There are two names which often trigger a very strong and hostile reaction from many Russians: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Rezun aka “Viktor Suvorov”. The list of accusations against these two men usually includes:
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn: he made up numbers about 66 million people killed by the Soviet regime, he spoke favorably of General Andrei Vlasov, he was a CIA stooge, he was an anti-Semite, a Russian nationalist and a monarchist. Finally, there is a popular saying in modern Russia: “show me an anti-Soviet activist(“антисовечик”) and I will show you a russophobe” (which makes Solzhenitsyn a russophobe).
- Vladimir Rezun: he is a traitor, he is the creator of the theory that Hitler only preempted a Soviet attack which Stalin was about to launch, he is a MI-6 front to spread russophobic theories.
What I like to do when I hear these opinions is to ask a simple question: how many books by Solzhenitsyn and/or Rezun have you actually read?
The answer is typically rather nebulous. They mostly refer to either one or two books (at most) and a number of articles (often articles not even written by either author, but paraphrasing, often rather “creatively”).
This reminds me of an old Soviet joke: “a Party official comes to some factory or office to deliver a political lecture and absolutely tears into Solzhenitsyn’s famous “Gulag Archipelago” calling it an ugly collection of lies. One of the workers present asks the Party official whether he read the entire book to which the Party official replies “I don’t read such anti-Soviet filth!”
There is much truth to that as I have rarely encountered Solzhenitsyn-haters who actually read at least a few books by him.
Well, it just so happens that I discovered Solzhenitsyn when I was 16 and that I continued to study his writings for the rest of my life. Over the next years and decades, I read every single book and article Solzhenitsyn wrote several times (at least twice, if not more). As for Rezun, I read all his non-fiction books (I don’t like his fiction at all), so I want to chime in here and share with you, the reader, my strictly personal opinion about these two authors and men.
First, I will begin with a couple of general comments.
For one thing, both Solzhenitsyn and Rezun are terrific writers and it is a crying shame not to read them! Their styles are, however, dramatically different: Solzhenitsyn is often compared to Dostoevskii, and rightfully so, even if this applies more to content and worldview than style. I would say that Solzhenitsyn’s style is unique and very uneven. His masterpiece is, at least in my opinion, the “Gulag Archipelago” (the worst being his poems). Yes, I know, this is a non-fiction book and not one of his purely literary masterpieces (say like “The Cancer Ward” or “In The First Circle“), but I personally happen to find the Gulag Archipelago his most powerful book not only on content, but also on style and language. His other masterpiece is, again in my totally subjective opinion, his immense cycle “The Red Wheel“, especially “August 14” and “October 16“. On the other end of the spectrum, I also love his short stories (“Крохотки”). By any halfway objective measure, the man is a literary giant on par with Tolstoy or Dostoevskii.
Nobody would say that about Rezun. His style could be described as “pedestrian” if not outright “yellow” (in the meaning of “yellow journalism”). But that is not a problem. What Rezun lacks in elegance and academic rigor, he more than makes up for with a very lively and entertaining writing style, some really catchy ideas and a lot of “creative nonsense.” I have no problem with somebody hating Rezun as a person and traitor, or hating his vulgar style, but don’t tell me that he does not write well: millions of people read his books with immense fascination and appreciation. The man has undeniable talent.
The above is just to point out that those who say that they have not read these authors because they hate their style are most likely not being very honest and it is much more likely that they did not read these authors because of the contents of their books. That is what we shall look into next. Specifically, I will look at Alexander Solzhenitsyn first, he is the more complex one of the two, and then at Rezun.
The very first thing we need to remember is that Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, which means that he was raised by a generation of Russians which remembered pre-1917 Russia. The second thing which we need to also keep in mind is that he was raised by a generation which remembered the chaos of the Kerenskii regime followed by the bloodbath of the Bolshevik coup which itself was followed by the bloody orgy of the Russian civil war.
Why is that important?
Because his brand of anti-Sovietism was much more similar to what we would see in the White Guard or the First Generation Russian emigration (those roughly 2 million Russians who left Russia following the Bolshevik coup). For example, this is why Solzhenitsyn wrote so much about the role of Jews in the first Bolshevik governments: this is a topic that was central to the worldview of White Guard and First Generation Russian emigres.
