Monday, August 04, 2008

A Russian Patriot

(Bernhard Frye/The Associated Press. Pinched from the International Herald Tribune site)

"Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts"

The great man is gone. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has died aged 89.

I wrote about my favourite book of his, "August 1914", here.

"At a time like this, ensign, party political differences are just ripples on the water."

"Then what differences mean anything at all ?"

"The difference between decency and swinishness, ensign !".

I would have been interested to know what he thought of Putin's Russia. We know he detested Yeltsin's kleptocracy - but while Putin is undoubtedly a Russian patriot, would he have approved of his brand of gangster crony capitalism, where you can be as great a villain as you like as long as you don't interfere with what are seen as State interests ?

According to the massive IHT obituary (and what a good news site that is - I find I'm using it more and more these days) :

Solzhenitsyn was heir to a morally focused and often prophetic Russian literary tradition, and he looked the part. With his stern visage, lofty brow and full, Old Testament beard, he recalled Tolstoy while suggesting a modern-day Jeremiah, denouncing the evils of the Kremlin and later the mores of the West. He returned to Russia and deplored what he considered its spiritual decline, but in the last years of his life he embraced President Vladimir Putin as a restorer of Russia's greatness.
I can understand that. "Our" capitalists - if indeed any British capitalists can be said to be "ours" any more - would mostly sell their grandmothers for a few million more. Judging by the kicking BP are getting - predicted two years ago here - and I don't approve, btw - "their" capitalists have a different agenda.

His rare public appearances could turn into hectoring jeremiads. Delivering the commencement address at Harvard in 1978, he called the country of his sanctuary spiritually weak and mired in vulgar materialism. Americans, he said, speaking in Russian through a translator, were cowardly. Few were willing to die for their ideals, he said. He condemned both the United States government and American society for its "hasty" capitulation in Vietnam. And he criticized the country's music as intolerable and attacked its unfettered press, accusing it of violations of privacy.

Many in the West did not know what to make of the man. He was perceived as a great writer and hero who had defied the Russian authorities. Yet he seemed willing to lash out at everyone else as well — democrats, secularists, capitalists, liberals and consumers.

That's true (the lashing out - not the references to America) .

In October 1994, Solzhenitsyn addressed Russia's Parliament. His complaints and condemnations had not abated. "This is not a democracy, but an oligarchy," he declared. "Rule by the few." He spoke for an hour, and when he finished, there was only a smattering of applause.
Well that was true too. But he was a marginal figure in his own country - his TV show flopped. Like a heroic-scale Peter Hitchens, his words, steeped as they were in the past, meant little to a generation unaware of their heritage. Ah - here we are :

In 2007, he accepted a State Prize from then-President Putin — after refusing, on principle, similar prizes from Gorbachev and from Yeltsin. Putin, he said in the Der Spiegel interview, "inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible — a slow and gradual restoration."
To do what was possible. I see what he meant.

(Update - the Times has the facsimile page of his 1976 speech "A Warning to the Western World")