Clearing Away the Rubble


Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated and annotated by Alexis Klimoff, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 119 pages, $14.95

The Anti-Communist Manifesto: Whom to Help in Russia, edited by Lev Timofeyev Bellevue, Wash.: Free Enterprise Press, 96 pages, $7.95

The September 1990 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's essay, "How to Revitalize Russia," as a special supplement to the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda and the weekly Literary Gazette was something of an event. The great writer who had become a living symbol of resistance to the Soviet regime was offering advice to his troubled homeland—and two leading Soviet newspapers were giving him a forum. His first words stated the truth, until then cloaked in the euphemism of perestroika: "Time has finally run out for communism."

Now the essay appears in English as a slim book entitled Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals.

For years, Solzhenitsyn's political views have been the object of intense controversy, with allegations of monarchist sympathies, anti-Western bias, Russian chauvinism, and anti-Semitism. Rebuilding Russia, however, makes it clear that Solzhenitsyn's fairly moderate nationalism is poles apart from the hate mongering of the infamous Pamyat. He lends no support whatsoever to the chauvinists' ravings about Jewish conspiracies to destroy Russia, though some Russian Jews were upset by his failure to condemn anti-Semitism. He does caution against Russian "imperial delusions" and favors independence for most of the republics, though insisting that the Ukraine and Kazakhstan should remain part of a "Russian Union."

Nor does Solzhenitsyn show any interest in the restoration of Russian monarchy. For all his reservations about democracy—elections based on universal suffrage, he complains, "assume that the nation…is not a living organism but a mere mechanical conglomeration of disparate individuals"—he stresses that his criticism is "not meant to suggest that the future Russian Union will have no need for democracy. It will need it very much." The second half of Rebuilding Russia is a detailed plan for a grass-roots system of self-government, drawing on the pre-revolutionary Russian tradition of zemstvo, an embryonic democracy of local assemblies.

Superficially, the political system Solzhenitsyn envisions does not seem that different from the Western variety. Yet he never accepts the Madisonian concept of social balance achieved through the interaction of competing interests. He regards political parties as nasty and divisive and speaks of "a system of trust based on the idea that moral unity is…achievable." To this end, Solzhenitsyn proposes a nonpolitical advisory body of "respected individuals of lofty moral character, wisdom, and rich experience" that would act as a moral arbiter and, if unanimous, have veto power over any government action.

Solzhenitsyn prefaces his plan for the Russian state by rightly warning that the system of government is not the central issue, since "political activity is by no means the principal mode of human life." Yet, convinced that the character of the citizenry is the key to national well-being, he neglects to mention that political structure is vital because some forms of government leave far more room for private initiative than others.

Perhaps, in a country laid to waste by the state's effort to wipe out the civil society, he assumes that to be self-evident. Yet while Solzhenitsyn has highly specific proposals for the structure of Russia's future government, he never bothers to outline its functions or the boundaries of its authority. He offers, as it were, a constitution without a bill of rights.

While Solzhenitsyn takes the time to praise "the West's civil liberties [and] its respect for the individual," his antipathy to the rights-based model of society is plain. True, he sounds less like a Slavophile than a Burkean conservative, asserting that "if we do not wish to be ruled by a coercive authority, then each of us must rein himself in." But what if each of us does not prove so conscientious? Solzhenitsyn's railings against Western popular culture and "vulgar fashions" raise fears that he would not be averse to using the power of the state to stop this "liquid manure" from seeping into the country.

Nor can one take comfort in his views on the economic role of government. Even Solzhenitsyn's endorsement of private property is limited to "ownership of modest amounts of property which does not oppress others." Land must be privatized cautiously, to ensure that it would not be purchased by speculators and large corporations, not to mention foreigners. And, while exhorting his countrymen to "respect healthy, honest…private commerce," Solzhenitsyn adds that the profit motive will turn "destructive to the health of society" unless kept in check and that "excessive growth…must be regulated by means of antitrust laws and progressive taxation."

