The Russian riddle

Russian leaders need reminding that war-making is an unhealthy basis for national renaissance.

Russian tank 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Russian tank 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
It was Russia's use of disproportionate force against Georgia, its relatively defenseless neighbor - and not the Beijing Olympics - that dominated the weekend news. In the wake of a roadside bombing that killed six of its police officers, Georgia sought to retake the disputed enclave of South Ossetia. The Russian military is forcing it to withdraw. Russian-supported rebels in another contested region, Abkhazia, have meanwhile launched a separate assault against Georgia. As in many international flare-ups, neither side is completely right nor completely wrong. Yet the world may be witnessing a resurgent Russia attempting to reassert influence over territory it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. AS FATE would have it, the bloodshed comes days after the death of Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, at age 89. Solzhenitsyn was as fierce an opponent of Soviet Communism as he was a champion of Russia nationalism. He left a testament of astonishing power that bears great relevance today - even after the tyranny he helped defeat lies in the dustbin of history. In 1945, after serving in the Red Army, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to a labor camp for making a disparaging reference to Stalin in a letter to a friend. Horrified by his glimpse into the dark heart of the Soviet Union, he resolved to tell its terrible secrets. In his eight years of imprisonment, he committed tens of thousands of lines to memory. After he was released, but still under the most difficult conditions, he penned a series of searing novels - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The First Circle - that illuminated the horrors of the prison camp hell which devoured tens of millions of his fellow citizens. But what finally destroyed Western illusions about the Communist experiment was Solzhenitsyn's monumental non-fiction exposé, The Gulag Archipelago. Writing in impenetrable solitude, its dissident author said he wished to carry "the dying wishes of millions whose last whisper, last moan, had been cut short on some hut floor in some prison camp." In doing so, he added, "it seemed as if it was no longer I who was writing; rather, I was swept along, my hand was being moved by an outside force." The masterpiece was smuggled to Paris, where its publication got Solzhenitsyn expelled from the USSR in 1974 - but not before it had sensational effect. "My face was smothered in tears," one Russian wrote to the author. "All this was mine, intimately mine, mine for every day of the 15 years I spent in the camps." LIKE ANY hero, Solzhenitsyn had his flaws. In the 18 years he lived reclusively outside Cavendish, Vermont, certain reactionary habits of mind came to the fore. He found Western democracy "weak and effete" and regarded Westerners as afflicted by shallow materialism, moral flabbiness and complacency. "Excessive ease and prosperity have weakened their will and their reason," he intoned. When Solzhenitsyn returned after the Soviet collapse, such sentiments, together with a heavy dose of Slavophilia and Russian Orthodox piety, would eventually endear him to Vladimir Putin. The former KGB man admired the writer's idea that after the struggle with the Communist state there loomed a greater challenge still: resurrecting the Russian spirit and reviving its national memory. The Russian leader also applauded Solzhenitsyn's insistence that Russia was a world apart. "Any ancient, deeply-rooted autonomous culture... constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking," Solzhenitsyn said. Last June, Putin visited Solzhenitsyn's home to give him Russia's highest award, the State Prize. His fervent support of Israel notwithstanding, Solzhenitsyn was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism. In his last book Two Hundred Years Together, a history of the Jews in Russia, he emphasized the prominent contribution of Jewish revolutionaries to the Bolshevik seizure of power. Yet, in the end, Solzhenitsyn presents us with the example - urgently needed just now - of a writer of the highest moral seriousness, a man of unyielding honesty whose decision to expose injustice and identify evil carried enormous personal risk. Today's Russian leaders, no less than their Soviet predecessors, could benefit from a patriot-prophet to remind them that war-making is an unhealthy basis for national renaissance.