Solzhenitsyn's Tarnished Legacy

Understanding the Russian dissident's sad and paradoxical final years


When I first heard of Alexander Solzhenitsyn during my childhood in the Soviet Union, he was the officially reviled author of forbidden books. To my anti-communist parents and their friends, he was a hero who had challenged the leviathan of the Soviet state and told the truth about its crimes. Today, nearly 20 years after the collapse of communism, Solzhenitsyn—who died Sunday, a few months short of his 90th birthday—is remembered with admiration around the world and in his own country. And yet his legacy as a public figure is far more complicated.

By the early 1980s, Solzhenitsyn, who was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974 and settled in the United States, was fighting not just the communist regime, but other dissidents who were too pro-Western, too liberal, too supportive of individualism and pluralism. Russia, Solzhenitsyn argued, had its own path, rooted in national identity, traditional faith, and community rather than individual rights and secular democracy.

A few years later, debates about competing visions for post-communist Russia were suddenly no longer academic. In 1990, Solzhenitsyn's essay, "How to Rebuild Russia," was published in the Soviet Union as a mass-circulation pamphlet. In 1994, he returned to his homeland to a hero's welcome. Sharply critical of Boris Yeltsin's policies, he turned down a state award in 1998, saying he could not accept it from "a government which has brought the country to its present state of ruin."

Last year, he accepted Russia's State Prize from the hands of Vladimir Putin.

It was startling to see Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of the gulag, chatting with Putin, a career KGB officer. A month later, in an interview with the German magazine Spiegel, Solzhenitsyn explained that Putin "was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag," but rather an officer in foreign intelligence, an honorable career in many countries. Never mind that, whatever division he worked in, Putin served in the same institution that hounded dissidents and sent people to the gulag; or that, after his ascent to power, he moved to restore the KGB and its predecessors to a place of honor in Russian history and society.

In the same interview, Solzhenitsyn pointedly refused to criticize Putin's assertion that Russia should not dwell on the horrors of the Stalinist past; instead, he complained that both the West and the former Eastern-bloc Soviet satellites were using Stalin-era atrocities as a moral bludgeon against Russia.

Putin's Russia was hardly Solzhenitsyn's ideal; its rampant consumerism and kitschy pop culture far exceeded the Western materialism that he deplored. And yet Putin's authoritarian regime, with its emphasis on national unity, its ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, and its assertiveness in foreign affairs appealed strongly to the writer.

This was the sad paradox of Solzhenitsyn's final years. The man who once wrote to Soviet leaders demanding the abolition of censorship never protested the revival of censorship. The man who used his Nobel Prize to start a fund for political prisoners kept quiet about the new political prisoners of Putin's regime. The man who coined the slogan "To live not by the lie" had a cozy relationship with a government that rigged elections and filled the media with lies big and small. The man who had once asked the West for "more interference in our internal affairs" joined the chorus of anti-Western agitprop.

In his last article, in Izvestia in April, he castigated as anti-Russian the Ukrainian government's efforts to have the state-engineered famine of 1932-33 declared a genocide. He lamented, "Such savage incitement will be the easiest thing for the West to swallow: They have never even tried to understand our history, they'll eat up any fable, no matter how demented."

Solzhenitsyn's role in bringing down communist totalitarianism will never be forgotten. But in giving his de facto blessing to a resurgent authoritarianism that rolled back many of Russia's hard-won freedoms, when he had the moral authority to speak up and have an impact, he inevitably tarnished this role.

In his Nobel speech in 1974, Solzhenitsyn said that "one word of truth will outweigh the whole world." In the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn spoke this word when it mattered. In the 21st, he did not.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood. A version of this article originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

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  1. The pop up ads for the Russian MOB (Mail Order Bride) service accompanying this article seem like a bit of a reach, subjectwise.

    But, hey, if this is how Reason rakes in the ad revenue, they should try to include the word “Russian” in every article:

    “An so we conclude that Lobster Girl may be an anarcho-capitalist. It remains to be seen whether that is a Russian lobster she is kissing.”

  2. That Solzhenitsyn II sold out just about everything that Solzhenitsyn I so powerfully defended has been apparent for many years. The hard question is why. Is there some perspective from which these contradictory thoughts and actions made any kind of sense?

  3. This really is not fucking complicated:

    Being against Gulags does not make one a Libertarian.

    Solzhenitsyn was a nationalist (in the Straussian mold) who cleaved to traditional notions of social propriety and custom, and looked to religious values to anchor his ethic.

    I see *nothing* inconsistent with criticizing one regime for its crimes and then turning around and lukewarmly praising another that conforms to *his* notion of what Russia should be.

