On a summer afternoon in 1988, Elena Chukovskaya was leading a tour through the small museum in Peredelkino dedicated to the life and work of her grandfather, the children’s book writer and literary scholar, Kornei Chukovsky. One of the tourists fixed on a small photograph of Solzhenitsyn. “Why doesn’t Solzhenitsyn just come home?” he asked. “What is he waiting for?”
She was stunned: “I could not believe how naive, how unknowing the question was. And the younger people, they just had no idea who Solzhenitsyn was. A generation had already gone by since his exile, and he’d become little more than a legend to them, almost forgotten in his own country.”
By that summer, Gorbachev’s glasnost had already opened the door to publication of many of the classic texts of antitotalitarian literature: Akhmatova’s Requiem, Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Grossman’s Life and Fate. But nothing of Solzhenitsyn. In an interview recently, Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev’s most conservative rival in the Politburo for more than five years, made it plain that the leadership felt it could not tolerate a writer—especially a living, exiled writer—who considered the entire seventy-three-year reign of the Communist party an unmitigated catastrophe.
Ligachev, the former chief of ideology, portrayed himself as the put-upon Party apparatchik up night after night at home reading through the works of Solzhenitsyn, from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to The Red Wheel. “You know, that adds up to a lot of pages,” he confided. It was Solzhenitsyn’s merciless portrait of Lenin as the originator of a system based on state terror that most disturbed Ligachev and, for a time, Gorbachev himself.
“After all, Lenin is ours!” Ligachev said. “We adhere to this viewpoint, to Leninism, and we must defend him.”
But why should the Politburo, instead of the reader, decide? I asked him. Ligachev grimaced and waved the question away in disgust. After all it had always been so. It was Khrushchev himself, after a long day’s reading, who gave the word in 1962 that One Day could be published in Novy Mir.
“We have sacred things, just as you do,” Ligachev said.
But why use censorship to enforce it?
“OK, pardon me, but we have a different psychology, a different world view,” he said. “I respect you and you should respect me. For me, Lenin is sacred.”
A few days after the incident at the museum, Elena Chukovskaya wrote a brief article for the weekly magazine Book Review, outlining the facts of Solzhenitsyn’s biography and appealing to the government to return his citizenship. Just hours after receiving the piece, the editor, Yevgeni Overin, took an enormous risk. He accepted it for the August 5 issue on “editor’s responsibility”—meaning that he did not wait for a decision from the censors.
The article was a sensation. Thousands of letters and telegrams of support arrived at Chukovskaya’s door and at Book Review’s ramshackle offices. The article was a signal, a hint of what was politically possible and morally necessary. The editors of The Worker’s Word, a newsletter for Ukrainian railway workers, acted first, becoming the first above-ground publication to print Solzhenitsyn here for nearly three decades. On October 18, the paper’s 45,500 subscribers heard the old vatic voice, Solzhenitsyn’s appeal to the young from 1974, the year he was exiled, to “Live Not By Lies”:
Let us admit it: we have not matured enough to march into the squares and shout the truth out loud, or to express openly what we think. It is not necessary. It is dangerous. But let us refuse to say what we do not think. This is our path, the easiest and most accessible one, which allows for our inherent, deep-rooted cowardice.
From Vermont, Solzhenitsyn tried to manage the terms of his return. In negotiations with the editors of Novy Mir, he insisted they publish Gulag Archipelago before any other of his works. The demand was a means of contradicting the latest official version of the Soviet past; Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume “literary investigation” argues that the forced labor camp system was not an aberration of Stalinism, but began instead with Lenin in 1918 at places like Solovetski in the White Sea.
The editors agreed. On the back cover of Novy Mir’s October 1988 issue, they printed a cryptic announcement, saying merely that Solzhenitsyn had given them permission to publish “some of his works” beginning in 1989. But the Central Committee’s ideology department, which certainly had its informers at the printing plant, quickly suppressed the plan. A “stop work” order from the censors forced Novy Mir to pulp a million covers and print new ones without the announcement. Not long after, the chief ideologist, Vadim Medvedev, attacked Solzhenitsyn for his “disdain” of Lenin and the Soviet system. The Gulag and Lenin in Zurich, he told reporters, “undermine the foundations on which our present life rests.”
