Excerpts from an interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Der Spiegel magazine has published an extensive interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer. He discusses the fate of contemporary Russia and its difficult relationship with the West, and evaluates the actions of politicians from Gorbachev to Putin.

Der Spiegel magazine (Germany) has published an extensive interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer. He discusses the fate of contemporary Russia and its difficult relationship with the West, and evaluates the actions of politicians from Gorbachev to Putin. We believe that Solzhenitsyn’s words have great socio-political significance, and with his permission we are sharing some excerpts from that interview today.

Question: What do you think of Vladimir Putin’s period in power as compared to his predecessors, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Gorbachev’s rule was striking in its political naivety, inexperience, and lack of responsibility to our country. It wasn’t power – it was thoughtless surrender of power. The West’s delighted response only reinforced the picture. Yet we should acknowledge that it was Gorbachev – not Yeltsin, as everyone says now – who first gave our country’s citizens freedom of speech and freedom of movement.

Yeltsin’s rule was equally irresponsible with regard to the people, but in different ways. In its heedless rush to replace state property with private property as soon as possible – Yeltsin unleashed large-scale, multi-billion looting of our national heritage. In striving to win the support of regional leaders, his direct calls for action reinforced and incited separatism and the collapse of the Russian state, while also robbing Russia of its well-earned historical role and international status. This drew equally strong applause from the West.

Putin inherited a country that had been looted and knocked off its feet, with a demoralized and impoverished majority. And he set about doing reviving it, doing whatever was possible – gradually, slowly. These efforts weren’t immediately noticed, let alone appreciated. And can you name any historical example of other countries welcoming one country’s measures to restore the strength of its state administration?

Question: After seven years of Putin’s rule, we are seeing all power concentrated in the president’s hands, and everything focused on him: there’s hardly any opposition left.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Opposition? It’s certainly necessary, and welcomed by all who want healthy development for our country. Now, as in the Yeltsin era, only the Communists are in opposition. However, when you say “there’s hardly any opposition” – do you mean the democratic parties of the 1990s? But take an unbiased look at the situation: if living standards fell rapidly all through the 1990s, affecting three-quarters of Russia’s families, and all this happened “under the banners of democracy” – then it’s hardly suprising that the people have moved away from those banners. And these days, the leaders of those parties are still arguing over the distribution of portfolios in their imaginary shadow government.

Regrettably, Russia still lacks a constructive, coherent, and numerous opposition. Clearly, more time and experience will be required for such an opposition to take shape, and for other democratic institutions to mature.

Question: Relations between Russia and the West, including Russian-European relations, seem to have sobered up in recent years. Why? What is the West misunderstanding about present-day Russia?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: I could name several reasons, but it’s the psychological reasons that interest me most: the difference between illusory hopes – in Russia and the West – and reality.

When I returned to Russia in 1994, what I saw here almost amounted to deification of the Western world and the state order of various Western countries. To be honest, this had less to do with actual knowledge or conscious choice, and more to do with a natural revulsion for the Bolshevik regime and its anti-Western propaganda. The situation was first changed by NATO’s brutal bombing of Serbia. This drew a big black line – and it would be fair to say that this change of attitude applied across all strata of Russian society. Then the situation was exacerbated by the steps NATO took to draw parts of the former USSR into its own sphere: with Ukraine as an especially sensitive case, since it’s so closely related to us, via millions of individual family ties. Those ties could be sundered overnight by the new border of a military bloc.

Thus, perceptions of the West as a Knight for Democracy were replaced by the disillusioned observation that the West’s policies are primarily based on pragmatism – often mercenary, cynical pragmatism. Many people in Russia found this realization hard to bear – it destroyed their ideals.

In the meantime, the West was celebrating the end of the exhausting Cold War and watching 15 years of Gorbachev-Yeltsin anarchy in Russia, with Russia surrendering all its positions abroad. The West rapidly grew acccustomed to the comforting idea that Russia had practically become a Third World country and would stay that way forever. But when Russia started growing stronger again, as an economy and as a state, the West perceived this – perhaps at the subconscious level of lingering fears – as a reason to panic.

Question: It was reminded of the former superpower – the Soviet Union.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: That was inaccurate. But even before that, the West permitted itself to live in the illusion – or convenient falsehood? – that what Russia had was young democracy, whereas in fact it wasn’t democracy at all. Russia isn’t a democratic country yet, of course; it’s only starting to build democracy, and it’s easy to present Russia with a long list of its flaws, violations, and errors. But didn’t Russia reach out to the West, clearly and unambiguously, in the battle that started after September 11 and is still continuing? The irrational rejection of Russia’s overtures can only be attributed to psychological inadequacy, or a disastrous lack of foresight. After accepting some important assistance from Russia in Afghanistan, the United States immediately turned around and started making more and more demands of Russia. And Europe’s criticism of Russia is obviously rooted in Europe’s own energy-related apprehensions – which are unfounded.

The West’s rejection of Russia – isn’t this an unaffordable luxury, especially in the face of new threats? In my last interview in the West before my return to Russia Forbes magazine, April 1994, I said: “Looking into the long-term future, there may come a time in the 21st Century when the United States and Europe will really need Russia as an ally.”

Question: Your work is pervaded by the idea of Orthodox Christianity’s influence on the Russian world. What is the current situation with the moral authority of the Russian Orthodox Church? We get the impression that it’s turning into a state church again, as it was in bygone centuries – an institution that effectively legitimates the ruler of the Kremlin as the representative of God.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: On the contrary, it’s remarkable that in the few short years since the Church was totally subordinate to the Communist state, it has managed to build up a farily independent position. Don’t forget the terrible human casualties sustained by the Russian Orthodox Church throughout almost all of the 20th Century. It’s only just starting to climb to its feet. And the young post-Soviet state is only just learning to respect the Church as a self-sufficient and independent entity. The “Social Doctrine” of the Russian Orthodox Church goes much further than the government’s policies. Metropolitan Kirill, the most prominent spokesman for the Church’s position, has been calling for changes – such as changes to the taxation system, quite different from the government’s policies – and he’s doing this publicly, on national television.

“Legitimating the ruler of the Kremlin?” You mean Yeltsin’s funeral in a cathedral, omitting the civil farewell ceremony?

Question: Among other things, yes.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Well, that was probably the only way to restrain the situation and prevent any potential displays of the people’s ongoing rage during the funeral. But I don’t see any reason to regard this as establishing a funeral tradition for Russian presidents.

As for the past – the Church maintains round-the-clock prayers for the repose of the dead at Butovo near Moscow, at Solovki, and other mass graves of victims of Soviet-era executions.