The problem is not merely that Solzhenitsyn is, as he admits, no economist. He is above all a moralist, appalled by the "wasteful extravagance" of the consumerist West. Time and again, the writer betrays his antimodern bias, painting a rather idyllic picture of "the Russia of old" where "prices went unchanged for a century at a time" and "the peasant sensibility" was intact.

The editor's preface to an equally slim collection of essays by six Russian radicals, written in the fall of 1990 and published here as The Anti-Communist Manifesto, echoes Solzhenitsyn's opening: "The main event of the 20th Century will be the resignation of the last Communist government of Russia. The empire of evil is being destroyed." But the similarities end there.

The title is slightly misleading, since the contributors—who include three of Russia's best-known free-market economists: Boris Pinsker, Larissa Piyasheva, and Vassily Selyunin—are far less interested in anticommunist diatribes than in a sober analysis of the problems facing their country. Much of that analysis remains relevant.

One of the authors' goals is to warn the West against ill-conceived schemes of aid to what was then the Soviet Union—though they are convinced that the right kind of aid is essential. "We shall not be able to erase the terrible traces left by Communist madness without assistance from all civilized humanity and particularly from the people of America," the editor, economist, and former political prisoner Lev Timofeyev writes in the preface.

Larissa Piyasheva, who was in 1987 the first writer to advocate capitalism in an official Soviet periodical, insists that all loans must be tied to "real steps toward privatization and free enterprise" and cautions that even liberal politicians elected on promarket platforms cannot always be trusted to take such steps. She also counsels Western firms seeking Soviet partners to avoid the state sector as well as "'mixed' state-private firms."

While the authors regard themselves as disciples of F.A. Hayek, their bark may be more libertarian than their bite. Selyunin's plan in "How to Convert the Soviet Economy into a Free Market" stipulates fairly extensive government benefits and sets the ceiling for taxes at a staggering 50 percent of GNP (with tax breaks for developing private businesses). Still, this program of sweeping privatization and price decontrol is about as capitalistic as anything Russia is likely to get in the near future.

Most important, the contributors to The Anti-Communist Manifesto have the right instincts. Pinsker could be responding to Solzhenitsyn when he lambastes Soviet land reformers' efforts to keep wealthy investors out of agriculture: "The aim was to make it impossible for a farm to be treated as capital. However, if it has no market value, what value does it have?"

Timofeyev's remarkable essay, "Some Notes on the Black Market Economy," is a spirited defense of that Soviet bogeyman, the black marketeer. Contrary to widespread assumption, Timofeyev argues, the Soviet regime never succeeded in eradicating the market: "In the recent decades not a single product or service was produced in this country with no connection to the black market." It was only thanks to the "shadow economy" that the nation survived.

Although a Christian like Solzhenitsyn, Timofeyev consciously eschews moralism in his approach to economics. Yes, many black marketeers are unsavory people; but "when money is invested into production, whether by a bribe-taking minister or a hard-working farmer, it produces benefits for society." So what if corrupt communist officials use their ill-gotten gains to become capitalists? Let them make themselves useful and get rich—as long as they let others do the same.

"We must finally admit," concludes Timofeyev, "that ours is a society with a sick mentality. Perhaps the chief source of this sickness is the Russian educated class, the intelligentsia, and the main manifestation of the sickness is egalitarianism."

The authors of The Anti-Communist Manifesto probably share Solzhenitsyn's view that material prosperity is not the be-all and end-all of the social order and that hedonism can be a danger; they simply have more-realistic priorities. Yet it's not just that Solzhenitsyn's message to the Russians is ill-timed. He does not seem to consider the possibility that the "spiritual life" of the nation may benefit not only from religion, family, and organic communities but also from individual liberty, the pursuit of knowledge, and, yes, entrepreneurial creativity.

Recently, after the Soviet government met all of his conditions, Solzhenitsyn announced that he was going home—but not until he completed his next novel. Once in Russia, he said, he would be too involved in other things (presumably offering guidance to those rebuilding Russia). Some observers have suggested that Solzhenitsyn is delaying his return because he really doesn't want to go back. Perhaps he fears to discover that his guidance will not be in great demand.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young, who was born in the Soviet Union, is a writer in Middletown, New Jersey.