Accessibility links

Breaking News

Solzhenitsyn Leaves Troubled Legacy Across Former Soviet Union

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident writer who exposed the horrors of Soviet prison camps, was laid to rest today at a lavish ceremony in Moscow's Donskoi Monastery.

Hundreds of mourners, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and other top officials, gathered under a gray sky to pay their tribute to Solzhenitsyn's literary talent and unwavering crusade against totalitarianism.

But Solzhenitsyn leaves a complex legacy throughout the former communist bloc.

While the world widely admired his courage in exposing the atrocities of the Soviet prison camps, many, too, frowned on the ardent nationalism he espoused in his later years. His warm ties with former Russian President Putin, a retired KGB officer, drove a wedge with many of his fellow Soviet-era dissidents.
He wrote a long article saying that Russia has to be a separate state, that it has to kick out the other 14 republics. He wrote that the republics were Russia's 'underbelly,' meaning that Russia was feeding them and would prosper if they were discarded

Russia's ethnic and religious minorities, too, took a dim view of Solzhenitsyn's calls for a Slavic revival based on Russian Orthodoxy.

"It isn't customary in such moments to express anything but praise about the deceased, but some of his articles did have an element of xenophobia," says Armenian writer Vahram Martirosian. "Against the backdrop of a strongly negative attitude towards migrants, including Armenians, this only poured oil on the flames of Russian chauvinism in today's Russia."

'Rebuilding Russia'

Aydar Khalim, a prominent Tatar author, describes Solzhenitsyn's death as a "heavy loss for humanity." But he agrees that the dissident failed the millions of non-Slavic Russians.

"On the one hand, he was considered one of the main defeaters of Stalinist tyranny in Russia. On the other hand, for us he was a guardian of the Russian Empire. His power to criticize and denounce put Solzhenitsyn on par with Lev Tolstoi, but in his famous work 'Rebuilding Russia,' for example, he strove to preserve Russia as an empire. With the fame he enjoyed, he could have tried to defend not only Russians but other ethnic groups as well," Khalim says.

In "Rebuilding Russia," an essay first published in 1990 in "Komsomolskaya pravda" -- then one of the Soviet Union's most popular dailies -- Solzhenitsyn urged Russia to cast off all non-Slav republics, which he claimed were sapping the Russian nation. The Nobel Peace laureate called for the creation of a new Slavic state bringing together Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Kazakhstan that he considered to be Russified.

This united Slavic state built on Russian Orthodox faith, he wrote, would provide an alternative to the West's decadent liberalism. The essay drew the ire of both those who hoped to salvage the Soviet Union and those who wished for its breakup into sovereign republics. It offended many in Central Asia, which Solzhenitsyn described as Russia's "underbelly, the thoughtless conquest of Aleksandr II."

Kazat Akmatov, a prominent Kyrgyz writer who co-chaired the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement party in the 1990s, says his literature was heavily politicized.

"He wrote a long article saying that Russia has to be a separate state, that it has to kick out the other 14 republics. He wrote that the republics were Russia's 'underbelly,' meaning that Russia was feeding them and would prosper if they were discarded," Akmatovs says.

Even long after the Soviet Union's collapse, Solzhenitsyn remained adamant about forming a united Slavic state.

Solzhenitsyn's widow stands at her husband's coffin during the farewell ceremony in Moscow
In May 1996, a group of respected Kazakh writers attacked "Komsomolskaya pravda" for publishing an interview with Solzhenitsyn in which he called for northern Kazakhstan to be incorporated into Russia.

They demanded that the newspaper be banned in Kazakhstan, accusing it of violating their country's territorial integrity -- a charge backed by the Kazakh prosecutor-general, who described Solzhenitsyn's statement as a "gross intervention in the internal affairs of an independent state."

"Komsomolskaya pravda" was eventually forced to publish an apology.

Nationalist Rhetoric

Solzhenitsyn's nationalist leanings also earned him much criticism in Belarus and Ukraine, both eager to steer away from their former imperial master after gaining independence in 1991.

Ales Antsipenka, a Belarusian philosopher, says that after the essay "Rebuilding Russia," "I realized that Mr. Solzhenitsyn was a common Russian imperialist, despite the fact that he had lashed out at the totalitarian system with such force. I saw it as a terrible contradiction because any imperialistic system is, to a certain extent, totalitarian. I saw that Solzhenitsyn was hugely contradictory in denying Belarusians and Ukrainians the right to determine their fate."

Such sentiments are widely echoed in Ukraine, despite enduring admiration for the man who shook the foundations of Soviet rule with his stinging indictment of Josef Stalin's gulag camps.

Yevhen Sverstiuk, a Ukrainian writer and poet who was jailed as a political prisoner in the 1970s, says Solzhenitsyn played a key role in bolstering the opposition throughout the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. But Sverstiuk says the author's political views took a turn for the worse in the mid-1970s.

"After receiving the Nobel Prize, Solzhenitsyn deteriorated -- he switched from the great challenge of combating the evil empire to Russian imperial issues. He fell not only in our esteem, his international image also deteriorated. Each of his words was closely monitored and sparked disenchantment after disenchantment," Sverstiuk says.

Disappointment at Solzhenitsyn's mounting nationalist rhetoric, says Sverstiuk, was all the deeper in Ukraine due to Solzhenitsyn's Ukrainian origin.

"Ukraine is a separate topic since Solzhenitsyn, whose mother was Ukrainian, had a particular attitude toward Ukraine. He sought to reject his Ukrainian half and uphold his Russian nationalist half. In this sense, he lost his stature. He joined the very narrow, reactionary, and primitive world of Russian imperial ideology. His speeches on Ukraine were horrid. They were wrong, they were full of false information, the kind of information that Russian society is being fed," Sverstiuk says.

Solzhenitsyn also angered Ukrainians by denying the country had been the victim of genocide during the 1932-33 famine. In April this year, the 89-year-old wrote that the famine had killed millions across the entire Soviet Union, adding that many of the communist officials who had helped orchestrate it were Ukrainian.

His article, in which he scolded the West for backing what he called a "loony fable," came as U.S. President George W. Bush laid a wreath in Kyiv to honor the memory of the famine's victims. It also coincided with a State Duma resolution rejecting Ukraine's claims of genocide.

RFE/RL's Armenian, Tatar-Bashkir, Kyrgyz, Belarusian, and Ukrainian Services contributed to this report