’s enemies when the time came to destroy the geopolitical existence of the historic Russian state. This happened when the USSR was unilaterally dissolved by three Republic leaders in December 1991. And this is the key to the West’s hostility to Solzhenitsyn. The man the West exploited to destroy Communism refused to bend the knee to the West’s continuing attempts (largely successful) to destroy Russia herself. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Anne Applebaum, an American citizen, is the wife of the Foreign Minister of Russia’s oldest historical enemy, Poland.

This article originally appeared in The Brussels Journal.

August 12, 2008

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