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Russian Lessons

What a strange spectacle it is: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s biweekly broadcasts on Russian television. In the late evening, when the long Moscow day-light begins to fade and the construction dust settles, the writer pours out a stream of banalities, platitudes, and exclamations (“It’s a nightmare!,” “This is terrible!,” “Disgraceful!”) in his brisk, hearty falsetto, flapping his arms about, stretching them toward the television camera, lifting them to the ceiling, or even covering his face, as if he can no longer bear the thought of so much horror. He condemns everything that comes to hand. And, in his own way, he is absolutely right—like any elderly pensioner who sits on a bench in the courtyard to take the fresh air before bed, vent the irritation accumulated over a lifetime, and grumble against life, which hasn’t listened to him. There really is a lot of disgracefulness around. It’s news to no one.

Solzhenitsyn fumes for fifteen minutes twice a month, on Mondays, beginning at about 9:45 PM. It’s a good time: the hard day is behind. The Mercedes have run their red lights, carrying rich “new Russians” to night clubs. Professional beggars have unglued their artificial sores, unfastened their gangrenous legs, and stowed their daily take. Homeless people are laying out their bedding under warm pipes in basements. Children have gone to bed, young men are on the phone flirting with girlfriends, parents have already had dinner, shut and drawn the seven bolts of their steel doors, and are yawning. It’s time to relax. What’s on the other channels? A music video, a new variety show, a retro-variety show, a film, and the program “Reporter,” which offers “the story of an eyewitness to the eruption of the famous Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia.” Didn’t the monster erupt in 1883…can that really be it? The terrifying wave of lava washed away the neighboring islands, and in the aftermath volcanic dust hung about in the atmosphere for decades, creating the fantastical crimson sunsets that so inspired the Symbolists and others. “It was stifling, the sunsets were fiendish, insufferable, crimson. We remembered them all till the end of our days…,” Akhmatova wrote. But maybe they mean the eruption of 1952? That would be more recent and perhaps more important news than what the Nobel laureate rushes to tell us: he rails indignantly about the injustices of trade union organization in the USSR in the 1920s.

A disgrace,” the writer chastises from the screen. Cleaning ladies sweeping the halls of hotels stop for a moment to listen, leaning on their brooms. They willingly agree: “That’s right, a disgrace! Here I am, working three jobs, too…and bread has gone up again! That Luzhkov [the mayor of Moscow] should be put in prison along with the rest of them! It’s that democratic mafia!…” The writer doesn’t hear them, nor do they hear him.

They say that deaf people live longer. Solzhenitsyn looks surprisingly young: fresh, ruddy, few wrinkles, glittering eyes—more vivacious than many fifty-year-olds. Watching him, you would never say that this man spent long years in the camps, hungry and cold, that he had been critically ill (according to him, with cancer), that he was persecuted for years. It’s also true that fate was unusually gracious to him, granting him worldwide fame, tons of money, twenty years of peace in Vermont, a faithful, beloved wife, healthy and talented sons. The writer’s entire appearance serves as a wonderful advertisement for the benefits of voluntary solitude in the country. Vegetables. Fresh air. Volleyball with the children. Measured labor. No outsiders. A high fence.

This seems to be his modus operandi: admit no outsiders. At any rate, he eventually drove away the guests who were at first invited to appear on his program: other people’s opinions obviously irritated him. He found the monologue genre more convenient, more familiar. The broadcast is taped, no viewers’ phone calls threaten him. You can’t ask him any questions, there’s no one to object, the subjects are removed from the present day, or are abstract, the exhortations are so vague (“people should be honest”), the threats so nebulous (“if we don’t all stick together we’ll perish”), that some people, I know for a fact, turn off the sound and simply watch the gesticulations, the supple movements of the spine and the facial expressions, as if the “conscience of the Russian land” were giving an aerobics lesson.

Rumor has it not only that he doesn’t receive any money for his appearances, but that he paid a significant sum for many months in advance, buying air time for himself (and generously giving us, myself included, a taste of this baffling fog). That’s what they say, although I wasn’t able to confirm it, and who would have shown me the receipt anyway? I feel rather sorry for him: the old man tries, he prepares, he believes. (How sternly he admonished himself in the BBC film about his return to the motherland: “A strong, thoughtful facial expression” just before stepping out of the airplane.) The old man shouts soundlessly, waves his arms about in the dark, tears his hair, and flies like an incorporeal spirit in a swirl of electrons through the indifferent ether to beat against my television screen, begging to be let out with his moldy prophecies, while I, cruelly, watch the series Bellissima with one eye, with the other read a summary of the day’s events, with a third (well, yes, we’re in Russia) scan a literary journal, and keep a fourth and all the others on the stove to make sure the meat doesn’t burn.

Solzhenitsyn always knows precisely what should be done and how. He is truly disappointed that no one asked his advice when the world was created. He would have done a better job of calculating the electrons’ orbits than the Lord God, he would have introduced sensible corrections in the table of chemical elements, he would have twisted the double helix in the opposite direction. For convenience’s sake his starting point is that Russia is currently without form, and void (and corrupt and immoral, and the WHOLE country, except for the writer himself, has forgotten the Russian language), and that the Divine Spirit moves upon the face of the waters, thinking about where it would be handiest to start, and this is where Solzhenitsyn with his advice and his elbowing is needed, this is where he’s indispensable.

