Russia and the Soviet Union: Solzhenitsyn Knew the Difference

‘The insane difficulty of the situation is that I can’t ally myself with the Communists, our country’s butchers—but I can’t ally myself wi...


‘The insane difficulty of the situation is that I can’t ally myself with the Communists, our country’s butchers—but I can’t ally myself with our country’s enemies either,” my father, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote in 1982. “And all this time I have no home ground to support me. The world is big, but there’s nowhere to go.”

The great author, through his book “The Gulag Archipelago” (1973) and fiery speeches in the West, earned his reputation as communism’s most implacable foe. Yet, as evident in the quote above from his memoirs (now appearing for the first time in English), during the Cold War he was already discerning a new and unforeseen peril: that Russian-Western mistrust might endure long past the fall of communism.

Fast-forward to 2020. Grievances between Russia and the West have been amply cataloged: arms programs, NATO expansion, Yukos, Kosovo, color revolutions, Ukraine, Crimea, poisonings, elections.

So could a relationship really be reforged if these proximate offenses were mitigated? The two major U.S. political parties could never unite around a principled anticommunism during the Cold War but now sing from the same hymnal about the menace of an ever-rising Russian nationalism. This peculiar circumstance, in the context of a “Cold Peace” that has stubbornly prevailed for a quarter-century, exposes a deeper cleft and demands an examination of historical roots.

In the late 1990s, when I first read these memoirs of my father’s years in the West, I flitted through passages ruminating on East-West conflict, assuming that those questions were moot, consigned to the ash heap of history by the dramatic opening of the Iron Curtain and fall of the Berlin Wall and the signing of the Start I arms-control treaty.

But over the past three years preparing the first English edition of these volumes, I have come to see how prescient Solzhenitsyn was in apprehending a “pivot of accusations towards Russia” herself. Resentful 1970s émigrés were prodding the West to espy its true enemy not in communism, but in an irredeemable Russia. Prerevolutionary Russia had been excoriated by 1920s Western progressives for opposing Bolshevism, but now that opinion had turned, she was damned for being enslaved by it. “How could it have happened?” Solzhenitsyn asks.

He argues in a chapter titled “Russian Pain” that Russia’s “excessive, senseless military actions in Europe” in the 18th and 19th centuries had put the West on guard, while her ossified governing apparatus failed to absorb Western civic “lessons of openness,” or at least to justify its own actions. Meanwhile, fanatical exiled revolutionaries in Europe were drawing a grossly distorted picture of Russia as a retrograde authoritarian prison of nations—and even their most brazen exaggerations took hold in the absence of an articulate counternarrative. On the cusp of the 20th century, aggressive Russian revolutionary terrorism, abetted by a fawning intelligentsia, was met by a nationalist right wing, which resorted to abuse instead of making the case for the moderate path of social evolution attempted by the reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin from 1906 until his assassination in 1911.

Later—decades after Lenin’s “Bolshevik steamroller” had crushed all, especially the Russian patriots who had sought to defend traditional values within a pluralistic society—the parody of Russian patriotism that sprung up in the 1960s and ’70s was a pagan Bolshevik nationalism that “wrote ‘god’ without an initial capital and ‘Government’ with,” as Solzhenitsyn puts it. My father’s “healing, salutary, moderate patriotism”—one freed from imperial ambitions and grounded in a “preservation of the people”—never had the chance to take root in Russia. His vision was odiously conflated with that “Bolshevik nationalism,” another smear of Russia by vengeful émigrés accepted all too readily in the West.

After the fall of communism, Solzhenitsyn’s call for repentance, for a historical reckoning on the model of Germany’s post-Nazi Vergangenheitsbewältigung, went unheeded. And so official government support for memorials of communist repression and the incorporation of “The Gulag Archipelago” into high-school curricula paradoxically coexists in some quarters today with a noxious strain of thought that Joseph Stalin—the chief butcher of Russians—was a Russian patriot, while Solzhenitsyn—the chief enemy of Russia’s oppressors—was a traitor.

No wonder, then, that the West has blurred any meaningful distinction between the totalitarian jackboot of the U.S.S.R. and the soft authoritarianism of a comparatively free Russia, and confused “Russian” and “Soviet,” misunderstanding three centuries of Russian history and the antinational essence of communism. “ ‘Russian’ is to ‘Soviet’ as ‘man’ is to ‘disease,’ ” wrote Solzhenitsyn. An unintended consequence: the unprecedented Russian consensus of liberal society and illiberal government, who agree on little, except that the West won’t like Russia no matter what she does.

If Western policy makers’ objective remains to bring Russia into the community of free nations, they might heed Solzhenitsyn’s plea and engage with Russia equitably, according to the virtues or failings of current policy, rather than judge her reflexively by a fictitious, maleficent historical narrative that bars any path forward.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn is a conductor, pianist and editor of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs, including “Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994,” forthcoming in November.

Main Street: A new generation is getting a hard lesson that Communists are real, as are the lies and violence necessary to keep them in power. Images: KeystoneSTF//AFP/Getty Composite: Mark Kelly

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Newsrust: Russia and the Soviet Union: Solzhenitsyn Knew the Difference
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