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Solzhenitsyn's Complex Legacy



A spirited discussion at our editorial meeting today about how to cover Solzhenitsyn's legacy. Which aspect of Solzhenitsyn's life and career should our language services focus on? Solzhenitsyn The Prophet, Solzhenitsyn The Writer, Solzhenitsyn The Chauvinist, or Solzhenitsyn The Moralist ? It depends on whom you ask.

To many Central Asians, as was apparent from our meeting, Solzhenitsyn was not necessarily a figure to be celebrated. To them he was a symbol of Russian imperialism, a chauvinist, who in 1990 opposed independence for the emerging nations of the late Soviet Union. His nationalism, they argue, was not meant for others. But to others, like human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, despite many of his opinions, he will endure as a symbol of resistance.

The problem is that Solzhenitsyn was not just a symbol; he was many symbols to many people -- of dissidence, of bravery (he was a decorated officer), and of Russian nationalism. Paradoxically, in the West he was held aloft as a potent symbol of the struggle against authoritarianism, yet he was often accused of holding authoritarian views himself.

Peter Vail, the managing editor of our Russian Service, makes a convincing case that Solzhenitsyn should be judged on his literary merits, rather than for his role in society. As he points out, "Literary genius does not fade with the years; it only burns brighter."

What will be interesting, in advance of his state funeral on August 6, is how his legacy will be co-opted. In 2007, the Putin administration honored Solzhenitsyn with a Russian State Prize for his "humanitarian" contribution. But no mention was made of "The Gulag Archipelago," apparently at Solzhenitsyn's request.

Of course, it would suit the Kremlin if Solzhenitsyn was celebrated for his Russian nationalism, his Orthodox faith, and his unreconstructed views on empire -- rather than how he is known in the West, as the man who exposed the evils of Stalinism.

But for a man oft characterized as baffling and contradictory, it is perhaps fitting that his legacy will be equally hard to pin down.

-- Luke Allnutt

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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