It is also pretty clear that while Solzhenitsyn already had anti-Soviet feelings before he was arrested, it is nonetheless obvious that his incarceration first in a labor camp and, later, into a special jail for scientists, exposed Solzhenitsyn to even more anti-Soviet individuals and ideas.
Of course, none of that excuses any false figures (or misguided political opinions) Solzhenitsyn might have had, but it does explain where they came from and why Solzhenitsyn deemed them as credible. Speaking personally, I was raised in exactly that “White Guard” and “First Emigration” political culture, and I can assure you that Solzhenitsyn’s views were really very much “mainstream” amongst those Russians who still remembered pre-revolutionary Russia.
Next, Solzhenitsyn himself described how he asked all his fellow prisoners (the “zeks” he speaks of in the Gulag Archipelago) to send him all the historical documents, memoirs, academic papers, etc. possible for him to write the history of the Gulag. Needless to say, the Soviet archives were not made open for this purpose, nor did the KGB offer to write an amicus brief to help Solzhenitsyn.
Thus, just to recap: what is important here were Solzhenitsyn’s sources of information:
- Pre-1917 Russians who remembered the horrors of the revolution and civil war
- White Guard & First Wave Emigre memoirs and articles
- Exposure to those arrested for anti-Soviet activities (the famous Art 58), whether guilty or innocent, and who were incarcerated with Solzhenitsyn
- Articles by western scholars, political figures, think tanks (aka “western propaganda”).
Is it a big surprise that Solzhenitsyn did get a lot of things wrong, especially when the Soviet state offered very little in terms of credible historical information?
Here I have to insert a rather lengthy sidebar about the nature of the Soviet state. It is my opinion that over its history the Soviet regime changed rather often and rather dramatically. Personally, I would offer the following chronology:
- The early years: (1917-1922). The Bolshevik coup, then the civil war followed by the great Jewish terror of Iagoda, Frenkel, Ezhov, etc. the years of the so-called “war communism,” the NEP, and the collectivization, famine and “dekulakisation” (1932-1933). This period ended with the so-called “Stalin’s purges” (1936-1938).
- Stalin’s preparation for WWII: (1936-1941). During this period most of the Bolshevik “old guard” was either executed, jailed, or demoted and a completely new generation of commanders (“Stalin’s generals”) were put into all key military and civilian positions.
- The Great Patriotic War: (1941-1945). This dramatic period which saw the Russian nation fight for her very survival also saw a truly dramatic change in political culture: the former Bolshevik russophobia was replaced with praise for the heroic Russian nation, military ranks were fully reestablished (along with traditional Russian epaulets), churches were reopened and the repressions dramatically reduced.
- The post-war period and Stalin’s last years: 1945-1961. This period saw a quasi-miraculous rebirth of the Soviet Union from the ashes of WWII and a period of prosperity and stability. While Stalin was probably murdered by his entourage in 1953 and his main executioner (Lavrenti Beria) executed soon thereafter (also in 1953), their legacy of prosperity and stability lasted well beyond the 22nd CPSU Congress which saw Khrushchev make a 180 and suddenly denounce Stalin, the cult of his personality and the rehabilitation of millions of innocent Russians.
- The Great Betrayal (1961-1964): Khrushchev was the worst, most immoral, incompetent, hypocritical, inept and otherwise despicable Soviet leader ever (Yeltsin was in the same league, IMNSHO). He was also a bloody tyrant. Yet, possibly to conceal his own incompetence and his rabid hatred for Stalin, he did liberalize the Soviet Union to a not-insignificant degree, yet just like in the case of Gorbachev’s “glastnost'” – his “new openness” did not help the Soviet Union, far from it. Eventually, Krushchev himself was overthrown by Brezhnev but by then it was already too late: while until 1961 most (or, at least, many) Russians did believe in the ideal of Marxism-Leninism and trusted their leaders, after the shock of the 22nd CPSU Party Congress a period of deep disillusionment gradually set in. (It would only really stop in 2000!).
- The slow-motion deconstruction of the Soviet state, followed by the inevitable collapse: 1964-1991. Most of us remember Brezhnev. Some probably also remember Andropov. Does anybody even remember Chernenko? Then came “Gorbi” and, for a few hours, Ianaev (of the GKChP 1991 coup) and then the Soviet Union was declared dead.