That foundation, of course, was crumbling fast. The momentum of glasnost, fueled now by the publications in Book Review and The Worker’s Word, as well as by rumors of the Novy Mir incident, could not be contained or ignored.
Novy Mir’s editor in chief, Sergei Zalygin, adopted a strategy of defiant persistence. For six months running, he kept including Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture in the galleys for the next issue—and for six months the censors kept removing it. A veteran of decades of literary and political battles, Zalygin sensed the growing division within the leadership. Gorbachev was in an extremely difficult political position. Many members of his earliest constituency, the middle class and the intelligentsia, were growing impatient, disillusioned. Any further resistance to publishing Solzhenitsyn could only damage his popularity further. But as an avowed Leninist, a “committed Communist” dependent on the support of the Party apparatus, Gorbachev had to find a way at once to change the policy and keep his distance.
A day or two after the phone call to Zalygin, the Politburo gathered. Gorbachev decided to let the Soviet Writer’s Union meet and decide the Solzhenitsyn issue for themselves. The Novy Mir group did not know what to expect of the union, an organization famous for its cowardice. Many of the leaders who still run the union headed the smear campaign against Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970s which led to his exile.
The first speaker at the session was Vladimir Karpov, the union’s first secretary. A veteran sycophant, Karpov would surely do the Kremlin’s bidding. But what would that be?
“Comrades,” Karpov began, “we used to think one way about Alexander Isaevich, but now things have changed….”
The long exile was over.
Celebrated as a victory of principle, of memory over forgetting, Solzhenitsyn’s literary return to the cultural life of the Soviet Union also provoked a great deal of dark worry in various corners. Would Solzhenitsyn, with his profound spiritual commitment to Russian Orthodoxy and his controversial view of reforms under the last monarchs and his approval of such authoritarian ministers as Pyotr Stolypin, who is presented in The Red Wheel as a model of political thinking, call for a state run by the Church or a return of the tsars? Would he allow himself to be used by the anti-Semitic Pamyat?
Some members of the official intellectual elite in Moscow—many of them still getting used to their conversion from coddled toadies to coddled heroes of reform—squirmed in anticipation of what might come next from Vermont. The worries were extreme and, at times, ugly. Even Vitali Korotich, the editor of the liberal weekly Ogonyok, said there was a chance that Solzhenitsyn could “become another Ayatollah Khomeini.” The young leader of the new Socialist party, Boris Kagarlitsky, wrote of Solzhenitsyn’s “fanatical intolerance.” Some pointed to the increasingly anti-Semitic ravings of one of Solzhenitsyn’s old allies, the mathematician Igor Shafarevich, and wondered if Solzhenitsyn’s own views were not so very different. (They forgot that Shafarevich, whose politics degenerated into an ugly xenophobia about ten years ago, had once also been an ally of the westernizing dissidents, including Sakharov.)
Solzhenitsyn remains one of the most poorly understood, intimidating personalities of our time. By comparison, Andrei Sakharov was easy to comprehend, not only for the familiarity of his ideas, his Western liberalism, but also for the example of his extraordinary personality, his patience, his saintliness. He represented an ideal of kindness and courage readily apparent to the ordinary people who showed up at his funeral last year with placards reading, “Andrei Dmitrieyevich, please forgive us.”
Solzhenitsyn is, in his way, equally heroic, but more…difficult. While Sakharov for years welcomed nearly anyone to his apartment for a patient hearing, Solzhenitsyn lives in near seclusion in Vermont, turning away journalists, supplicants, and even old friends. Sakharov’s accessibility was part of his work in human rights; Solzhenitsyn’s distance a requirement for his ambitious literary projects. Solemn, imperious, even righteous beyond measure, Solzhenitsyn has the nerve to make much of the contemporary literary scene look vaguely frivolous. He writes gigantically (if not always well), as if from another age. He lacks the modernist leveler of irony. Instead he can be chillingly sarcastic. Rarely does he show much more than disdain in political argument. He thunders against the “cowardice” of the West and the “liquid manure” of pop culture in the fierce voice of another era. Jeremiah is heroic, no doubt, but hard to love.
