Thursday, June 14, 2007

The dissident and the autocrat

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

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

However, Soviet "tolerance" - even used cynically - only went so far. When the Soviet authorities broke into Solzhenitsyn's house and seized the manuscript for his masterwork The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn knew that once again, he was on the official Soviet shitlist. When Solzhenitsyn unexpectedly won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, the Soviets forbade him to travel to Sweden to pick up the award. By 1974, he was finally allowed to go into exile, settling first in West Germany before a moving on to a long stint as a virtual recluse in Vermont. It was only some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1994, that the man once hailed as the conscience of his people returned to Russia.

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.

1 comment:

chankslee said...

I like your site. While compiling my own list of LIVING dick-tators I used your place as a starting point. So thanks for your informative and cool site. I failed to include Putin in my top 10 and was asked by someone why he wasn't there. I would value your thoughts because you are obviously a better authority than I am. I understand if you are too busy to respond...
Mine are listed here.

it is a bit of a light hearted conversation on a serious subject.