• Print

Solzhenitsyn and Russian Nationalism: An Interview with Andrei Sinyavsky

Andrei Sinyavsky served six years in Soviet prison camps following his trial in 1966 for publishing his work in the West under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. Since emigrating in 1973, he has lived in France, and recently started, with his wife, the magazine Syntaxis. Sinyavsky agreed to this interview on Solzhenitsyn and the new Russian nationalism after Solzhenitsyn himself had given an interview to the BBC. The text Sinyavsky refers to was published in The Listener of February 15 and 22, 1979.

OLGA CARLISLE: Nationalism can be regarded as a natural reaction to the uniformity of modern life. But right now it appears that Russian nationalism is taking on a new, ominous political significance. I would like to have your thoughts on this subject.

ANDREI SINYAVSKY: The issue of Russian nationalism is all important for me today, and rather painful. My entire life, all my literary activities, are tied to Russia. I feel very close to some of our turn-of-the-century philosophers, like Berdyaev, with their Slavophile tendencies. I am not at all a Westernizer, to use the accepted term. I love the West and I am interested in it, but it is the study of Russian culture which is my profession. Before my arrest, I often traveled with my wife into the depths of Russia, examining icons and ancient manuscripts. Our Russian traditions are very dear to me. However what I observe today of Russian nationalism forces me to reevaluate it, and to look at its wider implications. As everywhere else at this time, in the USSR there is a search for national identity both on the part of Russians and of the minorities the Soviet Union encompasses. Looking at the emerging African countries backed by the Soviet Union, certain republics such as the Ukraine or the Baltic nations ask themselves why they too could not have political autonomy. And indeed, why shouldn’t they?

As far as the Russians are concerned, there is a renewed interest in ancestral traditions, and this is an excellent thing, coming as it does after years of enforced cultural uniformity. A quest for a nation’s roots is going on—historical, religious, literary. However, the Russian nationality is the dominant one within the Soviet Union, and as it did at times before the revolution, the Russian sense of self is becoming very assertive, very insistent. It takes on a chauvinistic cast. There is a lot of hostility toward the rest of the world—toward other Soviet nationalities, toward the West. Toward China also, but that is understandable to some degree. For us China is a caricature of our own past: Mao reminded us of Stalin.

An example of this hostility is the rebirth of anti-Semitism at all levels of government, where it is no longer repressed. It flourishes among the working class, in camps. During my six years as a zek [camp inmate], I got along with everyone except the camp authorities. Yet one day certain zeks who were nationalists presented me with an ultimatum: I had to end my friendship with the Jews in the camp, or else…. These people, Russians and Ukrainians, had collaborated with the Germans. Now they were collaborating with the camp authorities.

Anti-Semitism in daily life has always existed in Russia, but it is new and shocking to find it among educated people also. Within the dissident ranks new passions are being born—intolerance, a renewed yearning for isolationism—that go with a vision of Russia as a theocratic state. I find such sentiments disquieting, even when they are expressed in very high-minded terms, as when Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks. Yet within the emigration no one responds. Many people are in disagreement with the ideas expressed in The Oak and the Calf [an autobiographical work by Solzhenitsyn, soon to be published by Harper and Row], in From Under the Rubble, in the Harvard speech, yet they do not feel free to say it, because it would weaken the public position of a man who is presumed to embody all that is good about Russia today. They will not even discuss their feelings among themselves, and they are especially unwilling to acknowledge them to Westerners—to strangers.

OC: They must feel that to show their dismay would weaken a unanimous stand against Soviet power. When I was a child in Europe before the war, people closed their eyes to the rise of fascism because of their fear of communism.

AS: This sort of attitude prevailed in my childhood also. I grew up in a Soviet family who believed in revolutionary ideals. They said: “We are not in agreement with certain things that are happening in our country, notably with Stalin’s policies, but compared with the greater cause of building communism, this is unimportant. Let us not exacerbate our differences, in fact let us not mention them.” In the name of a distant goal, life itself—people, the concrete well-being of society, the whole complex world of ideas—was destroyed. It is as if at the time of Russia’s great creative flowering in the nineteenth century, people who were united, let’s say, against serfdom, would have also had to agree on every other political, social, and artistic issue. We would simply not have had a great Russian literature. This is a Soviet attitude: “Those who are not with us are against us.” The richness, the multiplicity, the contradictions of the world are denied. No deviations are tolerated because they would serve the enemies. Today no revisionists are allowed in the Soviet Union, not even Leninists: their criticism would strengthen the United States. Lenin’s ideas do not matter, Eurocommunism is a threat….

