Would Solzhenitsyn have backed the ‘Tsarist’ Putin?

In a recent piece for Conservatives Global, Georgi Labadze urged the American right not to abandon Ukraine. Labadze expressed concern about the way some American conservatives – Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley – appear to simply not care about Ukraine, and implicitly support Putin.

Labadze’s concern is, of course, legitimate. But we must consider that the American right’s coziness with Putin has deeper roots, and conservatives must reconcile with this uncomfortable fact. In doing so, a reexamination of major conservative saint Alexander Solzhenitsyn is called for.

It would be an understatement to say that conservatives, especially in the United States, adore Solzhenitsyn. For example, conservative maverick professor Jordan Peterson writes in the foreword to Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: “If there was any excuse to be a Marxist in 1917 there is absolutely and finally no excuse now. And we know that mostly because of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. Thank Heaven for that great author’s outrage, courage and unquenchable thirst for justice and truth.”

As Peterson makes clear, there is much to admire in Solzhenitsyn. He bravely resisted Soviet totalitarianism, and his literary skills were put in the service of freedom, by exposing in full detail the harsh realities of gulags and the rot of the Soviet regime.

But Solzhenitsyn had a darker side, and few conservatives seem to take notice of it. In a famous 1978 speech at Harvard University, Solzhenitsyn delivered a full-blown attack on the West. He was especially bugged by the notion of individual rights­: “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West — It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” Conservatives uphold Solzhenitsyn as a free speech hero (and indeed, he bravely stood up against Soviet censorship), but in that Harvard speech, he seemed to call for more censorship in the United States: “Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.”

Also in that speech, Solzhenitsyn told his audience: “I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system to present socialism as an alternative.” What, then, was his alternative? At the time, he did not make it clear. But once Putin rose to power, it became clearer that the Russian strongman embodied what Solzhenitsyn had in mind – a form of 21st Century Tsarism.

Indeed, both men had very friendly meetings. Solzhenitsyn praised Putin as the man who brought “a slow and gradual restoration” to Russia. After the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to approach Solzhenitsyn, but the sage’s response was rather cold. With Putin, it was all warmth. His words of praise for Putin were not minced: “Reverse efforts to save the country’s lost statehood began to be taken under Putin… The foreign policy, bearing in mind our situation and possibilities, is quite reasonable and more foresighted.”

Solzhenitsyn is now dead, so, of course, it is impossible to know for sure whether he would have approved of Putin’s current approach to Ukraine. But one thing is clear: Solzhenitsyn did not believe Ukraine was a real country. In his 1991 book Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals, he argues that “all the talk of a separate Ukrainian people existing since something like the ninth century and possessing its own non-Russian language is recently invented falsehood.” This is strikingly similar to Putin’s outrageous speech recently delivered on the eve of his invasion of the Donbas, in which he argues that Ukraine is an artificial entity created by Lenin.

One of conservatives’ most famous slogans is Richard Weaver’s “ideas have consequences”. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn had some brilliant ideas about the human quest for freedom, and those ideas eventually led to the collapse of a murderous totalitarian regime. But Solzhenitsyn also had some very disturbing ideas about the imperial ambitions of his native country, and sadly, those ideas are also having consequences tragically felt by Ukrainians. Conservatives must separate the wheat from the chaff in Solzhenitsyn’s work, and acknowledge that authors ought to be critically read, and not simply worshipped.

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