Solzhenitsyn is also disturbing to our modern sense of decorum because he is immodest in an unmodern way. He is convinced that what he says matters greatly. This aspect of him has not faded over the years. As his work steadily appeared in the Soviet Union over the past year in a range of literary journals—from the liberal Novy Mir to the Russian nationalist Nash Sovremenik—he held back from making any new political pronouncements. In preparation for an interview with Time magazine, he insisted that the reporter agree not to ask any detailed questions on Gorbachev or the current reforms. Solzhenitsyn, his wife Natalya told me, was “determined that his literary work return to Russia without the interference of politics.”
In August, the government commission working on citizenship and rehabilitation returned the right of citizenship to a number of dissidents and artists who left, or were forced to leave, the country during the Brezhnev era. Solzhenitsyn headed the list. But he refused to accept the offers, at least not until the courts lifted the charges of treason against him and the legal expulsion orders. For the first time since the early 1960s Solzhenitsyn was in nearly complete command of the situation. The Russian prime minister, Ivan Silyev, even published an open letter in Komsomolskaya Pravda practically begging him to return home in “the interests of the state and its future destiny.”
“Your words about Russia have rung out the world over, invoking its fate in the cruel and ruthless twentieth century,” Silayev wrote. “Your coming to Russia is, in my view, one of those moves that our homeland needs as much as air.”
As it turned out, far from avoiding the “interference of politics,” Solzhenitsyn had spent the summer preparing—writing—his return to the political life of his country. Published in mid-September by two mass circulation papers, Komsomolskaya Pravda and Literaturnaya Gazeta, the essay “Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiya?” (“How Shall We Organize Russia?”) calls for the end of the last empire on earth and the creation of a new Slavic state. He refers to this as his “modest contribution” to the current debate.
Not once in the essay does Solzhenitsyn mention Gorbachev by name—much less give him credit for anything. Instead, the criticism, resounding and heavy with sarcasm, begins in that third word in the title, “obustroit‘,” a play on “perestroika.” Perestroika, or rebuilding, is meant by Gorbachev and the Communist party as the democratization and “rebuilding” of socialism, a cleansing of the Stalinist “deformations” of Leninism. Especially now, when Gorbachev has backed a military crackdown in the Baltic states and has tightened restrictions on the press, the limits of his tolerance and program grow clearer. Solzhenitsyn’s verb “obustroit“‘ has been translated here as “reconstitute”: fix, fix up, refurbish, make comfortable, organize, or, even more loosely, revitalize. The ironic echo of “perestroika” and the use of “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union” make it clear from the start that Solzhenitsyn’s program has little to do with Gorbachev’s idea of a “humane democratic socialism” or the maintenance of the “multi-ethnic state.”
The text itself begins in full-throated prophetic voice:
The clock of communism has tolled its final hour.
But the concrete structure has not completely collapsed.
Instead of being liberated, we may be crushed beneath the rubble.
This opening, and the essay as a whole, echoes Solzhenitsyn’s “Letter to the Soviet Leaders” sent to the Kremlin a year before his exile: “Your dearest wish is for our state structure and our ideological system never to change, to remain as they are for centuries. But history is not like that. Every system either finds a way to develop or it collapses.” He now addresses a country that is doing both at once—though the collapse is ruthlessly efficient, the development painful and erratic. After a ringing restatement of the “blind and malignant” Bolshevik disaster—the murder of tens of millions of people, the destruction of the peasantry, the poisoning of the environment, the moral degradation of the country—Solzhenitsyn provides his first prescription:
This is how I see it: We should immediately proclaim loudly and clearly: The three Baltic republics [Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia], the three Transcaucasian republics [Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan], the four Central Asian republics [Kirghizia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenia, and Tajikistan], and also Moldavia, if it is drawn more to Romania, these eleven—indeed!—definitely must be separated for good….
We do not have the energy to deal with the periphery, either economically or spiritually. We do not have the energy to run an Empire! And we do not need it, let us shrug it off: It is crushing us, it is draining us, and it is accelerating our demise…. Japan was capable of reconciling, giving up both its international mission and its lucrative political ventures—and it prospered immediately…. Did Russia really become poorer because Poland and Finland split off from her?
