A Jeremiah Guilty of Truth

It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's birthday last Thursday -- though no one in Russia seemed to pay much attention. Two weeks before, he'd written a long article called "Russia's Death Throes" for the French newspaper Le Monde, and that too had been more or less ignored to death.

Western newspapers did record -- somewhat reluctantly, I thought -- that Solzhenitsyn had attacked the Russian government. But the subtexts in Western (and in Russian) articles were "Again!" and "Oh, God!" and "Is the man never satisfied?" Solzhenitsyn is clearly now regarded as a latter-day Jeremiah.

This is a pity. (It's actually a whole lot more than a pity; it's an outrage and an insult to his past.) For it means that what Solzhenitsyn actually wrote in Le Monde will never reach the audience it deserves, and so will never be taken seriously. And yet it's the most coherent recent overview of what is happening and has happened in this country in the last ten years. It's concise, measured, calm -- and, in its way, quite terrifying.

Solzhenitsyn begins by saying that Western observers of Russia are so concerned with reporting the news as it happens that they fail to see the direction in which the country is going. They take it for granted that Russia, however weak the state may be, is a democracy of sorts and that economic reforms have cleared the way toward a free market.

Neither of these notions is actually remotely true, he says. There is no democracy at all in Russia, in the sense of "a regime in which the people effectively control the flow of their daily life." There are no local self-governed bodies and no regional legislative assemblies that are not in thrall to (centrally appointed, rather than elected) governors. As for the State Duma, it has virtually no powers and is filled by people who are bent on feathering their own nests and who in some instances have not even been elected personally.

The fate of the whole country under these circumstances, he says, devolves on the (vertical) power of the presidency -- and therefore on the quadrennial presidential election. And yet in the last election, there was no debate nor any real exchange of views. All the television channels simply broadcast propaganda for Yeltsin as the only possible protector against the return of the Communists. So he was re-elected without responding to "the vices that had for five years attended the function of power" and was given a virtual mandate to continue them: lack of control, lack of responsibility, obsessive secrecy and total impunity.

The result is that the country is run today, he says, by an oligarchy of old Communists and nouveau-riche bandits united by "a thirst for power and self-serving calculation": talentless, amoral, immoral and yet above the law. To help keep themselves in place and defang opposition, they have created innumerable councils and commissions, "creating an irresponsible and ... chaotic multiplicity of powers," and doubling or even tripling the bureaucracy.

As for the so-called free market, he says, it was Gorbachev who opened the floodgates for economic chaos, but it was Gaidar and Chubais who finished the job. Gaidar, in "freeing" prices, allowed producers "to inflate without limit the sale prices of their products, whilst lowering the volume of production and the costs it entailed."

Chubais simply made matters worse. He offered to the general population "privatization" vouchers that represented less than 1 percent of the national wealth. The rest were sold off at bargain-basement prices to "individuals who, for the most part, were only looking for easy profit and had neither production experience nor the desire to develop."

The opportunity, in other words, for pillage and plunder on a massive scale was opened up, and the pillagers and plunderers soon found their way, via bribery and corruption, into the corridors of State power. "This entwining of new, powerful, criminally obtained wealth with the state," says Solzhenitsyn, is an absolute hindrance to the development of a free-market economy. Indeed, the oligarchic and enclosed system of government is itself "achieved by the diktat of big money."

There's more in "Russia's Death Throes" -- about the incompetent meddling of the IMF in Russia's chaotic economy, and about the true motives for first the peace, then the war, with Chechnya. (Oil money is at the root of both, says Solzhenitsyn.)

But all of it seems to me to be not only unexceptionable, but also -- how shall I put it? -- the unvarnished truth. So why is it that Solzhenitsyn is regarded as a Jeremiah? Is it simply that telling the truth is -- once more -- a punishable offense?