Who's that shaggy old hobo shaking hands with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin? Why it's none other than Russia's most famous political dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. You may remember Solzhenitsyn as the author who did hard time in a Soviet gulag for the crime of saying something not entirely positive about Josef Stalin. Solzhenitsyn's stay in the gulag provided him with the fodder for an explosive little book called One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novella that blew the lid off the entire Soviet prison camp system. While certainly revolutionary by Soviet standards, the publication of Ivan Denisovich only saw the light of day because Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's eagerness to "de-stalinize" the Communist Party. In the Soviet Union, even dissidence acquired a role as being nothing more than a tool for the Party's internal power struggles, leaving the actual machinery of totalitarianism more or less unscathed.
Our bitter national experience can yet help us in a possible repeat of unstable social conditions. It will forewarn and protect us from destructive breakdowns
So you can imagine my surprise when I'd read that Solzhenitsyn had accepted the "State Prize" on Russia Day from autocrat Vladimir Putin, who may not be Josef Stalin, but is certainly not anything resembling a bonafide democratic leader, either. In fact, Putin has taken a decidedly Stalinist "destroy them all" line when it comes to high profile political dissidents, an irony that appears to be lost on Solzhenitsyn. The worst part of it is that Solzhenitsyn's photo-op with Putin was likely cynically planned by Putin to establish his bonafides as a kinder and more gentle ruler. After all, any friend of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn can't be all that nasty, right?
Well, no. Not really. Solzhenitsyn is 88 years old, wheelchair bound and reportedly in poor health. It's hard to say whether or not he appreciates the irony of his decision to help legitimize, even if just a little bit, the regressive path Putin has laid out for Russia. Perhaps he knows and doesn't care, or cares and doesn't know, at this point, I can't even guess. However, when Solzhenitsyn is dead and buried, it's a good bet that Putin's authoritarian pseudo-democracy will stay in place, validated just a little bit by a lousy photo op.