Solzhenitsyn argues that the new union should include Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and the heavily Russified region of northern Kazakhstan. In each case, he takes care to say that the three smaller units should not be forced to join the new union, but he writes with a dismissive confidence about their claims of distinctiveness. “All this talk of a Ukrainian people with a separate non-Russian language existing from almost the ninth century on is a recently invented falsehood,” he says at one point. The present Council of Nationalities would protect the interest of the minority peoples within the new union.
To pay for the resettlement of ethnic Russians returning from the newly independent “periphery,” Solzhenitsyn suggests a series of cost-cutting measures: the elimination of foreign aid to the “tyrannical regimes and insatiable embezzlers” of Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Angola, North Korea; the slashing of the defense and space budget; an end to subsidized sales of raw materials to Eastern Europe; cuts in capital investments and state bureaucracy; and the return of the “immense” properties of the Communist party to the people. Here Solzhenitsyn is in agreement with the current radical democrats. But in recent months the military, state enterprises, the KGB, and the Communist party have all fought back, pushing Gorbachev to preserve the old budgets and perogatives, all in the name of “stability.” As I write, the latest cost of “stability” is fourteen dead in Lithuania.
Solzhenitsyn, an opponent of all revolutions, cautions that this enormous social and political change needs to take place gradually, for the most dangerous stage in the life of an iceberg is when it first begins to melt. He is even enthusiastic about Gorbachev’s establishment of a strong presidency.
But Solzhenitsyn, so embittered by the years of Bolshevik rule, refuses to credit a leader who rose from the Party structure, who was steeped in the Lie. Gorbachev is still leader of the Party, and that link cannot be forgiven. Although he was once quick to praise Khrushchev for releasing hundreds of thousands of prisoners from the camps and exposing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Solzhenitsyn shows little regard for Khrushchev’s heir. So deep is his rage that he reduces the events and reforms of recent years to almost nothing:
What have five or six years of the much-celebrated “perestroika” brought us? Pathetic reshuffling in the Central Committee. Slapping together an ugly, artificial electoral system, with a view solely to the Communist party’s clinging to power. Slipshod, confused, and indecisive laws….
While that judgment seemed almost incredibly harsh when it was published in September, the brutal crackdown in Lithuania and Gorbachev’s disdain for the democratically elected parliament there give it the painful ring of truth.
Much of “How Shall We Organize Russia?” is familiar territory: the prophetic tone of voice; the anger and exhaustion; the longing for a revived Russian culture; the argument that the so-called “conservative liberal” approach to reforms, like that of Stolypin, prime minister of Russia between 1906 and 1911, would best suit the Russian history, psychology, and geography. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn here does seem to shift his position on the question of democracy. Without hesitation, but with plenty of characteristic hesitations, he supports the creation of democracy, based on a limited system of private property, in Russia.
For Solzhenitsyn, the issue of democracy was deeply colored by his despair at what he saw as the West’s inability to understand and resist the system described in The Gulag Archipelago. In the early 1970s, in such essays as “As Breathing and Consciousness Return” (published in From Under the Rubble) he warned of the “mortal defects” of multiparty, parliamentary democracy: a dangerous “unlimited” freedom of discussion that somehow weakens national resolve; an impotence in the face of “sniveling terrorists”; the ability of one tiny party, as in the Israeli system, to tip the balance of power. Why was democracy inherently necessary in Russia? he wondered. Prerevolutionary Russians lived for ten centuries under an authoritarian system and “our peasant forebearers died feeling that their lives had not been too unbearable.” Richard Pipes, among others, finds this an insupportably romantic version of Russian history. Yet it is also impossible to argue that tsarist cruelty could match the pile of corpses and ruined souls achieved by the Bolshevik regime.
In “How Shall We Organize Russia?” Solzhenitsyn continues to have serious questions about the nature and fairness of particular democratic mechanisms in Europe and the United States. There is nothing new there. But there is little sign of his flirtation with even the most benign sort of authoritarianism.
