Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn is interviewed by Moskovskiye Novosti editor-in-chief Vitaly Tretyakov
Tretyakov: Aleksandr Isayevich, what is your general impression from Russia's development in the recent period -- under President Putin as compared with the Yeltsin and Gorbachev era?
Solzhentisyn: Under Gorbachev, the concept and perception of statehood per se was discarded. (Hence his numerous acts of capitulation and unconditional concessions in foreign policy which won him kudos in the West.) On Yeltsin's watch, that line was essentially continued, but it was further aggravated by the uncontrolled plundering of Russia, its property and national legacy, as well as by inaction and collusion in the face of a countrywide crisis. Under Putin, efforts were made, although not immediately, to reverse the trend and save Russia's statehood. At first, however, some of those attempts were rather cosmetic, but then they became more focused. Considering our condition and our potentialities, the country's foreign policy today is sensible and increasingly pragmatic. Russia, however, has yet to do much to overcome the heavy burden of the past. The overall condition of people's life is still difficult and there is much chaos.
Tretyakov: In the past several months there has been a flurry of political and other activity around the so called national priority projects, including reform of the education and healthcare system, the housing and utilities sector, and agriculture. What do you think about these projects? Were they correctly prioritized?
Solzhentisyn: When a boat has 99 holes in its hull, with the best of intentions, it is impossible to fix all of them at once. All of these projects have a right to be "national priority projects." All of them are vitally important. As for agriculture and the moribund countryside (a problem that was recently highlighted by Moscow Mayor Yu. M. Luzhkov in rather forceful terms) -- the countryside that has been abandoned to its fate and degrading for decades now -- it is really a pressing need: We are not only becoming dependent on food supplies [from abroad] but losing valuable lands.
Tretyakov: It would be natural to assume that, as a minimum, you would include a demographic project among these priorities -- something that you have called "saving the nation." What short-, medium- and long-term actions need to be taken as Russia, the Russian nation is literally dying out?
Solzhentisyn: Indeed, "saving the nation" -- numerically, physically, and morally -- is the utmost task for the state. (Consider the 25 million compatriots who were cut off from Russia as a result of the crazy conspiracy in the Belovezhskaya Forest: Our law-makers were in a state of chaos, hysterically and irresponsibly going from one extreme to another and contradicting themselves.) All measures to raise living standards -- housing, diet, healthcare, education, morality, etc. -- are in effect designed to save the nation. This is an overriding priority.
Tretyakov: Almost everyone agrees that Russia needs to build a modern system of democratic political governance. Yet for some reason full-fledged political parties have problem growing on our soil. As a result, the principal party-builder is the Kremlin -- i.e., the ruling establishment. Do you think there can be real political parties in Russia? If not, what about Russian democracy then?
Solzhentisyn: Parties do not grow very well on Russian soil because they are an unnatural form [of organization] for us. Our parties today are only hindering democratic development. (I have on many occasions said and written that I condemn the sheer idea of "political parties" as a form of "collective egoism," living off others, at somebody else's expense. Remember [Leon] Trotsky's classic formula: "No party is worthy of its name if it does aim to seize power.") A healthy democratic system can only evolve on the grassroots level, from local associations, stepwise, through stage by stage elections. Only this setup can ensure that reasonable and general interests -- industrial, professional, occupational, environmental, cultural, educational, etc. -- will prevail. This is a very difficult path since it is full of bureaucratic obstacles on many levels. I believe that a democratic system evolving from local government to Supreme Legislative Assembly is the healthiest for Russia and the most consonant with its traditional spirit.
Tretyakov: Here is another question in this connection. I, for one, believe that Russia began building a democratic political system at an extremely inopportune moment, specifically when Western democracy, adopted as a model to emulate, ended up in a profound institutional and conceptual crisis. What is to be done in this situation?
Solzhentisyn: Indeed, we were acting like stupid apes. Yes, Western democracy today is in a serious crisis and it is still unknown how it will overcome this crisis.
The only correct path for us not to copy other models but, without deviating from democratic principles, work on improving the physical and moral well-being of the people.
