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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?

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