What is crucial to understand here is that each of these six periods generated a very different popular and political culture. Thus, while in the West you often would hear generalizations about “the Soviets,” the truth is that there never once was any one single monolithic Soviet culture. The perfect example of sharp contrast would be to compare the generation which went through the horrors of the Early Years period with the generation which defeated the Nazi war machine and then put the first man in space.
In the case of Solzhenitsyn he was very much a product of the Early Years and should be evaluated against this historical background and not under the kind of criteria a modern professional historian with full access to many preciously secret archives would have.
Next, we need to take a look at the accusation that Solzhenitsyn was an apologist for General Vlasov.
The short answer is that yes, Solzhenitsyn did justify General Vlasov’s betrayal of his oath by saying that the Soviet Union had betrayed Vlasov long before Vlasov betrayed the Soviet Union. Furthermore, there is no doubt that Solzhenitsyn did absolutely hate Stalin whom he considered a vicious mass murderer. How could he not approve of somebody taking up arms against Stalin? Solzhenitsyn’s conclusion was that if the Russian people had not seized this opportunity to overthrow the Soviet regime, then they really would have proven to the world that they are passive slaves.
One of the goals Solzhenitsyn set for himself when he wrote the Gulag Archipelago was to debunk a popular western theory which goes something like this: “Russians have never known freedom and they don’t care about it. Russians have a slave mentality and all they want is some kind of dictator (Czar or Commissar – makes no difference to them) to rule over them with an iron fist.” One of the things which Solzhenitsyn set out to prove was that far from being passive or slave-like, the Russian people resisted the Bolshevik regime at least until 1946! What does he mean by that? He refers to the fact that between 1917 and 1941, the Soviet regime was constantly threatened by all sorts of enemies (from monarchists to Trotskyists) and that following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the Russian people simply seized this opportunity to rise up again against the Bolsheviks. From this point of view, the entire Vlasov phenomenon is nothing else but a continuation of the civil war. To summarize, when western Russophobes liked to gloat about Russians having a slave mentality, especially the so-called “Russian/Soviet area specialists,” Solzhenitsyn’s intention was to debunk this calumny and reply “oh yes, we did resist, for all of 30 years! You (meaning the folks in the West), in contrast, not only presented very little resistance to the Nazis, most of you became faithful and obedient servants of Hitler! The reality is that we Russians are far more freedom-loving than you are, this is why we cannot be occupied and why it is so hard to rule over us.
While I personally cannot justify Vlasov’s betrayal of his oath, I do fundamentally agree that the Soviet regime only achieved full power and security for itself after the end of the war.
Whatever may be the case, does that really surprise anybody that Solzhenitsyn had such views? Such views were, in fact, quite common amongst those who still remembered pre-1917 Russia. In many ways, Solzhenitsyn was a pure product of the political culture of the Early Years of the Soviet regime and I personally see him as culturally much closer to the pre-1917 Russians than to the Russians who were raised only under the Soviet regime.
That does not mean that Solzhenitsyn did not get some facts, even crucial ones, very wrong.
It is all well and fun to comfortably sit in our chairs and criticize those who have been wrong in their past, but fundamentally this is both logically wrong and morally hypocritical. The truth is that history, ALL history, very much including our recent history, is chock full of myths, generalizations, simplifications, rumors and, most of all, lies. We all know about 9/11, but that is hardly a unique example. Does anybody remember the “Timisoara massacre” or, even better, the “Srebrenica genocide”? Speaking of Srebrenica, how about the no less fake “massacres” in Markale or Racak? How about Colonel Gaddafi giving Viagra to his men to rape Libyan women? Or this innocent young nurse from Kuwait who reported about the Iraqis tossing babies out of incubators?
These were all lies.
And then, there are the much more serious cases, including the historical truth about the so-called “Holocaust.” Or, who carries the responsibility for starting WWII? How about the Nuremberg Trials which some hailed as a huge victory for civilized mankind, while many others called it a “kangaroo court” of victors. What about the Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia? Do you feel that this was a superb example of justice, or a crude Serbian-nation bashing PR operation?
If we can’t even agree on our recent history, do you really expect people from very different time periods (as all Russians today are, depending on their age), to agree on history, even crucial history?
Of course not!
So what we need to do now is not “smoke out” this or that personality and accuse them of lying (that would be a typically *Soviet* thing to do: to denounce a supposed enemy and demand that he be punished and silenced). We first need to consider what this person knew and did not know at the time that he/she wrote/said what we now consider lies. To err is human, and is therefore excusable. To deliberately lie is something quite different.
