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.