Tretyakov: Metropolitan Kirill has proposed complementing the institution of political and civil rights and freedoms with an institution of moral responsibility for the state and the public in their political/public activities. What do you think about this idea?
Solzhentisyn: Addressing the 10th National Assembly, Metropolitan Kirill pointed out, quite justly, that "realization of freedoms should not jeopardize the existence of Motherland or offend against people's religious feelings or ethnic sentiments" and that sacred things are values on par with "human rights." Unlimited "human rights" is exactly what our cave-dwelling ancestor had: Nothing could stop him from snatching meat from his neighbor or finishing him off with a big stick. That was why every society needed governing authorities and ruling elite. Throughout the centuries, they retained full "rights" while the rights of the masses were severely limited. We have been hearing all this talk about "human rights" ever since the Enlightenment era; they have been secured in a number of countries, but not always within the bounds of moral values and principles. Yet for some reason no one has ever urged us to defend "human obligations." Even calling for self-restraint is considered to be ludicrous and absurd. Meanwhile, only self-restraint, self-denial can guarantee a moral and reliable resolution of any conflicts.
Tretyakov: Clearly, our society is in moral crisis that manifests itself either in the absence of any moral principles or in the existence of different, opposite moral principles at the same time. Is there a way out of this collision? What is the state supposed to do in this situation -- impose a particular set of moral values? What values?
Solzhentisyn: In their actions, state authorities must stay within the bounds of morality even more responsibly than ordinary citizens. They should set an example, but not forcibly impose any rules. I believe that the only way out is through the conscious, voluntary self-constraint and self-denial of people, especially those shaping public opinion.
Tretyakov: More and more political figures in Russia are casting themselves as conservatives (or liberal conservatives) even though they have a rather vague idea of what this means and are obviously unable to formulate their position clearly. You are evidently not a liberal and certainly not a socialist. Therefore you are a conservative. What, in your opinion, is modern (I repeat modern) Russian conservatism?
Solzhentisyn: I believe that conservatism is a striving to preserve and uphold the best, the most humane and reasonable traditions that have justified themselves throughout centuries-old history. The form of conservatism that is sprouting in Russia today evolved rather as a natural response to total license. It is reassuring, but is till embryonic, rudimentary with regard to the modern situation.
Tretyakov: There has recently been much talk about Russian nationalism, xenophobia, and Russian fascism. What is your view on this problem both in theory and in practice?
Solzhentisyn: Xenophobia has never been an inherent quality of the Russian people: Otherwise the great empire, comprised of 120 nationalities and ethnic groups, would not have survived. As for the term "fascism," it is being used loosely and irresponsibly as a convenient swearword which hinders the rise of Russian identity and Russian national awareness. But German Nazism was based on German national self-glorification (long before Hitler): The same cannot be said about the humiliated and dying Russian nation.
Suppressing ethnic Russians for the benefit of other ethnic groups was one of Lenin's central, obsessive ideas: He firmly pursued it in the form of "Leninist nationalities policy." It was continued under Stalin despite his hypocritical statements later. (As for our present Constitution, the word "Russians" is not there at all!) Throughout decades, a feeling bitterness and resentment has built up in Russian consciousness.
As all social security guarantees disappeared amid a new era of "freedom of expression," this pent-up aggression has come through in ugly, distorted and dangerous forms such as attacks, beatings and murders committed by unenlightened young men. Yes, firm, forceful measures are needed to stop these barbaric attacks and murders which are threatening our society. It is also necessary -- for our own wellbeing -- to study in earnest the causes and roots of these aggressive attitudes.
Tretyakov: Are we seeing a real "clash of civilizations" (Christian vs. Islamic)? Has Western Christianity died, as many think, and is this in fact a conflict between religious and secular societies? What should Russia do in this situation?
Solzhentisyn: A more accurate description of this world conflict would probably be this: The Third World vs. the Golden Billion. It has been caused by the global divide between the rich and poor. (Saudi Arabia and some other countries are not an exception here: They are only using the West's run-away secularism as an easy target. This triumphant secularism in fact arouses the utmost indignation in the Muslim world. As for Russia, it is evidently getting rid of this secularism and of course can hardly be referred to as part of the Gold Billion.) The "clash of civilizations" theory covers up the widening gap between rich and poor in the world.
