The Age of Solzhenitsyn

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Post-Soviet Russia is a curious place. It revels in unbridled jingoism that Soviet propaganda would have envied while renaming streets to honor dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But these may not be so incompatible after all.

In the early 1970s, when Solzhenitsyn was habitually tarred in Pravda, a political joke made rounds:

In the 25th century, a history teacher asks her students: "Who was Lenin?" Nobody has any idea. "What about Stalin?" she persists. Dead silence. "Brezhnev?" A tentative hand goes up: "A minor despot in the Age of Solzhenitsyn?"

The joke hits the nail on the head. Few people remember Brezhnev, and Lenin and Stalin have become mere symbols. As for Solzhenitsyn, while his influence on contemporary Russian literature may be modest, in politics and ideology Russia is certainly living out his era.

"Moscow 2042," is Vladimir Voinovich's biting look at senescent communism. The 1986 novel satirizes Solzhenitsyn's triumphal return from his Vermont estate to Moscow, astride a white horse restoring a caricatured old regime. When it became possible for him to return in the late 1980s, many people expected Solzhenitsyn to be on the first plane to Moscow, to lead the extraordinary change occurring in Russia. But Solzhenitsyn dawdled, returning only in 1994, after the revolution was long over.

Nevertheless, his influence on contemporary Russia is difficult to overestimate. The dissident movement in the 1960s and 1970s consisted of many strains, but the two main factions, temporarily allied against the oppressive regime but incompatible in their competing visions, were pro-Western liberals led by physicist Andrei Sakharov and nationalist conservatives exemplified by Solzhenitsyn.

There is no question as to who prevailed. Sakharov has a remarkably ugly Brezhnev-era boulevard named after him, but democratic reforms he advocated mostly failed in the 1990s. Sakharov's surviving acolytes gravitate toward the coalition called The Other Russia and are classified as opponents of the Putin-Medvedev regime. Sakharov would not have welcomed Russia's involvement in the South Ossetia conflict.

Solzhenitsyn has always railed against the West and cautioned against transplanting its democracy onto the Russian soil. He reveled in Russia's spiritual heritage, Orthodox faith and statist tradition, with a strong authoritarian component. This is now Russia's official ideology and its main elements, including a strong anti-Western bias and belief that Russia is somehow special, have been starkly on display during the conflict with Georgia.

In his 1990 essay on rebuilding Russia, Solzhenitsyn wrote about replacing the Soviet Union with a Slavic core. Russia is now part of the Russia-Belarus Union.

This pseudo-Union shows what is wrong with today's Russia and what has always been wrong with Solzhenitsyn's political creed. It is mainly literary fiction. Russia's spirituality, its anti-Western rhetoric and its "special path" are all fiction, too. In reality, it is a thoroughly corrupt country whose leaders hide their wealth offshore, consume vast quantities of luxury imports and educate their children at elite schools abroad. As cynical as other authoritarian leaders, they mask their incompetence and venality by wrapping themselves in the flag -- as they have so successfully done in the Caucasus.

In the 19th century, a writer in Russia was more than a mere literary figure. He or she was a prophet, a national conscience, almost an alternative center of power. This was Solzhenitsyn's role in the Soviet Union, but his efforts to remain a national conscience in the 21st century turned into a pathetic farce. He lent his support to former President Vladimir Putin and, specifically, to Russia's erratic, pubescently aggressive foreign policy. For all his courage in standing up to the Soviet regime, he might be remembered as an ideologist of Russia's senseless military forays into its former colonies.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.