Solzhenitsyn wants such a union to follow its “own path” and not “thoughtlessly emulate” a Western model. As a principle, this is a useful caution, especially now. In the current Soviet Union, “democratic” is understood as an absolute value, a catch-all term for the wholesale rejection of the institutions and repression of the past seven decades. The new institutions of democracy, however, are in crisis—the court system remains largely unreformed; Gorbachev reorders the executive regularly, just recently dissolving the presidential cabinet after only a few months, in favor of a quasi-American presidential structure; the Communist party, the military, and the interior ministry still seem determined to dominate rather than serve policy and the people; finally, almost no one believes the unwieldy 2,250-member legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies, can function as much more than a biannual performance group.
No event has shown up the weaknesses of these quasi-democratic institutions better than the last session of the Congress. Yet again, an essentially unelected president accumulated more power and the majority of deputies—hundreds of whom were “elected” in single-candidate races—voted their agreement. In a society where the prestige of the Party is, at most, around 10 percent in public opinion polls, over 80 percent of the deputies are Party members.
The widespread reaction to the December Congress was sheer disgust. For months, radicals have been arguing that the KGB, Communist party, and the military have been pushing Gorbachev toward a far more authoritarian position. The manifestations of that pressure were not merely obvious. They were televised. The head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, warns, as if from the Stalin era, of foreign enemies and “anticommunist” hooligans. The minister of defense, Dmitri Yazov, threatens to fire on nationalist protesters. Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of glasnost and a civilized voice in the leadership, is shunted aside. The Party will not hear of private property or genuine market reforms but it seems many have lost the taste for listening to the voice of the “left” opposition, for it was not until Eduard Shevardnadze quit as foreign minister and warned of an approaching dictatorship that many in the West took adequate notice. From the look of the highly organized crackdown in Lithuania he appears to have acted more from advance knowledge than emotion. Such is Soviet democracy at the start of 1991.
Solzhenitsyn may favor a strong presidency, but, unlike Gorbachev, he also makes a fascinating argument in his essay for the radical decentralization of political power, for the primacy of the local. In a country with almost no experience of democratic institutions or psychology, democracy cannot begin easily with the sudden imposition of national “democratic” superstructures like the new Congress of People’s Deputies. Instead, the critical principle, he says, is to start with “the field, the grass roots.” Toward that end, Solzhenitsyn proposes a revival of the zemstvos, the elected ruling councils established in some regions as part of the reforms of Alexander II. Presiding over four tiers of zemstvos assemblies he would have a popularly elected president, a legislature, and a kind of meritocratic House of Lords.
Solzhenitsyn’s ideas here are easily dismissed as Slavophilic romanticism, a yearning for medieval or nineteenth-century institutions and reforms that were never as efficient or as just as he portrays them. He desperately wants to “revive” whatever prerevolutionary traces of democracy in order to build an organic bridge to the present. Those traces, however, are terribly slight and distant.
It is perhaps more interesting to understand and consider the roots of his antimodernism, his anxiety in the face of political institutions much bigger than the Swiss cantonal elections or the New England town meetings that he so much admires. Solzhenitsyn is seventy years old, and he spent a lifetime watching the Soviet state develop into a leviathan capable of killing tens of millions of its own people in the name of an ideology, drying up the Aral Sea in the name of industrial progress, uprooting whole languages and cultures in the name of internationalism. Why should we be stunned by his fury, his yearning for something both Russian and human-scale?
Though Solzhenitsyn’s political prescriptions are more valuable as a set of questions than of answers, his most powerful passages are his calls to the renewal of people’s internal freedoms, for “the destruction of souls for three quarters of a century has been the most frightening thing.” Here Solzhenitsyn’s passion is a commanding voice for those here who demand a process of catharsis, even Nuremberg trials, for the Party:
Given human nobility, any decent system is permissible; given human anger and self-seeking behavior, even the most extensive democracy is unbearable. If people themselves lack fairness and honesty, this will be manifested under any system.
No path will be open to the people, even to the most urgent issues, and we will not achieve anything sensible until the Communist party goes beyond merely relinquishing the constitutional provision and completely gives up all influence on economic and state life, completely abandons governing us, any sphere of our lives or any locality. It would be desirable for the party to do this through public atonement rather than for it to be pushed and shoved out by force—atoning for leading the country into an impasse through a string of crimes, cruelty, and absurdities, and for not knowing a way out…. Before prosperity came to West Germany, it was filled with the air of atonement. In our country we have not even begun to atone.