    To imply that to desire to be free from gulags is consonant with a desire for social and political freedoms as we understand them is pure projection, and a disservice to the guy who said what he said, and did what he did, for his own reasons.

  4. Mick: Yes, there’s a way to reconcile the whole thing. He was a theocrat and an authoritarian. He hated the Soviet regime most of all because it was atheist. Once the Soviet state was gone, he probably would have agreed with this classic from Rudy Giuliani:

    “What we don’t see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.”

  5. Anyone who didn’t tow the party line (and many who did) would be eliminated in the Soviet Union. Just because Trotsky spoke out against Stalinist Russia doesn’t mean that Trotsky had a good view of what Russia should be, just that he was right about some of the things that were wrong with it. Solzhenitsyn is the same way, just braver for when and where he chose to speak out against it.

  6. Marcvs hits it square on the nose.

    Many people, it seems, are intellectually paralyzed by the notion that if something is identified as bad, its converse or inverse *must* be good. In reality, it rarely works out that way.

    And so likewise it follows that just because a particular person fights against something that is identified as bad, it does not follow that he himself is good nor the ideals that motivate him are good.

  7. The bigger question is:

    Cathy Young still writes for reason?

  8. This is the best article that’s been written about Solzhenitsyn. After the defeat of communism he backslid to Great Russian Chauvinism, to coin a term. Like Dostoyevsky he loathed the West and wanted to believe that Mother Russia was infinitely superior to us Enlightment folks.

  9. Oh, I just wanted to add that I’m hot to find my Russian beauty today. Dumb, money-hungry blondes R da bomb! Thanks for the cheesy ads, “reason”!

  10. Well thank god someone talked about his dark side. All I saw in most press organs was hagiography.

  11. How come I don’t get any hot Russian bride ads?..

    Seroiously, too bad that the article did not mention such minor things as that he reported on his fellow prisoners to the camp administration, or the rather fishy way he got imprisoned in the first place…

  12. The bigger question is:

    Cathy Young still writes for reason?

    Well, yes and no…

  13. I dunno. I found his 1978 anti-American speech to be very interesting and well thought-out, and somewhat prophetic.

  14. After the defeat of communism he backslid to Great Russian Chauvinism

    Actually, he was always a Great Russian Chauvinist. Anyone who’s interested can read Hedrick Smith’s The Russians for a good discussion of this.

  15. BakedPenguin-

    Going old school on us? I read The Russians pre Gorby. I agree with you.

    While I also agree with ELemenope’s and Marcvs’ observations, Solzhenitsyn should be credited for the pithy gem “the higher the ends, the higher must be the means.”

  16. Yep, I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffle at American Conservative magazine over Buchanan’s suggestion that the Allies should have focused on Stalin instead of Hitler in the Forties.

    He sounds like a holdover from Tsarist Russia.

  17. Here’s an informed article on Solzhenitsyn:


  18. “Seroiously, too bad that the article did not mention such minor things as that he reported on his fellow prisoners to the camp administration, or the rather fishy way he got imprisoned in the first place…”

    Seriously, what orifice did you pull these accusations from? Solzhenitsyn may not have been “the liberal we hoped for”, but accusing him of such betrayal is plain smear.

  19. Solzhenitsyn is similar in many respects to our U.S. “social” conservatives who see no problem in throwing people behind bars for years just for growing and selling pot. He was never a real libertarian, but it wasn’t apparent at first. Still, his earlier stands against Soviet tyranny should be honored.

  20. “Solzhenitsyn is the same way, just braver for when and where he chose to speak out against it.”

    Surely you meant that Trotsky was braver for when and where he took a stand, correct? Trotsky was assassinated by NKVD agents while Roosevelt and Churchill were making waves towards Stalin. Solzhenitsyn was sent into exile by Brezhnev and became an instant celebrity among Cold Warriors. No attempt was ever made to assassinate Solzhenitsyn that I know of, and it would have been very damaging to the world image of the Soviet Union had such an attempt been made. Trotsky’s appeals for residence to London and Washington were rejected, whereas it would have been unthinkable for any administration of the 1970s to refuse refugee status to Solzhenitsyn. Trotsky’s followers in the Socialist Workers Party of the USA were prosecuted by the Roosevelt administration starting in the summer of 1941 because of their characterization of WWII as an inter-imperialist war. None of Solzhenitsyn’s fans in the 1970s were prosecuted by the US federal government for supporting Solzhenitsyn’s politics. By any reasonable standards of comparison, Trotsky was taking much greater risks during his years of political exile than Solzhenitsyn ever was faced with during his own corresponding period of exile.

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