In the case of Solzhenitsyn, there is absolutely no evidence of deliberate deception on his part. In fact, the 66 million number is not even his. As I already pointed out in the past:
Here is what he actually wrote in this famous Gulag Archipelago about Soviet terror:
According to estimates by exiled professor of statistics IA Kurganov, from 1917 to 1959, and excluding war losses, only from terrorist destruction, suppression, hunger, the high mortality in the camps, and including the subsequent low birth rate, cost us 66.7 million people” (” The Gulag Archipelago “, part 3, Chapter 1). And in an interview in 1976 Solzhenitsyn said: “Professor Kurganov indirectly calculated that from 1917 to 1959 only from the internal war of the Soviet regime against its own people, that is, the destruction of its famine, collectivization, peasant’s deportation to prisons, camps and simple executions – just from these causes we lost, together with our civil war, 66 million people”. These figures INCLUDE the bloody Civil War, the so-called “War Communism,” the numerous anti-Bolshevik insurrections (such as the one in Tambov), the deaths resulting from the so-called “Collectivization” and “Dekulakization,” the “pure” political repression under the infamous Article 58 of the RSFSR Criminal Code and even the subsequent low birth rate. So we are talking about a “grand max” estimate.
The first thing we can note here is that while Prof Kurganov tried to arrive at a “grand max” figure, the Soviet archives (which show dramatically lower numbers of people arrested and/or executed) only dealt with the number of people actually sentenced under Soviet law and does not include the specific events Kurganov chose to include.
Thus, directly comparing Kurganov’s figures with official Soviet documents is a case of apples and oranges.
Still, Solzhenitsyn clearly loathed the Bolsheviks and the Soviet regime and that most likely made him willing to accept facts and figures which he should have checked much more carefully.
There is also a lot of evidence that, ideologically speaking, Solzhenitsyn was a monarchist in the general line of Fedor Dostoevskii, Lev Tikhomirov or Prof. Ivan Ilyin (whom Putin seems to also quote very often…) and that he had an intense dislike, not only for Marxism or Leninism, but even for “moderate” social democracy (which he saw as unable to stand up to the Soviet Union and its allies). We also know for sure that Solzhenitsyn had nothing good to say about western democracies or the capitalist worldview. However, Solzhenitsyn was hardly a typical “reactionary” since he had very little good to say about the pre-1917 Russia, including its last Czar. In truth, Solzhenitsyn was a typical Russian idealist who combined rather liberal, and even modernist, views about the Russian Orthodox Church with a rather strong dislike of the political system put in place by Peter I (often called “The Great” by westernizers). In fact, I would argue that there are at least three different “Solzhenitsyns” which need to be considered separately:
Solzhenitsyn the author: here it is a matter of personal taste. He did get a Nobel in literature, but we all understand that the Nobel Committee is just a front for the AngloZionist PR machine. Personally? He is one of my favorite Russian authors along with, in a totally different style, Sergei Lukianenko.
Solzhenitsyn the historian: here every single word he wrote needs to be revisited and carefully evaluated in light of what we now think that we know. This is especially true of his Gulag Archipelago which Solzhenitsyn referred to as an “An Experiment in Literary Investigation,” thus clearly indicating that this was, by definition, a work in progress, an experiment, and an investigation. As I recently wrote, there is no worthwhile history which is not revisionist, and with Solzhenitsyn being both so famous and so wrong, it is only natural that his writings are the object of a concerted barrage of criticisms and reevaluation.
Solzhenitsyn the philosopher: yet again a case for personal taste. I would argue that Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a giant standing on the shoulders of other giants such as Khomiakov, Dostoevskii, IlIlyinyin, Solonevich, Leontiev, Tikhomirov, Rozanov and many others. Right now his philosophical legacy is completely obfuscated by the historical discussions, but that pendulum will eventually swing the other way, and then his moral philosophy will be studied on its merits.
Right now, these are not good times for “Solzhenitsyn studies,” to say the least. In the West, he is hated as Great-Russian nationalist and an anti-Semitic monarchist while in Russia he is hated like a russophobic CIA stooge who calumniated his own people and who defended a traitor like Vlasov. These beliefs are ingrained way too hard for me to even bother trying to discuss them here. That discussion will happen, but only once the stridently anti-Solzhenitsyn haters will give way to folks with a better personal knowledge of what Solzhenitsyn actually wrote and what he actually meant. Right now most of his detractors are busy simply flaming the man, everything he wrote and all those who read him.