Now this view of the world excludes any degree of freedom. Personally I find it unacceptable regardless of who will win in the end. The Soviet camp may eventually win, or the West, or no one, but what does it matter? Only people matter, their feelings, the manifestation of human thought, the entire spectrum of human affairs. These are an end in themselves and should not be sacrificed to some abstract cause. Extremist ideas have dominated us too long, they have made too many victims already—our literature, our culture, not to mention the millions killed. That extremist ideas might gain popularity in dissident circles would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago. But here they are, growing rapidly among émigrés, and in the Soviet Union too.

But let us turn to Solzhenitsyn, to his declarations—his articles in From Under the Rubble, The Letter to the Soviet Leaders, the Harvard speech, the interview he gave not long ago to the BBC. His political statements form a progression, they are becoming more and more narrow-minded as years go by. Needless to say, certain facts are evident to everyone, whether on the left or right, such as the enormous significance of the Gulag in revealing the truth about the camps. Yet I am deeply uncomfortable with some of his more recent statements—his judgments about the Third Emigration and the moral right for Russians to emigrate; his vision of Russian destinies, past and present, and his evaluation of the perils ahead; his bestowing of blame on those who allegedly have brought about Russia’s disasters.

And then certain details are revealing, as where he describes in passing in his latest interview his trip to Leningrad. He finds that he is at a loss how to refer to this city. The name Leningrad is unacceptable to him. He dislikes Saint Petersburg as well, although he recognizes that it honors the apostle Peter, and not Peter the Great, of whom he disapproves. Moreover, he is disturbed by its Dutch connotation. This question of names may seem trivial, but I see here what we might call “revolutionary utopianism,” practiced by those who have not yet conquered, but who nevertheless proceed to map out the future for others in minute detail. A Russian tendency: Chernyshevsky, while he wrote his What Is To Be Done? under arrest in the Petropavlovskaya fortress, planned the future of mankind down to what furniture would be used—he wanted it made of shiny aluminum; down to what garters women would wear, which would not interfere with their blood circulation. As one reads on, one is touched and also irritated. Right now our new neo-nationalists plan the future of Russia in the same rigid and meticulous way, devising for example the censorship they will enforce once they are in power. It is of course funny: in camp I heard zeks settling exactly on the manner in which they would control their countrymen’s reading.

But to go back to the names of Russian cities, everybody is tired of the impersonal Soviet names, but what about Petersburg? Never mind its Dutch sound—the name is forever part of Russian literature, from Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman to Biely’s Petersburg. Nevgorod, the name Solzhenitsyn proposes for Leningrad, is arrived at by analogy with Volgograd, a recent Soviet invention. We have here a modern pseudo-Slavonic term, a bit of fake “Style Russe.”

OC: How do you explain Solzhenitsyn’s intolerance of liberals?

AS: It is at the heart of his conception of society. In an autocratic state there is no room for liberals, especially not for liberal intellectuals. It is as basic as Solzhenitsyn’s rejection of Western political pluralism, or of the freedom of the press. The latter may seem incongruous, coming from a man who was saved by the Western press. When he was in the Soviet Union Solzhenitsyn relentlessly demanded that it publicize his fate, but no sooner was he in the West than he began objecting to it. But then there is no question that, like a free press, an intelligentsia is a threat to an autocratic government. When the Soviet state was being built in the Twenties and Thirties, intellectuals were hounded by Bolsheviks, many of whom were intellectuals themselves. They objected to the very vocation of an intelligentsia: to observe, to doubt, to ask questions. We all know that as a rule intellectuals are more interested in freedom than in power. They like to discuss, not to obey. In a healthy society there is a balance between opposition and authority. But in the Soviet Union intellectuals are feared. Solzhenitsyn admires good administrators, good officers—it is a Soviet trait his officer’s mentality is sharply highlighted in certain sections of The Gulag Archipelago. He has no use for men of words—certainly not while there is already such a man—Solzhenitsyn himself.

In Soviet speech, derogatory words about intellectuals abound: intellectuals are “mangy,” they are “flabby.” Now in From Under the Rubble Solzhenitsyn has coined “smatterers.” Not that his criticism of Soviet intellectuals isn’t justified in part. Some lack breadth of culture—how could it be otherwise for those brought up under the Soviet system? Nothing is more typically Soviet than the branding of a given class of people.

OC: What about his attacks against the people who have left Russia since 1968—what is called the Third Emigration?