Even with the obvious weakening of Christian influence worldwide and the onslaught of Islam I do not see religious wars erupting on a global or continental scale.
At any rate, Russia must not allow itself to be drawn into any global conflicts.
Tretyakov: Do you anticipate the Islamization of day-to-day life or of political processes in Russia? If so, do you find this prospect encouraging or frightening?
Solzhentisyn: The policy of Russia's ruling authorities today -- one of peaceful and respectful coexistence with Islam -- is certainly correct. Yet with the ongoing physical dying out of the Russian people there is of course a danger that Russian culture could be replaced by other (including Chinese) cultures and religions throughout Russia. This is lamentable, but this is what is happening.
Tretyakov: I, for one, believe that unless the three principal subjects of Euro-Atlantic (Christian) civilization -- specifically, the North American Union, the (Western) European Union, and the East European (Russian) Union -- form a strategic alliance (with supra-state bodies), our civilization will disappear sooner or later. Where do you think salvation for the Euro-Atlantic civilization lies?
Solzhentisyn: Unfortunately, the global political process is not moving in the direction that you have just outlined. The United States has been deploying its occupation troops in one country after another. This has been the case in Bosnia for the past nine years, in Kosovo and Afghanistan for the past five years, and in Iraq for the past three years, but it is bound to go on for a very long time yet. There is no substantial difference between NATO and U.S. actions. Seeing that Russia today poses no threat to it, NATO is systematically, persistently expanding its military apparatus -- to eastern Europe and to the south of Russia. This includes open financial and ideological support for "color" revolutions and the absurd imposition of North-Atlantic interests on Central Asia. All of this leaves no doubt that Russia is being encircled with a view to destroying its sovereignty. Russia's accession to the Euro-Atlantic alliance, which is now forcibly imposing Western democratic values in various parts of the world, would result not in the expansion but the decline of Christian civilization.
Tretyakov: Do you agree with the view that the world is rapidly moving toward neo-authoritarianism (probably as a reaction to total liberalism)?
Solzhentisyn: "Total liberalism," as you have aptly put it, has certainly had its day in the world and is now more or less a spent force. It will be replaced by some other forms of public and state consciousness, but I would not dare predict their essence or the forms that they will actually assume.
Tretyakov: What is your perspective on the situation in Ukraine? In this context, what do you think about the problem of the division of the Russian nation (the largest divided nation in modern Europe)? Should Russia -- if not politically, at least intellectually -- ponder the possibility of reunification of ethnic Russians and Russian lands if Ukraine joins the EU and especially NATO?
Solzhentisyn: I am pained by what has been going on in Ukraine -- ever since the 1991 referendum. The fanatical suppression and persecution of the Russian language (which, according to previous polls, was used as the main language by over 60 percent of Ukraine's population) is simply an act of atrocity that is aimed against Ukraine's own cultural perspective. Vast tracts of land, which have never been part of historical Ukraine, e.g., Novorossia, Crimea and the entire southeastern region, have been forcibly incorporated into the modern Ukrainian state and into its policy of acquiring NATO membership at any cost. Throughout Yeltsin's term in office, not a single meeting that he had with any of the Ukrainian presidents had gone without capitulation and concessions to them. Pushing the Black Sea Fleet out of Sevastopol (the city was never ceded to Ukraine, not even under Khrushchev) is an outrageous humiliation of the entire 19th- and 20th-century Russian history.
Under these conditions, Russia must not cast Ukraine's multimillion Russian population to the whims of fate, abandoning it, and cutting off all links with it.
Tretyakov: Is it your view that Russian and Russian literature are dying -- in the sense that they will never again attain, let alone surpass, 19th and 20th century models?
Solzhentisyn: Despite its uncontrolled contamination with jargon and Anglo-Americanisms (I am talking not about the natural use of technical terminology but slavish, fashion-driven borrowings), Russian will not degrade, will not let itself be irretrievably polluted as long as there are Russian people.
The same is true for Russian literature. Despite all the garbage, it has preserved its lucid and conscientious core that will yet produce excellent works supporting our spirit, our morale, and our consciousness.
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