Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Solzhenitsyn; drawing by David Levine

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.

The Russian Question is a deliberately tendentious, quasi-historical tract written to show that the Russian tsars behaved incorrectly for the last three hundred years of their rule. They didn’t concern themselves with the country’s internal affairs, the morality and well-being of their subjects. Instead they carried out needless wars, seizing territories that were detrimental to the people’s morality. They grabbed too much—and there’s your empire and all the woes that stem from it. From the first pages the reader wants to ask: Well, and before that? And before that? Were the seizures justified before the Romanovs took over? Sometimes, Solzhenitsyn admits, even the Romanovs grabbed the right stuff. Thus, “the Polish war conducted by Alexis3 was both necessary and just, for he was recapturing historically Russian lands usurped by the Poles.” Might one ask: what are “historically Russian lands”? Those which were won in battle a long time ago? Where does one draw the line? Solzhenitsyn knows perfectly well that the Russian people are a mixture of different tribes, but this mixture arose in part as a result of wars, seizures, and appropriations. He writes: “A multitude of tribes blended with the Russian ethnicity,” and this is true, but he fails to mention that the Russian “ethnicity” itself is heterogeneous in the extreme. He avoids this delicate, complex problem.

However, beginning with the first years of the Romanov dynasty everything is clear to him. Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich “brutally and criminally” waged war on his own people when he carried out Church Reform (the Schism). Peter the Great was “a mediocre, if not savage, mind”: he opened a window to Europe, broke through to the Baltic and Black seas, built Petersburg (a “demented idea”), and did not establish the order of succession. Anna Ioannovna carried out “foolish, unsuccessful wars”; her military commander, Münnich, “with an infamous lack of skill…stormed Ochakov (1737) from the least advantageous direction, neglecting an easy approach.” Although in the Empress Elizabeth “true, the Russian national feeling was alive,” still she “unforgivably threw Russia into European quarrels and dubious ventures, so alien to us.” Peter III was “a nonentity, a man of meagre and shallow mind, whose development stalled at a childlike level.”… Enough. What follows is a lot of cursing, we’ll skip it.

Then comes Catherine the Great…but here history and politics grow so complex that Solzhenitsyn slows his tongue-twister pace and slightly restrains his oaths, offering us an essay on European diplomacy and military campaigns that is so impenetrable that if the reader is not a specialist in eighteenth-century history he cannot follow the simultaneous machinations of Poland, Turkey, England, France, Austria, Greece, Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark. And don’t forget Moldavia, Walachia, some pieces of northern Bukovina, western Belorussia, Zabrze, Volynia, Podolia, Holland, Spain, Sicily. Not to mention four Russo-Turkish wars in the eighteenth century, four in the nineteenth; the division of Poland, the Reichenbach Congress, the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji; the victory near Focsani (Rumania), the shameful peace with Prussia, Frederick, Khan Krym-Girei…Mercy!

The text becomes unbearably dense, comparable only to the poem about everything in the world simultaneously that the mad poet writes in Borges’s story “Aleph.” And there are still lots of tsars to go: Paul, two Nicholases, three Alexanders…. And that’s only Russia. How many will succeed one another over the course of two hundred years in motley Europe, which is forever battling and redrawing its borders! Solzhenitsyn is too well prepared for his history exam; as they say, wake him up in the middle of the night and he’ll mutter: “One example was, to use Klyuchevsky’s assessment, the ‘most absurd’ treaty with Austria in 1782: to form a non-existent ‘Dacia’ out of Moldavia, Walachia and Bessarabia, to place Serbia and Bosnia under Vienna, and to give Morea, Crete and Cyprus to Venice.”4

So, did they found Dacia, or not? And to whom did Morea previously belong? And where is it? Did Venice rule Cyprus, and if so, how long and, most important—why should I care?

The Russian Question is an essay. The style is eclectic: it’s an encyclopedia encrusted with sarcasms, oaths, bitter invective; the author alternately kicks the reigning personage and condescendingly praises him. First he arrogantly inquires: “Even had he taken Poland, would Frederick ever have dared to invade the enormous expanses of Russia?” (Why not? Others “dared”: Gengis Khan, Charles XII, Napoleon, Hitler…. Russia had done its own daring and invaded others as well. That’s how history went, without asking Solzhenitsyn.)

Having trudged through almost a hundred pages of this briar patch, once you break free from dates and names, you can begin to see the main point. Solzhenitsyn’s fundamental reproach to our clumsy, myriad lords is that they are bad, improvident imperialists. And he himself is provident, that’s the whole difference. That wasn’t the way to make war, those weren’t the people to hang out with, to believe. If they’d listened to him, everything would have been different. For instance, at the end of the eighteenth century: “…Russia reached a natural southern boundary: the Black Sea (including the Crimea) and the Dnestr River (in much the same way as she had already reached the Arctic and Pacific Oceans). We should have known to stop at that….” (What could they do? Solzhenitsyn hadn’t been born yet, there was no one to give advice.)

