Monday, July 23, 2007

Spiegel Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or The Horror of the Nobel Prize Unbound

Spiegel Magazine recently conducted an interview with the 88-year old Alexander Solzhenitsyn on a large number of Russian topics, including Soviet History, the Putin Years, and smaller, less serious topics like life and death. Solzhenitsyn has a new book coming out this fall My American Years. Even at 88, Solzhenitsyn continues to write and provided a sharp interview.

When questioned about Putin's KGB past (Solzhenitsyn having been prosecuted by the KGB):
Vladimir Putin -- yes, he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag. As for service in foreign intelligence, that is not a negative in any country -- sometimes it even draws praise. George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA, for example.
On Soviet history and Russian remorse (or lack there of):
If we could all take a sober look at our history, then we would no longer see this nostalgic attitude to the Soviet past that predominates now among the less affected part of our society. Nor would the Eastern European countries and former USSR republics feel the need to see in historical Russia the source of their misfortunes. One should not ascribe the evil deeds of individual leaders or political regimes to an innate fault of the Russian people and their country. One should not attribute this to the "sick psychology" of the Russians, as is often done in the West. All these regimes in Russia could only survive by imposing a bloody terror. We should clearly understand that only the voluntary and conscientious acceptance by a people of its guilt can ensure the healing of a nation. Unremitting reproaches from outside, on the other hand, are counterproductive.
On the October Revolution:
Only an extraordinary person can turn opportunity into reality. Lenin and Trotsky were exceptionally nimble and vigorous politicians who managed in a short period of time to use the weakness of Kerensky's government. But allow me to correct you: the "October Revolution" is a myth generated by the winners, the Bolsheviks, and swallowed whole by progressive circles in the West. On Oct. 25, 1917, a violent 24-hour coup d'etat took place in Petrograd. It was brilliantly and thoroughly planned by Leon Trotsky -- Lenin was still in hiding then to avoid being brought to justice for treason. What we call "the Russian Revolution of 1917" was actually the February Revolution.
On Russia learning the lessons of two revolutions and their consequences:
It seems they are starting to. A great number of publications and movies on the history of the 20th century -- albeit of uneven quality -- are evidence of a growing demand. Quite recently, the state-owned TV channel "Russia" aired a series based on Varlam Shalamov's works, showing the terrible, cruel truth about Stalin's camps. It was not watered down.
On Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin:
Gorbachev's administration was amazingly politically naïve, inexperienced and irresponsible towards the country. It was not governance but a thoughtless renunciation of power. The admiration of the West in return only strengthened his conviction that his approach was right. But let us be clear that it was Gorbachev, and not Yeltsin, as is now widely being claimed, who first gave freedom of speech and movement to the citizens of our country.

Yeltsin's period was characterized by a no less irresponsible attitude to people's lives, but in other ways. In his haste to have private rather than state ownership as quickly as possible, Yeltsin started a mass, multi-billion-dollar fire sale of the national patrimony. Wanting to gain the support of regional leaders, Yeltsin called directly for separatism and passed laws that encouraged and empowered the collapse of the Russian state. This, of course, deprived Russia of its historical role for which it had worked so hard, and lowered its standing in the international community. All this met with even more hearty Western applause.

Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible -- a slow and gradual restoration. These efforts were not noticed, nor appreciated, immediately. In any case, one is hard pressed to find examples in history when steps by one country to restore its strength were met favorably by other governments.
On self-government and democracy in Russia:
I have always insisted on the need for local self-government for Russia, but I never opposed this model to Western democracy. On the contrary, I have tried to convince my fellow citizens by citing the examples of highly effective local self-government systems in Switzerland and New England, both of which I saw first-hand.

In your question you confuse local self-government, which is possible on the most grassroots level only, when people know their elected officials personally, with the dominance of a few dozen regional governors, who during Yeltsin's period were only too happy to join the federal government in suppressing any local self-government initiatives.

Today I continue to be extremely worried by the slow and inefficient development of local self-government. But it has finally started to take place.
On the image of the West in Russia:
When I returned to Russia in 1994, the Western world and its states were practically being worshipped. Admittedly, this was caused not so much by real knowledge or a conscious choice, but by the natural disgust with the Bolshevik regime and its anti-Western propaganda.

This mood started changing with the cruel NATO bombings of Serbia. It's fair to say that all layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings. The situation then became worse when NATO started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by literally millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one fell stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc.

So, the perception of the West as mostly a "knight of democracy" has been replaced with the disappointed belief that pragmatism, often cynical and selfish, lies at the core of Western policies. For many Russians it was a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals.


Michael Averko said...

An excerpt of Solzhenitsyn from the Der Spiegel interview not highlighted in the above post:

"As for 'brooding over the past,' alas, that conflation of 'Soviet' and 'Russian,' against which I spoke so often in the 1970s, has not passed away either in the West, or in the ex-socialist countries, or in the former Soviet republics. The elder political generation in communist countries was not ready for repentance, while the new generation is only too happy to voice grievances and level accusations, with present-day Moscow a convenient target. They behave as if they heroically liberated themselves and lead a new life now, while Moscow has remained communist. Nevertheless, I dare hope that this unhealthy phase will soon be over, that all the peoples who have lived through communism will understand that communism is to blame for the bitter pages of their history."