AS: Speaking crudely, I would say that what Solzhenitsyn wants is the Third Emigration to shut up. In his mind it has no right to exist. It is made up of people who have left the USSR voluntarily—while he was banished against his will and this confers upon him some sort of privilege. As far as he is concerned, to leave Russia by choice is an act of betrayal which negates one’s right to speak out. As if there was a fundamental difference between being thrown out of Russia bodily, or being blackmailed into leaving, as was the case with so many recent émigrés! In the First Emigration, who cared if Bunin left voluntarily while Berdyaev was thrown out? To insinuate that recent émigrés are traitors is a very Soviet way to discredit them: from the point of view of the Soviet authorities, to emigrate from the USSR is treasonable. The idea that people may want to leave their country, not for personal gain but because they are seeking the freedom to pursue a spiritual life of their own choosing—to be at last able to write and to speak freely—makes no sense to Solzhenitsyn. These are the very freedoms which will not exist in the Russia he plans for us. Speaking of departures, I take a positive view even of exchanges of Soviet spies against Soviet dissenters. It is a dreadful kind of slave trade, but the more people go free, the better it is…. To the famous question of a few years ago: “Will the Soviet Union survive till 1984?” I’ll answer—yes, as long as there are enough Jews for the Soviet Union to trade off.

As for Solzhenitsyn’s attitude about the Third Emigration, it is also linked to his notion of a forthcoming moral revolution. In his view it is imminent in the USSR, a conviction he expressed in one of his essays in From Under the Rubble. Although recently he has somehow lengthened his projections regarding it. Under the influence of his Gulag and of some of his other writings, such as The Letter to the Soviet Leaders, within a few short years the moral order in Russia will be revolutionized: a new ethic will prevail. But even the New Testament did not transform the world that rapidly—the greatest book will not change the world overnight.

OC: Yet The Gulag Archipelago made a sensation when it appeared. It has been tremendously influential in our appreciation of the USSR.

AS: Yes, it has, but then the Gulag did not arrive alone in the West. People came also, thousands of them, who are living witnesses of the Gulag. Before that, there were other influential books which prepared the new climate in the West—Doctor Zhivago was one which started opening people’s eyes to what was going on in the Soviet Union. Needless to say, Gulag is unique, if only because of its prodigious scope. Solzhenitsyn succeeded magnificently in synthesizing a collective experience and giving it a voice. But let us not forget that most of the pressures aimed at trying to improve things behind the Iron Curtain come from the very same liberal Western intelligentsia that Solzhenitsyn so misjudges when he says: “…there is the American intellectuals’ great sympathy for socialism and communism. They almost all live and breathe it.”

OC: Do you think that Solzhenitsyn is anti-Semitic?

AS: Not particularly, psychologically speaking. Solzhenitsyn’s feelings in the matter are colored by his conception of history. Since he sees prerevolutionary Russia as an almost ideal state—certainly far superior to any Western democracy today—he can explain its collapse only by evil outside forces. Marxism came to Russia from the West; Lenin returned to Russia from Switzerland; a part of the Bolshevik leadership was Jewish; Lettish regiments helped Lenin with his coup d’état…. The revolution was a plot engineered by powers alien to Russia. In my opinion, in addition to being humiliating for the Russian people, this conception is in contradiction with historic evidence. How could a handful of strangers subjugate a country as huge as Russia? It was all far more complicated than Solzhenitsyn would have it. As for the notion that the Jews fomented revolutionary trouble, it was first spread at the turn of the century by the tsarist secret police—by the Black Hundred. As a matter of fact, the Jews who became revolutionaries gave up their Jewish identity completely to serve the revolution. The idea of a Jewish plot against the integrity of Russia is absurd, an old myth of the far right.

OC: What do you think of Solzhenitsyn’s ideas about the Russia Revolution? How will they affect our view of Russian history?

AS: As a novelist writing about that period, Solzhenitsyn is entitled to any point of view he chooses to adopt. Let him be successful artistically—this alone matters. Take Tolstoy—he wrote his triumphant War and Peace and we see the beginning of nineteenth-century Russia through the prism of his vision. This does not cause us to share his historical conceptions. I want to stress that I value very highly One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the Gulag. I think that these works have done a lot of good. I see Solzhenitsyn as a very complex personality. From the beginning he exhibited certain traits which I found offensive, and these have come forth in his recent declarations. Yet this has no bearing on his future novels. Writers with the strangest ideas have written magnificently, particularly Russian writers. Rather I question his wisdom as a critic and his notion of one’s social origins as being somehow decisive for one’s accomplishment as a writer. In his recent interview Solzhenitsyn speaks of our current Soviet peasant writers who have reached “such a level of poetic, rich, popular language, the level to which our Russian classic writers aspired, but which they never achieved, not Turgenev, nor Nekrasov, nor even Tolstoy. And the reason why they could not achieve it was that they themselves were not peasants.”