Strange logic! Solzhenitsyn has just condemned the idea of the campaign to extend Russia to the Indian Ocean, but he approves of its reaching the Pacific. He’s happy that Russia has entrenched itself on the Black Sea, but unhappy about the idea of seizing the Bosphorus Straits, the idea of aiding brother Slavs suffering under Turkish dominion. He’s also unhappy about the scheme to free the Greeks, fellow Orthodox believers, from those very same Turks. None of our business! The Bashkirs revolted in 1735: that’s what should have been dealt with, and no setting out for India. He doesn’t consider himself an imperialist, but allow me to say that he’s worse, he’s more egotistical than any imperialist. Whatever, in his opinion, is good for Russians, he justifies. Whatever is disadvantageous—down with it! According to him, with the division of Poland (1772), Russia “regained her long-lost Belorussia,” a bit further along (1829) “we secured independence for the Greeks…again, the interests of others.” In my view, this is so extraordinarily cynical that the Greeks and the Belorussians should both be dumbfounded. Despite the various insanities of the Russian tsars, in comparison to Solzhenitsyn they at least appear to have possessed some romantic caprice, some style; in our writer we see only the rigid calculation of a shrewd peasant who won’t give a piece of bread to a beggar because he needs every crust for his hogs.

Even Soviet imperialism, in its post-Stalinist version, seems softer, more humane, clearly more democratic than Solzhenitsyn’s version. Here is his approach to the Chechen problem (before the beginning of the war): “Was it not equally our duty to manage an evacuation of Russians from Chechnya, where they are mocked, where plunder, violence, and death threaten them at all times?” As if Russians don’t steal from Russians, or Chechens from Chechens—if they are thieves; as if Russians don’t live peaceably side by side with Chechens in Chechenya and in Russia if they are normal people! And how cynical is the writer’s sarcasm:

And we? We have over these years hospitably found room in Russia for forty thousand Meskhetian Turks, burned out from Central Asia and rejected by Georgians from their indigenous home; for Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan; everywhere for Chechens, of course, even though they declared their independence from us; and even for Tajiks, who have a country of their own…[etc.]

Well, he’s logical, consistent: Solzhenitsyn doesn’t want outsiders on television, or in his Vermont retreat, or in our country. And “we,” bad, hospitable people that we are, want them.

So, I might ask, perhaps “we” aren’t as bad as it suits the writer to portray us. “We must build a moral Russia, or none at all—it would not then matter anyhow.” Perhaps this is our morality? “We must preserve and nourish all the good seeds which miraculously have not been trampled down in Russia.” Perhaps our hospitality, which Solzhenitsyn condemns, is one of those seeds? I’d like to think that our inept people, for all its vices, is kinder than this uninvited counselor.

Solzhenitsyn is not entirely alone, of course. He has his own unique support group, consisting largely—to his credit—of extremely worthy people. As a rule, these are older, decent, conscientious citizens who are concerned with moral issues and deeply troubled by the political and cultural crisis which Russia is now living through. At one time or another all of them took to heart Solzhenitsyn’s moral imperative: “to live not by lies.” They have tried hard to follow it, with only one exception, which is that they lie—steadfastly and continually—in matters concerning their Teacher and Prophet. For them, his every thought is a revelation, his every work of fiction a tour de force.

This is really a form of religious fanaticism. A person may be reasonable, generous, tolerant, even attain a certain inner freedom, but if he is, let’s say, a single-minded Christian believer, Christ’s actions in the Bible and textual inconsistencies in the Gospels are not open to discussion. And truly: it’s wonderful that the Lord took humanity’s sins upon Himself and out of love for the people let Himself be crucified. But was it absolutely necessary to run an entire herd of swine off the cliff just to destroy the demons? And were the demons really so weak that they perished together with the vulgar swine?

It’s wonderful that Solzhenitsyn, putting his own life in danger, brought together and interpreted the Russian tragedy of the twentieth century in the Gulag Archipelago; that he created a monument to the millions of innocent people who perished in the camps, and thereby awakened the conscience of an entire generation. But does this mean that the home-grown recipes for saving Russia in “How to Rebuild Russia” (what to do in the future) and The Russian Question (what should have been done in the past) are equally magnificent? These recipes can, in essence, be reduced to a single primitive operation: the destruction of the demons by herding the swine—non-Russians, foreigners, adherents of a different faith. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an excellent story, but does it follow that the helpless, poorly cobbled snippets and snarls of text that were recently published as two new stories by Solzhenitsyn are masterpieces?5 The writer’s admirers affirm that this is the case—Yes! Yes! Yes! Masterpieces! It is painful to read articles by respected literary critics who try to prove that a jumble of words published under Solzhenitsyn’s name is brilliant, and insist that if you perceive neither sense nor style in them then it is you who are blind, deaf, and understand nothing of literature. It is not the text that is extolled, but the author, may his name live in glory throughout the ages, Amen.

For those who enjoy observing the spectacle of life this is but another play on the theme of sic transit gloria mundi. And the brighter gloria shines, the sadder it is to note her transit. Saddest and most instructive of all is to see how little time it takes to rise and fall, how people reside on the ruins of their former world stature, how the last few disciples, who swore to tell the truth, shamefully lie to themselves and their Teacher. This only confirms the old maxim that love is more powerful than truth and faith dearer than facts. One cannot help but respect the loyalty of these sectarians: like many before them, they wander barefoot along the dusty roads, beating drums and proclaiming that the Truth has been found—while life, in its noisy complexity and cunning, flows in the other direction and drowns out their feeble chant.

Next Monday evening there’s another “get together with Solzhenitsyn.” Whom will he rebuke this time? Will anyone listen? Competing with him on another channel of our modest television, there’ll be a “report from India—universe building as discussed by the well-known guru, Osh.”

So they did get all the way to the Indian Ocean, after all, the scoundrels. They didn’t listen to the old man.

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

This Issue

October 19, 1995