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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Solzhenitsyn Snubs Birthday Honor From Yeltsin

It is said that prophets are never honored in their land. In contentious Russia, even trying to honor them is tricky.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, unbending critic of both Soviet repression and the spiritual deficiencies of contemporary Russia, celebrated his 80th birthday Friday by dropping a public-relations bombshell on President Boris Yeltsin. Hours after Yeltsin granted him the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle for "outstanding services to the Fatherland and for his great contribution to world literature,'' Solzhenitsyn turned it down.

The rejection was harsh, in the uncompromising style that has made Solzhenitsyn a kind of contemporary Isaiah, forever railing against the failings of his nation.

"I cannot accept an award from the supreme authority which brought Russia to its current disastrous state,'' he told a gala theater gathering of friends and admirers.

"Under present circumstances, when people hold hunger strikes in order to get their salaries, I cannot accept this award," he said. "Maybe after a long time, when Russia finds its way out of its troubles, my sons will be able to receive it in my place.''

He spoke Friday evening at the Taganka Theater, where veteran director Yury Lyubimov, another octogenarian who was deported by the Soviet authorities, showed an adaptation of Solzhenitsyn's novel "The First Circle."

He was quoted earlier in the day as saying he was just "not worthy" to receive the award.

Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff, Oleg Sysuyev, said on Russian television the Kremlin had no hard feelings.

"He has an uneasy attitude toward the authorities and award. ... We all know that he is critical of many sides of our life. It is his right to accept it or not," Sysuyev said.

"But it's the president's duty, as he understands it, not to leave such a remarkable person unacknowledged on his birthday," he said.

He added that Solzhenitsyn still holds the order.

Deputies in the Communist-dominated State Duma, parliament's lower house, also congratulated Solzhenitsyn on his birthday, and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called him "our spiritual authority ... a prophet of freedom."

In the West and at home, Solzhenitsyn is deeply respected for his chronicles of Soviet prison life. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'' and "The Gulag Archipelago'' are literary monuments to the cruelty of totalitarian states toward the individual. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.

Since his 1994 return from a 20-year American exile, Solzhenitsyn has dedicated himself to skewering post-Soviet Russian life. He lambasted Yeltsin for abandoning ethnic Russians in newly independent states of the Soviet Union and for the rampant corruption of the new Russian state. Last spring, he wrote an outraged critique of his country and countrymen called "Russia in Collapse.''

Friday's rejection of Yeltsin's award capped a week in which Solzhenitsyn has been praised as Russia's greatest living writer and major moral force.

Both liberal and communist newspapers heaped praise on the author, who is as critical of the new capitalist Russia as of the old totalitarian system it replaced.

"He is the only writer in Russia to whom the epithet 'great' can be attached without any hesitation," said the liberal business daily Kommersant.

From the other end of the political spectrum the pro-communist Sovietskaya Rossiya daily welcomed Solzhenitsyn's diatribes against post-Soviet liberal reforms.

The liberal political party Yabloko said in a statement that Russia needed Solzhenitsyn more than ever before.

"We are alarmed that various extremists are trying again to rewrite history according to their point of view, to return to old methods of rule, to suppress heretics, to fan nationalism and anti-Semitism, religious intolerance, the revival of the gulag in its cruelest forms," the statement said.