Now this is vulgar Marxism. This viewpoint is completely unacceptable to me. There is no doubt that over the years there were several important writers in Russia who were peasants, such as the great Sergei Yesenin. This is not to say however that our classic writers wrote inadequately about peasants! In all of Russian literature, no one has brought to life Russian peasantry more brilliantly than the aristocratic Pushkin. I am distressed by this kind of reasoning which leads to extreme over-simplification. According to it, Shakespeare cannot have written successfully about kings, because he himself was not a king. This view would nullify Solzhenitsyn’s own efforts to describe World War One, an event in which he did not participate. Yet it is an old idea of his, he mentions it in his Gulag apropos Yuri Tynyanov, the “formalist” writer of the Twenties, whose re-creation of the early nineteenth century he finds unconvincing.

Personally, I am not alarmed by Solzhenitsyn’s idiosyncratic view of the past as expressed in his novels. What of it if he detests liberalism and presents the socialist leader Milyukov as the villain behind the Russian Revolution? Surely this will not cause Western readers to reject their own liberal leaders. The impact of novels is different from that of speech making and pamphleteering, and the issuing of directives and programs. But to placate your fears about Russian history—at this moment two very serious émigré historians, Nekritch and Ginger, are collaborating on a new history of precisely this period in Russia.

OC: Please tell me about the Russian magazine commemorating Alexander Ginzburg’s Syntaxis, which you and your wife have started publishing in Paris.

AS: Syntaxis is our new child, and as always happens with the last born, it is especially beloved by us. We give it much time and thought. The idea of creating a magazine came to us because we sensed that there are invisible but strict limitations imposed on what can be published in the Russian émigré press. We are told that we mustn’t wash our dirty linen in public. One of the subjects restricted—by public opinion, not by any government decree—is the new right-wing nationalism among dissenters. Another is the anti-Semitism of intellectuals. Any kind of critical appraisal of Solzhenitsyn is taboo. We are against any form of censorship and we decided, my wife and I, to create a journal which would explore the most unpopular subjects, as the Western press does every day as a matter of fact. We want to create a Russian journal which would be up to Western standards of outspokenness.

And then émigré journals sometimes tend to be simplistic in their points of view. We are publishing articles with a philosophical bent, which seek to probe the ambiguities of our time. We have no use for slogans. For example, we are not interested in denouncing the KGB one more time. Instead we would like to publish an article exploring the genesis of this strange and horrifying institution. We would welcome articles on a given subject that might contradict one another. There are no final solutions. The first priority for the Russian intelligentsia is not to be reborn spiritually, as Solzhenitsyn suggests in From Under the Rubble. To be reborn spiritually is a rare and private event. Nor is it the intellectuals’ task to join ranks and march off somewhere, to be arrested or killed off. There is very little that they can do in practice, except to reflect and to formulate their ideas as eloquently as possible. Soviet power has always emphasized action—the building, the killing. The whole meaning of dissidence lies in the fact that people suddenly started to think things over without preconceived notions. This is how literature and public opinion are born.

We started Syntaxis out of an extreme sense of loneliness, when we discovered that the atmosphere in emigration was quite repressive for the nonconforming—but then, how could it be otherwise? The new emigration is in many ways a mirror image of Soviet society. But soon we discovered that we were not alone after all. There were others who started sending us their articles. Some are well known, like Amalrik and Zinoviev, others are newcomers. People manage somehow to send us materials out of the Soviet Union. There is a new samizdat journal there called Searchings, with which we have a great deal of affinity—we like its title. Its first issue, dedicated to the arrested dissenter Yuri Orlov, was most impressive. Five issues have come out to date, some were almost 500 pages long, and though its contributors are now the victims of growing persecutions it is still appearing. All sorts of people contribute to it—Marxists and Christians, young and old. But alarming right-wing materials from the Soviet Union reach us also. The emergence of a new Russian nationalistic movement with its neo-fascistic overtones is taking form. One of Syntaxis’s goals is to take issue with this tendency.

OC: Do you share Solzhenitsyn’s pessimism about the future of the West?

AS: At first I too thought that in a few months the Russian tanks would be rolling into Paris, under the indifferent eyes of onlookers sitting at café terraces. But this was six years ago. Now I realize that the political structures in the West, though they seem fragile, are in fact quite strong. Of course, everyone complains, yet as a rule people respect their own work. Compared to the USSR, here the social foundations appear solid. In the West, society resembles bee hives—they are light but well-constructed and resistant.

Letters

Liberal Milyukov March 6, 1980