Solzhenitsyn's "The First Circle" touches on the bigoted anti-Russian legacy of the American government approved Captive Nations Week, which recognized every Communist nation as being occupied with the exception of Russia.

The political likes of Edward Lucas are wrong for believing that there's credence behind the Captive Nations Committee, which pushed forward Captive Nations Week.

Just as Nazi successes couldn't have ocurred without the help of many non-Germans, the same holds true of Soviet successes, relative to the role of many non-Russians.

Keep in mind that Estonia recently elected as its president a high profile Brezhnev era Estonian Communist. I understand that in Latvia, the Russian Civil War era Bolshevik allied Latvian riflemen are honored by some Latvian nationalists, on account of that group having killed Russians. In Croatia, the late Tudjman continued to admire Tito, despite the former's stated admiration for the Ustashe regime.

All in all, a good interview.

Mait said...

O how the mighty have fallen.

And Misha, the 'high profile Brezhnev era Estonian Communist' was elected not recently, but over 5 years ago. We don't have direct elections, hence him being put to the position due to some rather complex political machinations - quite like Latvia last month.

He wasn't... liked, one might say. A dullard between two good presidents;)

Michael Averko said...

In other words, Estonia isn't such a free place.

One aspect of the Solzhenitsyn interview which could've been definitely improved upon was the reference to Putin's past.

Many employed by the KGB were intelligent folks in need of a job. Many such KGB employed individuals had greater access to the outside world than other CPSU officials. This led to at least one Soviet era dissident (whose names esacapes me) to observe that the best chance for Russian reform could come from someone with a KGB background. Putin was a close supporter of the late reformist St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

W. Shedd said...

Yes, I decided not to quote every part of the interview. Actually, it was difficult to decide what to excerpt - there were many nuggets the interview.

Michael Averko said...

A very good excerpting on your part, in addition to providing a hyperlink to the full text of the interview.

Mait said...

'In other words, Estonia isn't such a free place.'

Can't say that. Some level of political games is a given in every system. What makes Estonian (and Latvian) experiences proofs of our freedoms is the fact that said games were openly fought against and verbosely commented on in media - and no-one died or was sent to prison/exile/asylum.

And that a similar attempt by same clique failed miserably during last elections;)

Sorry for being off topic. Not much to say on topic, though, apart from it being pretty painful to see someone whose writings I read religiously during my teenage years just... giving up.

Michael Averko said...

One can find fault everywhere.

The language rights situation in Latvia and Estonia and how those two view some of their overall WW II activity leaves something to be desired.

Another anti-Soviet dissident in the late Rostropovich expressed support for Putin.

Putin has been good for Russia. This explains why Russia unfriendly sorts aren't supportive of him.

I say all this while not denying the glowing problems in that country.

charles said...

This is a wonderful piece that thankfully cuts a big hole in the arguments that alot of 'transatlanticists' have been making about Russia.
Flexing of muscle aside, the current leadership in Moscow is making great strides at accomplishing things that are fundamental to the survival of any state: Increase standard of living, a growing middle class, and (despite calls to the contrary) a growing sense of pride.

Mait said...

It's not the pride itself that troubles the neighbors, it's the methods used to attain said pride. No wonder foreign journos draw parallels with 30s Germany.

W. Shedd said...

Should probably dig a bit deeper, when you cite comparisons to 1930's Germany.

For example, what were the outside conditions that led to resentment towards foreign nations within Germany?

Do you think if the US and Western Europe had taken different attitudes and actions towards Russia and the former Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy might be considerably different than it is now?

Do you think the very real financing of NGO's and other political groups within Russia (and former Soviet republics) by foreign governments, agencies, and Russian expats might have contributed to Russian government actions towards news agencies and NGOs?

Many Russian government actions and behaviors are not ideal, but they certainly did not occur within a vacuum and often they had underlying causes inspired by perceived aggressive acts by Western governments and powers-that-be.

I largely believe that we, "The West" pissed away golden opportunities with Russia in recent decades.

Michael Averko said...

A lot of that mentioned pissing away has to do with the Russia unfriendly view dominating the scene. One influenced by Russian unfriendly views with roots in parts of eastern and central Europe. They were the ones who influenced the bigoted, neo-nazi Captive Nations Committee mentioned earlier in this discussion.

For its part, Russia hasn't always done a particularly great job communicating itself to the West. It really is a shame that sports journalism does a better job monitoring itself than what one finds in relation to the Eng. lang. coverage of the former USSR.

BTW, note how the non-Russian WW II Nazi leaning sympathetic regimes in parts of central and eastern are sugar coated. As two examples: reference how some in present day Romania view Ion Antonescu and the pro-Ustashe found among some in Crotia.

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