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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Making Denial Impossible

Washington, 29 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-seven years ago this week, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," was published in the West. And this three-volume study of the Soviet political prison camp system made it impossible for people in the Soviet Union and the West to continue to minimize or even deny the horrors of the Stalinist state.

Little in this enormous work had not been reported before, but Solzhenitsyn's immense literary and political authority both generated new interest in this theme and led many of his readers to devote more attention to historical issues they up until then had sought to ignore or whitewash.

For the first time, Solzhenitsyn's readers were led by the power of his prose to consider not only the process of the Stalinist camps, the denunciations, the interrogations, and the Gulag itself but also the implications for Soviet society of the existence of this largely unexamined aspect of its past. And they were thus impelled to ask new questions about a system that had to maintain itself not by respecting the truth but by insisting on a massive lie.

In the West, these three solid volumes became best sellers and sparked renewed interest in other reports about the Soviet camps and the Soviet system more generally. And in Soviet bloc countries, they won an audience both through Western radio broadcasts -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty read Solzhenitsyn's work on the air -- and then via samizdat passed surreptitiously hand to hand throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, the Soviet leaders at the time were outraged both by Solzhenitsyn's decision to publish anything on this subject and to publish abroad. The Soviet leadership under Leonid Brezhnev had retreated from even the limited openness under Nikita Khrushchev about Stalin's crimes, preferring instead to talk about the Soviet dictator's contributions during World War II.

But once "The Gulag Archipelago" was in the public domain, the Brezhnev regime reacted not only by arresting the writer after having been unable to stop his words but also by declaring him a traitor to the fatherland and ultimately expelling him to the West.

As so often happened, these Soviet attacks had the clearly unintended consequence of increasing rather than reducing the attention both Soviet and Western readers paid to Solzhenitsyn and to his careful description of the Stalinist Gulag. Indeed, these attacks had the effect of transforming him into a kind of martyr and prophet whose every statement was parsed for meaning.

Now, a generation later, both Solzhenitsyn's warnings about the Soviet past and his own standing both at home and abroad have changed dramatically -- and not in ways that either he or many others are likely to find entirely welcome.

Solzhenitsyn's works, including "The Gulag Archipelago," are generally available in Russia. Solzhenitsyn himself has returned to a very different country. And he has even had conversations with the new Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Solzhenitsyn's often disparaging comments about the West during his long years of exile and his delay in returning to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union have cost him the unqualified respect and admiration that he enjoyed when his study of the Soviet past was first published.

Moreover, his arguments about the Soviet past seem increasingly dated in both the West and in Russia itself. In the West, the discussion of Stalin's crimes has largely degenerated into academic disputes about just how many people were in fact killed by the Soviet dictator and how the Gulag fit into the Soviet economy.

And in Russia itself, ever more people appear to be looking back to the Soviet period not with the horror that Solzhenitsyn expressed so dramatically a quarter of a century ago but almost with nostalgia. In recent weeks, this change in attitude has led officials to make more positive comments about the Soviet secret police and prompted the revival of several Stalin-era symbols, including the Soviet anthem and the red battle flag for the Russian army.

More to the point, ever more Russians appear to want to restore something like the borders of what was the Soviet Union. According to poll results released this week, some 55 percent of Russians believe that it is Russia's "historical mission" to pull together the peoples and lands that formed the pre-1917 Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, a view that Solzhenitsyn's recent statements suggest that he now shares, at least in part.

Such shifts in attitudes simultaneously underscore the possibility of change. But they also underscore the power of the past if it is not confronted openly as Solzhenitsyn did in "The Gulag Archipelago" to continue to cast a shadow on the present and the future as well.