Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin and Solzhenitsyn

Political analysts have been pondering the question of the relationship between Russia's best known politician, Boris Yeltsin, and its best known exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is perfectly obvious, however, that they are people with completely different political and moral convictions -- with the caveat that Yeltsin all too often changes his convictions. After Yeltsin was elected chairperson of the Supreme Soviet of Russia in 1990, he made several attempts to lure Solzhenitsyn into his struggle against Gorbachev and the leadership of the U.S.S.R. Yeltsin asked the then-prime minister, Ivan Silayev, to invite Solzhenitsyn to come to Russia: That invitation was politely refused. A few months later, the Russian government awarded Solzhenitsyn a state prize for his "The Gulag Archipelago," but the honor was firmly declined. When Yeltsin made an official visit to the United States in 1992, he phoned Solzhenitsyn from Washington, but he was not invited to visit Vermont and Solzhenitsyn did not offer to meet him elsewhere. Just before the April 1993 referendum, when the standoff between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet was reaching its climax, Solzhenitsyn wrote: "In order to get out of the current dead end, we need a firm form of state life. We are talking about creating an example that will last a long time. We are talking about an agreement that will arrange things so that Russia does not shake every time the wind blows." Solzhenitsyn then adds that after the period of Yeltsin's reforms, "the people have generally been plunged into poverty and despair. At such a moment it is particularly dangerous to enter into evil political upheavals." It is plain that the support that Solzhenitsyn expressed for Yeltsin after last fall's tragic disbanding and shelling of parliament was only conditional: Solzhenitsyn chose the lesser of two evils, judging that a poor authority is better for the country than chaos. Yeltsin, however, could not forgive Solzhenitsyn for thinking more about Russia than about its president. In his memoirs, Yeltsin writes: "Alexander Isayevich recently posed the following question to the nation and to the president: 'Would you treat your own mother with shock therapy?' Russia is our mother and we are her children. Of course, it is cruel to treat one's own mother with shock therapy. But at the same time, we ourselves are Russia. We are her flesh and blood. And I would treat myself with shock therapy and I have several times. Sometimes that is the only way --suddenly -- for a person to move forward and to survive." Those who know Solzhenitsyn's absolute rejection of revolutionary methods and violence, know what his response to this must be. Solzhenitsyn has not hidden his attitude toward the people currently in power in Russia. "We must begin with repentance," he has declared many times. "But our Communists have simply taken their party cards and put them in their back pockets, saying: 'I am a democrat and always have been.' If you take a magnifying glass and search hard, you may find one or two people somewhere in parliament who really fought the battle. The others were all lackeys of communism, graduates of communist academies, authors of false books and creators of the whole aura of communism." Solzhenitsyn's critical attitude toward the authorities does not mean that he is prepared to support the opposition. Any talk of a possible union between Solzhenitsyn -- the longstanding anti-Communist -- and the Communists is senseless. It is also difficult to imagine a union between Solzhenitsyn and the more odious representatives of Russian nationalism. It is clear that Solzhenitsyn does not favor the resurrection of the former Russian or Soviet empires. Although not all of Solzhenitsyn's views stand up to rigorous criticism, they have nothing in common with primitive nationalism. Solzhenitsyn is foremost a writer. But in Russia, where the role of the bureaucratic government has always been very prominent, great writers have often been forced to fulfill unfamiliar functions for which literature did not prepare them. Therefore, despite his frequent statements that he does not intend to play a political role, it is unlikely that he will be able to keep himself from taking an active part in the current political life of Russia. Russia is not only in a perilous political and economic situation, but a profound moral crisis as well. There are virtually no generally accepted authorities in the whole country. Solzhenitsyn, more than anyone else, deserves the trust of the people. It would be a blessing for the country if the return of one of its great sons could help it on the difficult road out of the present crisis. Roy Medvedev is a historian and the author of "Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism." Vladimir Chebotaryov is a journalist and historian. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.