In his earlier essay, “How to Rebuild Russia,” published in Russia in 1990,1 Solzhenitsyn proposed his version of how to carve up the USSR. Or, more precisely, how to carve off pieces. At the time, separatist ideas were quickly gaining ground. Under the slogan of democracy and the pretext of freedom, any misanthrope or racist who couldn’t stand his neighbors demanded that they be divorced from him, or best of all—that they be beaten and expelled. Solzhenitsyn proposed a Russo-centric version of separatism: keep Russia, the Ukraine, Belorussia, and part of Kazakhstan (historically Russian territory) together, and kick everyone else out, whether they like it or not. The Russian population of the other republics should be moved to Russia. In other words, save your own kind, and let others figure things out for themselves. And let reality—present and past—adjust to this cruel plan.

Until you take a globe in hand you’re surprised: why does an airplane flying from America to Europe pass almost over the North Pole? Solzhenitsyn doesn’t want to deal with the real globe, his earth is flat and the people inhabiting it are simple. In the garden of his imagination Ukrainians stroll arm in arm with Russians, casting a leery eye at Armenians and banishing Tajiks with a switch. This is how things seemed to him from the depths of 1989.

By the time he wrote The Russian Question (March 1994), the Soviet empire had already fallen apart, though not by itself but as a result of Yeltsin’s haste to seize power from Gorbachev (see Yeltsin’s autobiography, where he writes about this himself).2

In passing I should note a curious paradox: people who are unhappy with the collapse of the USSR, and there are more and more of them all the time, since almost everyone suffered from it, do not accuse Yeltsin, who signed the Belovezhsky agreement in December 1991, but Gorbachev, who tried to save the empire at any cost and lost his power for precisely this reason. I’m not just talking about taxi drivers who once dreamed of hanging Gorbachev because the sugar they counted on for making moonshine had disappeared. This strange aberration of vision is characteristic of the most democratic democrats as well. I have to admit that I can’t comprehend it.

Here’s a typical conversation in a Moscow kitchen. I say: “As a result of Yeltsin’s actions hundreds of thousands of people of all nationalities have already died in ethnic conflicts.” My interlocutor only shrugs his shoulders: “Yes, what can you do, the fools keep on killing each other.” “But under Gorbachev,” I continue, “we all raised a hue and cry when eight people died in Tbilisi during a demonstration…” “Not eight, but eighteen. Eighteen!” my friend sternly replies. “What’s the difference?” I say. “There’s an enormous difference! Enormous!” (This insane arithmetic has its analogy in other countries, of course: come on, tell me how many peaceful inhabitants of Iraq perished while the Americans, with very few human losses, tried, not even successfully, to kill Saddam Hussein? You don’t count the other guy’s losses, right? That’s the way the world works, isn’t it?) If I ask straight out: “Aren’t we Russians to blame that, for instance, the Georgians and Abkhazians have killed so many of each other’s citizens,” I immediately hear: “It’s time for you to get rid of that imperial consciousness!” My progressive interlocutor has already done so: and the price is other people’s blood.

Actually, this digression bears directly on Solzhenitsyn’s text and my rejection of his views. Solzhenitsyn also helped to bring about the collapse of the USSR: “To maintain a great Empire means to drive your own people to extinction. Wherefore this motley amalgam? That Russians may lose their inimitable countenance?” Solzhenitsyn’s ideas, according to Vladimir Lukin, former Russian ambassador to the United States, made quite an impression on Yeltsin (Lukin was the go-between for their contacts). Of course, not all his ideas. Democracy and parliamentarianism Yeltsin understood in his own inimitable fashion: he sent tanks against the parliament. The idea he took to heart was “Kick them all out!”

Under Gorbachev, the metaphor of “a civilized divorce” was popular among democrats whenever the possible secession of one or another republic was discussed. But such a divorce is feasible only when each of the spouses has somewhere to go and means of support. Is the American reader capable of appreciating the true significance of this metaphor in the Russian setting? In Russian families, in contrast to American ones, three generations often live in one small apartment, and it is not unusual during a divorce for the wife to kick her husband and his elderly mother out on the street: but what is the old lady guilty of? It was precisely that kind of divorce, to continue the metaphor, that Solzhenitsyn proposed and still proposes. If in How to Rebuild Russia he only considered the divorce process, however, then in The Russian Question he goes on to bemoan the jointly acquired children and reproaches the mother-in-law.

  1. 1

    Published in Komsomolskaya Pravda on September 18, 1990, and in Literaturnaya Gazeta on September 19, 1990, reviewed in these pages by David Remnick (NYR, February 14, 1991).

  2. 2

    The Struggle for Russia (Times Books/Belka Publishing Company, 1994), reviewed in these pages by Tatyana Tolstaya (NYR, June 23, 1994).

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