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Interview With Alexander Solzhenitsyn

TV Russia

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June 5, 2005

Anchor: This week school students in Russia were passing end-of- year exams. Eighty thousand school graduates in Moscow were writing compositions on one of five topics offered. The topics offered were Lermontov, Nekrasov, Mayakovsky and what teachers admitted was a particularly difficult topic, "The Individual and Power in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Prose".

Alexander Solzhenitsyn devoted his whole life brooding on the issues of where in Russia is the individual, where is power and what the relationship between them is. It was only in recent years that we haven't heard from him. But today the Nobel Prize Winner receives us in his home and this interview breaks the silence of the classic writer.

Alexander Isayevich, in this day and age when everybody is talking about democracy, people, I think, diverge on the main thing, what is democracy? Everyone has his own idea of it. Perhaps, it is a myth, rather like communism is. And who better to direct this question to than you are?

Solzhenitsyn: Indeed, of late the word "democracy" has been very popular and many speakers flog it. But I don't see, I am not aware of a full understanding of what democracy is.

They hastily pluck out individual features instead of the concept as a whole. For example, one feature is freedom of expression and the press. The assumption is that where there is freedom of expression and a free press there is democracy. But that is not so. This is only one feature of democracy. That feature alone does not produce democracy.

Or take parliament. If there is parliament, the argument goes, democracy is assured. But what is parliament and what is it for? It is people's representation, and it should be truly representing the people. People's representatives should represent their electorate and no one else. In this country, especially considering Russia's size, such contacts are still not established, they are weak. And yet there must be two-way communication. The voters should keep a close eye on what their representative is doing. As soon as they feel that they don't like what he is doing, they should recall him.

How many times have deputies been recalled? Recalling a deputy is natural democratic practice. If you do the wrong thing, you are recalled, you are replaced. And in this country, a guy is elected for four years and that's that. He can feel secure for four years. But that is not the end of the troubles with parliament. They are proposing a parliament elected by parties. Party parliament is noted for the fact that there aren't even concrete candidates. The poor voter has to vote for a party. He is told to choose one party and to vote for it. And the party nominates an anonymous candidate who is supposed to be your representative and is supposed to visit you in your constituency all the time.

What is a party? Any party infringes upon and truncates the human individual, weakens his will. It squeezes the individual into the party's program and charter and who runs the party? It's always some moneybag. A party has to be paid for, it needs a lot of money. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The party does not create anything, all it wants is to seize power. What is democracy in real fact? In real fact -- though they trot out many features -- everybody knows what it is, it is even written down in our Constitution, only people have forgotten it. It is a social-state structure in which the mass of the people determine their own destiny. This is what democracy is about. Instead, we have a new political class. It consists of several hundred people who have declared: I am a professional politician and I will do politics. Or: I am a professional political scientist, I am an expert of legal matters, you can dig your black earth and we will decide for you and tell you what to do.

What kind of democracy have we seen, starting from early Gorbachev period? And I am not speaking about the pre-Gorbachev period. One of the first moves of Yeltsin's democracy -- what was the prime task of democracy under Yeltsin? To knock down Gorbachev. How? By breaking up the Soviet Union. How to do it? Three persons got together in Belovezhskaya Pushcha for a booze party. Were they aware that they were tampering with a huge state process? Okay, you can divide up if it is necessary. But it should be done in a statesman like way. You should weigh everything: What orders? Who lives where? What economic ties? It is a process that takes many years. But instead they did everything at one stroke, by issuing just one order.

What kind of democracy did we have? We had a referendum. That was all the democracy we had. Bureaucrats in their offices decided that prices should be floated. At once. In this country, in general, we tend to do everything at once and as quickly as possible. Nothing is done gradually or slowly, nothing is thought over. Hurry up! Free up the prices quickly. But in the process millions of people will lose their lifetime's savings. To hell with them. And -- off they go.

But at the breakup of the Soviet Union 25 million of our fellow countrymen found themselves living abroad, in another country. Did our leaders, headed by Yeltsin, think about them? Did they think about how the 25 million people would live? Won't their rights be infringed upon, won't their culture be suppressed? What will be their economic situation, how will they be linked with their homeland? Not a thought was given to all this. People were thrown into the water like blind kittens to be drowned. Is that democracy?