Solzhenitsyn is devastating here, in view of the Communist party’s words and gestures of repentence that seem like political concessions, the grudging words of realpolitik. Despite six years of forced retirements and the constant search for “new cadres,” the Party’s Central Committee continues to utter its dinosauric grunts. The leadership continues to congratulate itself on the “initiator of perestroika,” and yet it has no moral standing with the people. Like the deputies of the Moscow City Council who are organizing symbolic trials of the past Party leaders, Solzhenitsyn argues that Soviet society cannot heal itself mechanically, through mere reforms. But so far Aleksandr Yakovlev is one of the few Party leaders ever to talk freely in public of his sense of mistakenness, his atonement. His televised comments on the need for moral introspection, for a spiritual, as well as historical, assessment of the past, have helped to make him a pariah among the hard-line Communists. And now, after five years at Gorbachev’s side, he has been pushed out of power and into academia. The Party seems not to know what moral standing is or where it might buy some.
In “How Shall We Organize Russia?” Solzhenitsyn continues his longstanding antipathy to the modern, Western world of radical individualism, technology, rock ‘n’ roll, urban noise. This is the crankiest side of Solzhenitsyn, the prig who not only describes a two-story country dwelling as “ideal for human habitation” but also cannot seem to understand how anyone might want a different life. His persistent, and most simplistic and alienating anxiety is that Russia will mindlessly pursue the road to Gomorrah because it can’t find the “off” switch on the TV set:
Our young people, whom families and schools have overlooked, are growing in the direction of thoughtlessness, barbaric emulation of anything enticing coming from alien parts, if not in the direction of crime. The historic Iron Curtain protected the country superbly from everything good that exists in the West: From the lack of civil restrictions, respect for the individual, variety of personal activities, universal well-being and charitable movements.
However, this Curtain did not reach all the way down, and this is where the liquid manure of debased, degraded, “mass pop-culture,” most vulgar fashions and excessive public displays seeped through. It was this waste that our impoverished, unfairly deprived young people swallowed greedily. Young people in the West go crazy from their full stomachs, while our young people thoughtlessly emulate their games. Our [Soviet] television obediently carries these streams of filth all over the country.
This old-mannish side of Solzhenitsyn seems to me as marginal as Tolstoy’s retrograde views on women and sex. But I would argue—and reactions in Moscow bear me out—that Solzhenitsyn cannot be counted in any way with the hysterical nationalists who edit Nash Sovremenik and Literaturnaya Rossiya, the black-shirted anti-Semites of Pamyat, and the pathetic monarchists who all so desperately wanted to claim him as their own. An incalculable sense of loss surely inflames Solzhenitsyn’s passions and his rhetoric in the service of Russian national renewal, but he shows no signs of fanaticism. The lunatic fringe, which so desperately hoped to appropriate Solzhenitsyn, has been disappointed by “How Shall We Organize Russia?”
What of the Jewish question? Solzhenitsyn does not mention it except obliquely, when he says that he shares his animosity for “American cultural imperialism” with cultural conservatives in Israel. Irving Howe is right to point with despair to a moment in August 1914 when Solzhenitsyn criticizes anti-Russian “Jewish propaganda” in the beginning of the century without bothering to mention that such “propaganda” was a response to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. But despite years of rumors and innuendoes from his critics, no one has yet made a cogent, sustained textual case that Solzhenitsyn is himself an anti-Semite. One only wishes that Solzhenitsyn himself would put the matter to rest by taking a firm and public stand against anti-Semitism instead of making a few passing remarks in interviews.
Nevertheless, “How Shall We Organize Russia?” reveals a number of other weaknesses in Solzhenitsyn’s position. Recently, I went to Leningrad’s Pushkin House, a literary institute overlooking the Neva, to visit Dmitri Likhachev. Likhachev is an eighty-four-year-old scholar of ancient Russian literature and a legislator, a liberal nationalist who remembers the Revolution from his childhood and was roughed up after refusing to sign a letter condemning Sakharov during the Brezhnev era. He seemed a bit sad when I asked him about Solzhenitsyn’s essay. “From reading it, I understand how long he has been away, how far away he is from us,” Likhachev said. “He seems to have no feel particularly for the growth of nationalism in places like the Ukraine. A Russian union like the one he describes is just impossible.”
