Russians chuck Solzhenitsyn in the remainder bin

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The Independent Online
THE WRAPS have just come off two new books in Russia, each offering an insight into the forces which drive this troubled society. The first has been written by one of the mightier intellects of our time, an acknowledged master of 20th century literature whose courage and brilliance won him a Nobel Prize.

The second is by a former security officer who worked for a while in the Kremlin but whose name is unknown outside of the ranks of Moscow's cognoscenti and the remnants of the old KGB. Which author has the larger print run? The genius or the goon?

You have, of course, already guessed. The memoirs of Colonel Valery Streletsky, a former officer in the presidential security service, win hands down. When the book arrives in Moscow's bookshops tomorrow, five times more copies will be available for sale than the other book, which is by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

So pessimistic are the latter's publishers about the national appetite for his musings that they have produced only 5,000 copies. On Thursday, the first of these went quietly on display in one bookshop in the capital. The book is called Russia in the Abyss; that same sentiment could also be applied to Solzhenitsyn's reputation among his own kind. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, who has few fans in Russia, managed to persuade 50,000 of his fellow citizens to buy his book, Life and Reforms, when it was published in 1995 (called, even more daringly, Memoirs in the English translation).

What is Solzhenitsyn - author of the classic The Gulag Archipelago and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - doing wrong? Or is it Russia's fault?

To be fair, Col Streletsky is not an uninteresting character, at least to those engaged in the impossible business of trying to puzzle out the inner workings of the Kremlin. In 1996, he was at the centre of a noisy but inconclusive row over allegations of embezzlement from the notorious National Sports Foundation, a shady Kremlin slush fund which he once headed.

He also briefly made the newspapers by publicly complaining about the growing influence of President Yeltsin's daughter and adviser, Tatyana, in the court of Tsar Boris. Russians were offered an extract of his book last weekend by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, but it was largely devoted to tangled allegations about the corrupt behaviour of fairly obscure figures. They will be hoping for more, preferably something about Mr Yeltsin himself.

This marks a significant change. For decades Russians knew very little about the private lives of the tough old men who governed them, but now books containing such details have become a literary form in their own right. The undisputed champion of the genre is the colonel's friend and ex-boss, Alexander Korzhakov, a former KGB officer who was Boris Yeltsin's chief bodyguard, tennis partner and confidant for 11 years before being sacked in 1996. He is now a member of parliament.

Last year, he published an account of his experiences at the president's side. Called From Dawn to Dusk, it describes some of the most colourful episodes in his boss's career - how, for example, Mr Yeltsin drunkenly conducted a police orchestra in Germany; how he failed to disembark from his plane at Shannon airport, an incident which was widely attributed to drunkenness, but which Korzhakov says was due to illness; how, when Mr Gorbachev was still in charge, Mr Yeltsin mysteriously ended up in the Moscow River.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn's works, Korzhakov's book is written in chatty Russian and includes some intriguing personal photographs of a bleary-looking Mr Yeltsin and his wife Naina at play - swimming, fishing, drinking. Months on, it is still a best-seller; more than half a million Russians have now bought a copy. It is, it seems, what the people want.

But his success cuts against the trend. Book purchasing in Russia is in decline. "If we published 100,000 in the past, then you could say we are publishing 10,000 these days," said Alexei Kostanian, editor-in-chief of the Vagrius Publishing House in Moscow. "It's not that they [books] aren't popular; it just a question of people's purchasing power."

Solzhenitsyn, then, has an uphill task if he hopes his latest work will go into reprint. The days when Russians consumed moral or political theory in any significant numbers are over. The daily travails of surviving in a corrupt, chaotic world have corroded interest in idealism, replacing it with a search for escapism - potboiler detective stories and romances. This process has been accelerated by a general lack of trust in politicians.

When Russians this year discovered that a handful of reformist government officials, including Anatoly Chubais - the then first deputy prime minister and chief economics adviser to Mr Yeltsin - were paid $90,000 each as an advance on a book about privatisation, they smelt a very fat rat. No one believed a book on such a dry subject could attract such big bucks. Public scepticism deepened with the revelation that the money came from a company linked to one of the beneficiaries in a big sell-off of a state- run company.

If Russians are going to read about current affairs at all, they nowadays expect to discover some titbits about the mysterious people who govern them. That much Boris Yeltsin understood; his two (ghost-written) autobiographies include plenty of flattering (and frequently improbable) anecdotes about himself.

Solzhenitsyn cannot be blamed for being above all this. But he is also a victim of a combination of his own relentless gloom about post-Soviet Russia and the perception among many that, after years of exile in the US and France, he is out of touch. He has come to be seen as a perpetual mourner at Russia's graveside, a hand-wringing droner who is strong on moralising but weak on remedies.

A flavour of this emerged from a rare interview he gave to the newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta on Thursday. "Glasnost has been wasted on a quarrel between two wings of intelligentsia - the liberal-democratic and so-called nationalistic," he complained. "Meanwhile, thieves, crooks and smart communists took hold of posts, buildings, communications, money, everything. Now they are telling the intelligentsia to stand aside." All absolutely true. The trouble is, nobody's buying it.