For centuries governors in Russia were appointed. It makes sense. The governor implements the will of the central government locally. Yeltsin, with his broad sweep, introduced free elections of governors. Ninety governors? Okay, let it be 90. Were these elections prepared? Not at all, there was a total mess in the local elections.

The local moneybags interfered, money, bribes, cheating decided everything, and in some places the elections were downright criminal, run by the local mafias. But the worst of it was that the government thought it was not enough to rob people of their savings. A lot more was up for grabs. What riches! They are there for the taking. They robbed Russia, quickly, quickly. Chubais bragged at the time that no country in the world had seen such rapid privatization. And he was right, nobody in the world had ever witnesses such quick privatization.

Quite right, nobody in the world had there been such idiots. With immense speed our God-given resources, minerals, oil, non- ferrous metals, coal and production were distributed. Russia was stripped naked. Nothing is left. Is that democracy? Was there a referendum on this issue? Was anyone's opinion asked? Was it a case of the people exercising its power and deciding its future? And so they created out of filth some kind of billionaires who had done nothing for Russia. At best they grabbed what was given to them for free or almost for free. They grabbed chunks of property to become billionaires and in our impotent despair we now admire them. We have a cult of millionaires.

We don't mind living as we do as long as billionaires feel happy. If it is democracy, you have to go out into the street and complain of having been robbed, of having been deprived of some of your benefits. If you have to stage hunger strikes in order to get paid your wages, this is no democracy. Fifteen years ago I printed an article in the Soviet Union, "How Should We Develop Russia?" I addressed many questions, and I envisaged the disintegration of the Union, and Gorbachev laughed it off. Breakup of the Soviet Union? Nonsense, Gorbachev laughed. And I said that the breakup was inevitable and imminent. I said we should prepare commissions to discuss what would happen with people: prepare compensations, ways how they should behave, decide on what citizenship they should have. Nothing was done, they just laughed at it.

But even more importantly, I warned in that article, that democracy could not be imposed from the top by any clever laws, by any wise politicians. It cannot be put on like a cap. Democracy can only grow like all plants grow: from the bottom up. Above all, there had to be democracy in small place, there had to be local self- government as the start of democracy. Only then can democracy develop.

Anchor: Let us talk a little bit more about local self- government.

Solzhenitsyn: Let's.

Anchor: There are still proposals floating around. We do not elect governors. Perhaps, we shouldn't elect mayors and perhaps there should be no elections at lower levels either? What do you think about it?

Solzhenitsyn: We'll get to talk about mayors in a moment. The issue of local self-government is very complicated. Our local self- government has been declared. It was even declared in the hastily written constitution that was written with Yeltsin in mind in the fall of 1993. The constitution began in the solemn way. The sole source of power in the Russian Federation is its people. Clear? What kind of power? Article 12 contains the reservation: local self- government is recognized and guaranteed in the Russian Federation. Guaranteed and recognized. Local government bodies are not part of the system of state power: that is correct. They are not. But they should be built up in parallel, publicly and gradually, instead of many bodies of state power.

If we admire democracy in Western countries, it is because their local self-government is performing beautifully. That is why. They would never have had democracy without local government. And we are building democracy without local government, we have no use for it. We are afraid of our own people. The State Duma is afraid that somebody will run things instead of it. The governors are finishing off local self-government. Local government should be different for rural and urban areas.

You have mentioned mayors. I'll speak about it in a moment. As I was writing 15 years ago, local government can only grow incrementally. What is the shortcoming of elections from the bottom up? There is no way the elected representative can be contacted. What sort of man is he? Is he a decent man or a crook? It's impossible to tell. They give his advertising spot on television, say something about his program. But local people's self-government emerges locally like a building that is built storey by storey, layer after layer.

Anchor: What lever are we on, do you think?

Solzhenitsyn: We are at level minus one. When we create local self-government, that will be the first stage. At the second stage we should rise from smaller units to the governments of larger areas, for example, a district. The mayors, of course, are at the apex of local government and once self-government at the lower rungs has been established in the cities, in the case of cities, for example, at the level of one or a group of residential blocks, once local governments have been elected at several stages, then the mayor must be elected, the mayor of a big city.

But we have yet to live to see that happen, and we are not even starting on anything. We have to get everything at once. Alexander II in his time introduced sweeping reforms. The revolutionaries were shouting: "We can't wait, we should go faster!" The emperor was shot and things went faster and faster, the Revolution happened. You see the results.

We should get rid of this attitude. We should go for quality and proceed slowly.

