December 11, 2007

Solzhenitsyn's Birthday

[This commentary appeared on Vermont Public Radio on December 11. To hear the streaming audio, visit the VPR page.]

For 18 years, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - writer, Nobel laureate and political dissident - lived with his family in Cavendish, Vermont. Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 for cataloguing the crimes of the Gulag, he spent long days at the family's Vermont home, writing and researching, his isolation and seclusion protected by his wife.

I have been thinking about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn this past week. Not just because today (December 11) is his 89th birthday. No, I have been thinking about Solzhenitsyn because of Russia's recent election. I have been wondering why the 20th century's most famous dissident has not spoken out against the increasing intolerance of dissent in Russian society, against crackdowns on the media, against the liquidation of political opposition.

The answer, I believe, tells us much about where Russia is today, and about where it may be going.

In September of 2000, soon after Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president, Putin and Solzhenitsyn met for the first time. Back then, the Western press saw Putin as a Westernizer - moderate in his relations with the West, an advocate of human rights and of a market economy. Solzhenitsyn, in contrast, was painted as "a potential adversary" to Putin - what Russia-watchers call a Slavophile, someone who feels Russia has a special role in history, who feels Russia should not follow the same path as the "decadent West." He advocates a strong state and a powerful Orthodox Church. He sees Russia as encircled by hostile powers, and condemns the "moral vacuum" of secular Western societies.

Since 2000, the West has gradually come to realize that the Putin it saw back then was a figment of its imagination. In fact, over the last eight years, Putin's opinions and actions have increasingly reflected Solzhenitsyn's nationalistic, Slavophile views. This summer, Putin awarded Solzhenitsyn a State Award for humanitarian achievement, saying that "millions of people around the world associate" Solzhenitsyn's name and work "with the very fate of Russia itself."

But unfortunately the fate of Russia is this: yesterday's reformers now call for a Strong State and warn of Western conspiracies. Nationalistic youth groups harass minorities and foreigners. Politicial pluralism is ridiculed. Opposition leaders are imprisoned. Muckrakers are murdered.

To understand all this, we should remember that Russia never reckoned with its communist past, with the 40 million citizens murdered in Gulags, in state-orchestrated famines, genocides, war and deportations. In short, it never reckoned with the horrors Solzhenitsyn wrote about. Nazi Germany had the Nuremburg Trials, South Africa has its Peace and Reconciliation process. But the Soviet Union held no one to account.

Today, Russia chooses to look forward, not back. As a result, Russians do not feel the echo of history in today's rising intolerance and nationalism. Nor do they see the societal benefits of dissent.

Certainly this is something Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered much for his dissent, could speak to.

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