Likhachev has put his finger on the critical flaw of the essay. Solzhenitsyn’s passion for Russian revival clouds his vision of current realities in the Soviet Union, including the degree to which various peoples have wanted to go their own way. In the eyes of liberal nationalists in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Kazakhstan, a Slavic state would merely be another sort of empire, one that ignored their desire for sovereignty or independence. Their general reaction to “How Shall We Organize Russia?” might best be described as fierce disappointment.
In Alma-Ata some weeks ago, Kazakh nationalists protested Solzhenitsyn’s every argument that the northern portion of the republic become part of the Russian Union. They staged three days of protests and burned copies of his essay. “He argues against the Empire and then he goes about building a new one,” Olzhas Suliemenov, a poet and member of the Supreme Soviet, told me. “No one argues the fact that he is a great writer, a great man. But here he has abused that responsibility.”
In Kiev, Ukrainian independence leaders such as Volodimir Yavorivski described Solzhenitsyn’s dismissal of Ukrainian distinctiveness as a grave insult. “Who gave Solzhenitsyn the right to decide how to divide up the country?” he said. “It turns out that Gorbachev and Solzhenitsyn can’t get rid of their imperial thinking.”
Here and in his earlier essays, Solzhenitsyn creates some of his own problems with the pitch of his voice, its hyped-up grandeur. Somehow the strength of his hopes for a Slavic state drowns out the admission that he also makes: that, yes, of course, it must be the Ukrainians and the rest who themselves decide whether to join with Russia. How much more reasonable is his tone on the Ukrainian question in Gulag:
We must leave the decision to the Ukrainians themselves—let federalists and separatists try their persuasions. Not to give way would be foolhardy and cruel. And the gentler, the more tolerant, the more careful to explain ourselves we are now, the more hope there will be of restoring unity in the future.
Solzhenitsyn’s most curious critic has been Gorbachev himself. A few days after the publication of “How Shall We Organize Russia?” in Komsomolskaya Pravda, a member of the Supreme Soviet asked him to comment. The question was probably a plant, since Gorbachev seemed to glance at a few notes as he responded. In a hushed chamber, Gorbachev said that he felt “contradictory” emotions after reading the essay twice through.
Solzhenitsyn’s views “on the future of our state,” he said, “are far from reality and are being constructed out of the context of our country’s development and bear a destructive character. But nonetheless there are interesting thoughts in the article of this undoubtedly great person.” It was a splendid backhanded compliment.
But then Gorbachev felt the need to distort Solzhenitsyn, to exploit the recurring stereotype of his views. Solzhenitsyn, Gorbachev said, “is all in the past, the Russia of old, the tsarist monarchy. This is not acceptable to me.” Gorbachev’s statement is self-serving, designed to present himself as a radical democrat, a man of his times.
Despite the prolonged and difficult drama around the battle over publication, Gorbachev seemed far more comfortable in the end dealing with Solzhenitsyn than he had been with Sakharov’s criticism in the Congress last year. Obviously, Solzhenitsyn’s distance has a great deal to do with that. But it’s also a matter of influence. Recently The New Republic published a cover drawing with Solzhenitsyn in a Leninesque pose under the headline, “To the Finland Station?” In other words, could Solzhenitsyn return home and become a leader of the “conservative liberals”? In First Circle, Solzhenitsyn said, “A great writer is, so to speak, a second government of his country.” But while Solzhenitsyn may be a polemicist, he is no politician. Readers are not constituents.
Much of the value of “How Shall We Organize Russia?” is the simple reappearance of an indispensable voice at a critical time. Although there is no shortage of haters who call themselves Russian nationalists, Solzhenitsyn, Likhachev, and the young liberals in the Russian parliament represent not only very different political strategies but a common desire for the renewal of a great culture. Russia will take years to heal, to create democratic institutions and a decent standard of living. Democrats now wonder if “Bloody Sunday” in Vilnius is a prelude to attacks not only in the other Baltic states but against the elected radical forces in Leningrad and Moscow. At a moment when the Lie threatens to become once more the cement of empire, Solzhenitsyn returns as an essential voice of resistance.
—Moscow, January 17, 1991
February 14, 1991