Anchor: Alexander Isayevich, but the situation in the CIS countries, in the republics surrounding Russia is still more complicated. Perhaps this may account for the fact that Russia suddenly found itself ringed by "orange revolutions"? How do you account for this? Are these processes controlled from without? And there are some other who say that Russia is reaping the fruits of its own shortsighted policy in the Commonwealth countries?

Solzhenitsyn: There are two concepts involved, two questions, I'll stick to two, okay. The first question is the state of the CIS. I am not suggesting that things are better in the CIS. When they announced the creation of oriental dictatorships in the CIS, the West promptly wrote: democracy is assured. Central Asia and Kazakhstan are awash in democracy. Turkmenistan -- that's a democracy. Yes, they were in a hurry to recognize. Yes, the situation in the CIS countries is still more complex.

But it is no longer any of our business to educate the CIS countries. We have drifted apart, we are separate, we would be lucky if we manage to preserve a common economic space. I am sure that Ukraine will ruin the common economic space of the four countries. But let us try to preserve it if we can. For the rest, our relationships with the CIS should boil down to this: to be the best so that they should envy us. To run this country in a way that everybody would look at us and say: Ah, how wonderful, we wish we could learn from Russia.

As it is, who can respect Russia if they see that Russians can be trampled underfoot in any national republics without Russia ever stepping in to defend them. It fails to interfere, it provides no consular protection. That alone rules out any respect for Russia. Thinking about the relations with the CIS, I think we should first of all try to cure ourselves. And let the CIS cure itself. The common economic space may be saved. You speak about "orange revolutions". Strangely, I myself marveled when the orange revolution occurred. The methods are reminiscent of our revolution in February 1917.

It's difficult to imagine, it's a different era. But the methods are the same. Great rifts within society, the public is dead against the government. Secondly, discontent, economic discontent at the bottom. Third, the behavior of the educated classes. When Petersburg had no brown bread, but an abundance of white bread and the shops were chock-full of all sort of products, students and the bourgeois public took to the streets, surrounded public buildings and squares and shouted: "We want bread!" It was not bread that they wanted, they wanted more rioting.

Of course, disturbances on such a scale couldn't have started without financial assistance from abroad. There was assistance. Now at last we have dug up all these facts, everything is known. In fact, it has been known all along, but it finally sank in to our public. German money, German money went through Scandinavia reaching the Bolsheviks and not only them.

Those who staged demonstrations received money. But the opportunities then were limited. At that time money could be transferred in little suitcases and in small remittances. Now world financial channels are open to billions. There is mutual information through the Internet, all types of communications. You can ask for aid instantly and you will get what you need.

The "orange revolutions" do not represent any new discovery. Given internal discord, and contrast between the public and the authorities, if the opposition gets help from outside, an orange revolution is sure to take place. And orange revolutions have happened everywhere, well, not yet everywhere, there are different versions in different places.

Anchor: So, there are two factors, you think, the internal and the external?

Solzhenitsyn: By all means, nothing can be accomplished without the internal factors. But if the internal factors are in place, they need money, they need help. The Ukrainian and Georgian revolutions got more than enough money. They got loads of money.

Anchor: A question then. Do you think an orange revolution is possible in our country?

Solzhenitsyn: You see, in February of 1917, it seemed to the authorities that no revolution was possible. And then it happened. If the temperature is artificially raised all the time, anything can happen. Attempts are being made to stoke up tensions: we are being deprived of democracy. Is our democracy under threat? After everything I have said, what sort of democracy is under threat? The power of the people? It is non-existent. It hasn't existed for a second. You can only take away what you have but if we don't have anything, there is nothing to take away from us. We have deprived the people of everything, absolutely everything. Starting from the first day of the Gorbachev era, and onward and onward. We have never had democracy. I have repeated many times, we don't have even a semblance of democracy. I can repeat again: democracy is a state and social system in which the people in their mass direct their destinies. This is not the case but the authorities are under pressure to deliver democracy. There is a danger everywhere. People should have responsibility for their country in their heads, the opposition too. You can break up any country. But if citizens are responsible, they shouldn't break up the country, they should treat it. They should proceed carefully and apply reforms.

And the State Duma is behaving in a crazy fashion. Just look at the laws it passes and the speed with which it changes its mind. It swings from side to side like a drunken man. Is that what you call legislation? But the worst of it is that the Duma doesn't consult with the people. I repeat, people should call a hunger strike or take to the streets if they want to be heard.

