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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

solzhenitsyn's remedy cannot cure russia's ills

Nikita Khrushchev once said that he used a pin to prick himself when succumbing to drowsiness in an effort to keep up with the latest in socialist-realist literature. But he needed no such ruses to get through Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novella "One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich," a masterly description of Stalin's labor camps that appeared in 1959, at the height of the Khrushchev thaw.

Everybody at that time knew about the mass executions and the camps. A goodish portion of the population were their inmates, another portion was busy guarding them, while others enthusiastically denounced each other. No one could stay clean in this cesspool. It took a superhuman effort just to stay human in the inferno of the camps -- and all glory to Solzhenitsyn for showing how it was possible.

This is a quirk of the Russian ethos that has to be made clear if we are to understand the Solzhenitsyn phenomenon. It is a fact that a poet in Russia is more than a poet. The poet is, above all other things, a saint, a priest. "Ivan Denisovich" was high literature, and Solzhenitsyn was a high priest holding up a mirror before everyone: "Thou hast sinned." And sin means penitence and expiation. A deeply religious people deprived of, or having reneged on, their proper God and conscious of having served, even by tacit acceptance, a horrible personality cult responded overwhelmingly to his book, elevating Solzhenitsyn to the status of "great writer" overnight.

Well, great writer he is not -- or if he is, then only in this Russian, "high priest" sense. As a writer, Solzhenitsyn is leagues behind Andrei Platonov, Boris Pasternak or Mikhail Bulgakov. But that is only the ordinary intellectual's view. For the general public and the more hysterical sections of the intelligentsia, he is a "great" writer, period.

The spectacle of Solzhenitsyn's protracted homecoming and his theatrical statements have changed these mixed feelings into definite apprehensions. Called "great writer and citizen" to his face by everyone from the country's president to its railroad conductors, Solzhenitsyn obviously has no doubts about his greatness and clearly intends to fulfill the role of the nation's spiritual guide, a Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Ghandi or Ayatolla Khomeini.

Khomeini would appear to be his closest model, for Tolstoy with his aristocratic taste and Ghandi with his innate humility would have squirmed from sheer embarrassment at the show biz quality of the hullabaloo surrounding Solzhenitsyn's carefully stage-managed return, complete with a multimillion dollar BBC film project, a railway car reminiscent of tsarist times and coquettish surprise disappearances inviting rumor.

There is a scene in Hedrick Smith's "The Russians" in which Smith meets Solzhenitsyn, before the latter's expulsion from Russia. Solzhenitsyn had come to the interview, in the best official Soviet tradition, armed with the entire text of the proposed interview complete with long, laboriously formulated questions for Smith to ask.

It looks like Solzhenitsyn has come for a reunion with his native land with another set of ready-made questions and answers. He had seen it all clearly back in Vermont, and the trip home only conformed his old convictions. Russia is falling apart. Yegor Gaidar's reforms are brainless. Honest workers cannot earn a living. No one understands where the country is going. Russia has abandoned 25 million countrymen outside her borders. Moscow faces west, away from her own people. On and on and on.

The complaints are all true or nearly true, of course. Only this country needs yet another fiery tribune like it needs a hole in the head. There are already herds of these tribunes, mostly in parliament: talented tyrannical film directors who would love to run the nation like they do production units -- on an unlimited budget provided by the Central Bank; psychopathic journalists famous for lines like "I want more corpses for tonight's newscast"; writers whose talent has withered in the heat of their hatred for Jews and Masons and "democrats." If Solzhenitsyn is not careful, he will get sucked down into a morass of rivalries and alliances. Not exactly the most dignified ending for a fairly illustrious career.

What Solzhenitsyn fails to see is that the situation in the country does not call for a messiah or saint or prophet. The country needs more moderately honest and intelligent, excruciatingly boring individuals good at figures and compromises, plus a few builders of financial, baby food and lingerie empires intending to stay here when all the oil, timber and nonferrous metals have been smuggled out.

Maybe Solzhenitsyn thinks that this nation needs another top leader, not just spiritual but also political. He obviously takes Boris Yeltsin at face value as a tongue-tied, blundering bear of a man. Solzhenitsyn is in for a rude shock when he discovers that Yeltsin's public and private personas are mere nodding acquaintances, that the peasant facade conceals a shrewd, intelligent and far-seeing politician with a mind very much his own.

Some of the things Solzhenitsyn says are truly scary. He thinks in geopolitical terms of the sort that can be overheard in any beer joint: Russia should retreat from Transcaucasus and Central Asia, Russia should do certain vague things to bring Kazakhstan with its majority of Russian-speakers and Slavic Ukraine and Belarus into the fold of the Union (Greater Great Russia?). One fears even to mention things like that, but it is easy to see how such geopolitical daydreams, translated into political actions, could eventually be measured in casualty figures on a Rwandan scale.

Solzhenitsyn is also big on local government. But this country has plenty of local government -- inept, corrupt and mafia-ridden. Will Solzhenitsyn say a few magic words and they will all slink away in shame? Or will he call in the army to dislodge them and start a Latin American-type merry-go-round -- corrupt officials replaced by incompetent army officers who become corrupt officials, in a never-ending cycle?

Right now, though, Solzhenitsyn is offering Russians exactly what they want: a good tear-splotched show on the subject of a venerated writer/patriot, who has "suffered for telling the truth," returning to Mother Russia to be buried eventually under a poetic birch tree.

But no one can do for the people what they cannot do for themselves. All Solzhenitsyn can do is join the ranks of those who amplify the sound of their complaint, but this can soon become a bore. Everybody knows these laments, but what must one do about them? Print more money? Shoot a few million corrupt officials? Persuade the people to stop stealing and drinking? Ah, if only Solzhenitsyn could stop the nation drinking for one single day! But Solzhenitsyn cannot work miracles like a real saint should. It would be better for us all if he did not even try to find simple solutions to ultra-complex, inherently tragic, often unsolvable problems.

Sergei Roy is deputy editor-in-chief of Moscow Magazine. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.