While he was in exile in Cavendish, VT, Solzhenitsyn once told a visiting friend of mine the following: “right now, we don’t have our own country under our feet, this is why it is too early to write on this topic (he was referring to a then still secret book of his which he eventually published after his return to Russia under the title “200 Years Together“), but as soon as Russia recovers her freedom, I will publish this book.” I will paraphrase this by saying that I believe that as long as the former Soviet elites and their offspring occupy most of the key positions in modern Russia, no serious discussion about Solzhenitsyn will be possible, the level of emotional involvement is simply too high. But this too shall pass.
There is already a generation of young Russians out there which does not even remember the Soviet era or the Cold War. It is *their* kids, and even grand-kids, who will, one day, give a fair historical evaluation of this intellectual giant. Right now, modern Russia still lives “in the shadows” of the former Soviet Union. But, sooner or later, Russia will come out from this shadow – that is when Solzhenitsyn’s views will become front and center again.
There is one more thing about Solzhenitsyn I want to share with you: in his pamphlet “Our Pluralists” Solzhenitsyn concludes his essay against Russian “liberals” and “democrats” (in the Russian meaning of the word) with the following words: “we thought you were fresh, but you are still the same.” I often think of this sentence when I read the writings of the Solzhenitsyn haters. During the Soviet period, the Solzhenitsyn haters liked to refer to him as “Solzhenitser” (hinting that he might be a Jew). Nowadays, Solzhenitsyn haters in Russia refer to him as SoLZHEnitsyn (the letters “lzhe” means “lie” in Russian, suggesting that he is a liar). That tells you all you need to know about the degree of sophistication these folks are capable of…
Conclusion: Vladimir Putin as an example to emulate?
Vladimir Putin is often accused of being nostalgic of the Soviet Union and of wanting to recreate it.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
It is true that Putin declared several times that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” (“крупнейшая геополитическая катастрофа века”). What Putin was referring to was not some kind of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, but an acute realization of the unspeakable suffering the collapse of the Soviet Union meant for millions of people.
In fact, Putin has exactly *zero* nostalgia for the bad old USSR and he is not shy about speaking his mind about it, especially when he is confronted by those who now idealize the Soviet era. Not only that, but Putin has very publicly shown his immense respect for Solzhenitsyn. And the feeling was very mutual as we can tell from this photo:
Contrast this with Putin’s often publicly expressed disgust with defectors!
See, for example, what Putin declared during an interview with the British Financial Times: (emphasis added)
As a matter of fact, treason is the gravest crime possible and traitors must be punished. I am not saying that the Salisbury incident is the way to do it. Not at all. But traitors must be punished. This gentleman, Skripal, had already been punished. He was arrested, sentenced and then served time in prison. He received his punishment. For that matter, he was off the radar. Why would anybody be interested in him? He got punished. He was detained, arrested, sentenced and then spent five years in prison. Then he was released and that was it. As concerns treason, of course, it must be punishable. It is the most despicable crime that one can imagine.
By the way, this suggests that Putin does not share Solzhenitsyn’s sympathy for General Vlasov proving, yet again, that a critical mind can always separate the chaff from the wheat.
Then there is the way Putin likes to mention Ivan Ilyin in his speeches. It is pretty obvious to me that in terms of his personal views on history and politics, Putin is clearly an avid reader of both Ilyin and Solzhenitsyn (which creates a cognitive dissonance amongst Solzhenitsyn-haters who support Putin). However, that in no way implies that Putin endorses or agrees with everything Solzhenitsyn or Ilyin wrote or said. But it does show that not all minds in Russia are still “under the shadow of the Soviet Union.”
But change is inevitable.
First, the pendulum of history will swing the other way, and a lot of ideas which seem popular today are bound to gradually fade out, replaced by hopefully a much more careful evaluation of historical figures like Solzhenitsyn. Second, a lot of people who were raised in a blind hatred of “traitors” will simply pass away, while their descendants will not have the same knee-jerk reactions. Last, but most definitely not least, the future Russia will have to rediscover her historical, philosophical, spiritual and cultural roots, at which point the ideas of philosophers like Solzhenitsyn or Ilyin will automatically get center stage once again (though not necessarily be uncritically endorsed).
Source: Unz Review