Anchor: And democracy as an instrument for making the world over. You know the mentality of the American people very well, you have lived there for a long time. Do you think democracy, as understood by the Americans, as an instrument for changing the world is some kind of childish delusion or is it a deliberate bogey behind which is the simple desire to rule the world?

Solzhenitsyn: America now -- in fact, for more than ten years now -- has been carried away by a harebrained project or impulse: to impose democracy throughout the world. To impose it. And they set about doing it with a vengeance. First, they staged a bloodbath in Bosnia. Then they bombed Yugoslavia. In Afghanistan they claim to have installed democracy, and in Iraq too. Iraq is a great success in democracy. Who is next? Maybe Iran.

This is just amazing. There are thinkers, free thinkers there. They understand that democracy cannot be imposed from without. A democracy that is sustained by bayonets isn't worth a penny. Democracy should grow slowly in response to human needs, to the human impulse of togetherness, of friendship. It should grow up slowly, stage by stage. But our democracy is a travesty.

Anchor: How should Russia behave in this situation? We can't remain onlookers.

Solzhenitsyn: I can offer only what I have offered already, at least to comply with our own constitution. It says local government, it says the power of the people as well as of the government bodies. So, that's where you should start. The members of our political class have twisted minds. They live by the moment. We should start building a system that would allow the people to control their destinies. But we do not do it, we wait until the people curses this system and that somehow things will take care of themselves.

Anchor: I know that in Switzerland they hold referendums even when the pointed issue is whether to put a bench near a park or by the sidewalk. We are not spoiled by such things. What issues should be put up for referendum?

Solzhenitsyn: Thank you. You have put your finger on something that I have omitted. I meant to say that but I forgot. A referendum is a powerful weapon, but you should know how to use it. In countries where people are used to referendums you can do the way they do it in Switzerland. Everything goes smoothly and fruitfully. Take France, for example. What do we see in France? Their political class was molding and molding this Constitution and was confident of it. But the people said no. The referendum expressed the will of the people. A wonderful effect.

In this country there is a dire need for referendums, but they have been banned, the Duma has practically banned it. It introduced such barriers and restrictions that it is impossible to hold a referendum. Referendums are very necessary, but you cannot abuse them. If you put every trifling issue to a referendum, you can wear the people down with these referendums. There should be referendums on important and neglected issues.

Anchor: Such as?

Solzhenitsyn: One example is the robbing of Russia. I have a modest question: do our people have anything to do with the national heritage or not, or can it be given away to anyone? They never even thought about putting it to a referendum, they gave away all the subsoil resources without any referendum. I can still imagine a referendum being held on important issues of national relevance. Why are they obstructing the holding of referendums? Because they are afraid of the opinion... not only because it is difficult to organize, but they are afraid to hear the opinion of the people.

Anchor: Now perhaps the key question. The national idea. Of late the talk about it has subsided somewhat, and I have a feeling that we are no longer in quest of a national idea. Perhaps, Russia doesn't need any national idea? And if it does, what should it consist in?

Solzhenitsyn: An important question. I take a guarded attitude to the term "national idea" because it has been abused. When Yeltsin several years ago ordered a national idea to be worked out within about two weeks, I think, that was just a circus.

When I was asked about it, I said that at this point when Russia is in misery and in disarray and has been robbed of its riches, I think that the national idea that has the best chance to save Russia was the one put forward 250 years ago by Elizabeth's courtier, Ivan Petrovich Shuvalov. He suggested that Elizabeth be guided by this main law: preserving the people. What a thought. Preserving the people as the main task. The Romanovs, throughout their dynasty, made little, if any use of this principle. It is a challenge that has been growing ever more acute during the past 200, 250 and 270 years. In contemplating any move, any new law, we should think, does it contribute to saving the people or not? If not, down with the law. This idea cannot be our guiding idea forever, but it will last us a full 50 years. And in 50 years, perhaps, some clever people will think of something. But for the next 50 years we would be happy if we preserve our people and this should be the main criterion. Every law, every move of the government should be directed at this.

Anchor: Thank you very much, Alexander Isayevich. It was very nice to have you on the air after a break of almost three years.

Solzhenitsyn: Thank you.

Read this article on the Russian Federation News website (new window will open).

Posted: 15-Jun-05



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