Dmitry Shlapentokh: Why Putin Needs Solzhenitsyn

Roundup: Historians' Take

[The writer is associate professor of history at Indiana University South Bend in the United States.]

AT THE Russia Day awards ceremony on June 12, President Vladimir Putin gave the most prestigious national honour, the State Prize, to Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Calling the world-renowned Solzhenitsyn a man of great erudition, Mr Putin mentioned only one of his works in his award speech: a compendium of rare words and expressions in the Russian language. The omission of the major work of the 88-year-old writer and historian is a telling indicator of the political and intellectual culture of the regime.

The work that brought Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize and worldwide acclaim was, of course, The Gulag Archipelago - his account of the Soviet terror machine, most notably Stalin's concentration camp system. The attack on Stalin and Stalinism was one of the major thrusts of Solzhenitsyn's long literary and public career.

He invariably presented Stalin as a bloody tyrant whose reign of terror brought about the murder of countless millions. Stalin's USSR subjugated not only Russians but also numerous ethnic minorities inside the then-Soviet Republic and beyond. Indeed, in Solzhenitsyn's early works, the Red Army's march to the East was seen not as liberation of Eastern Europeans but as conquest, in which they plainly exchanged one dictator, Hitler, for another, Stalin.

This vision of Stalin and the Soviet regime is not in the minds of most average Russians today. For people who see the brazen luxury of the nouveau riche and the pervasive corruption that flourishes despite Mr Putin's promise to establish a 'dictatorship of the law', Stalin has emerged as a tough but just ruler who promptly punished the immoral and corrupt who fattened themselves at the expense of the state and society. Some innocent people had to suffer, but Stalin in this respect was hardly unique, as Mr Putin himself made clear. Recently, speaking with teachers, Mr Putin suggested that the United States' use of atomic weapons in World War II was worse than the abuses ordered by Stalin.

Stalin has also emerged as a builder of a great empire, an image that caters to the nostalgia for Soviet imperial greatness. In this view, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an empire of mostly ethnic Russians and Russified minorities with a strong but basically protective hold over the numerous minorities. This protective, loving aspect of the empire was underscored by the fact that under the veneer of Marxism was centuries-old Orthodox Christianity, which permeated Russian society regardless of political and socioeconomic constructions....

These notions of Stalin and the Soviet regime explain why Solzhenitsyn's major work was not part of Mr Putin's speech. One might then wonder why Solzhenitsyn has become important to the Russian President. It is true that Solzhenitsyn is more favourably disposed to Mr Putin than to former president Boris Yeltsin, whom he saw as launching a path disastrous for Russia. But Solzhenitsyn received the award only after seven years of Mr Putin's rule. The reason is simple. The West increasingly sees Mr Putin's Russia as restoring an authoritarian, neo-Soviet nature and thus as not acceptable as an equal. Incorporation into the West, especially 'Old Europe', is the strongest desire of the Russian elite. Mr Putin's re-discovery of the Nobel laureate, leader of the Russian dissident movement, is a bid to show the current regime's distance from the Soviet past....

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