Gulag author spots the rot

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HE MAY have vowed to stay above the fray of politics, but the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn yesterday made a bitter speech about the rotten state of Russia which will give more comfort to the nationalist opposition than to President Boris Yeltsin.

Solzhenitsyn made his gloomy assessment on arriving in Moscow at the end of a two-month train journey across Russia to reacquaint himself with his homeland after 20 years of exile in the United States. About 2,000 people, a mixture of committed fans and curious onlookers, braved a summer storm to greet the historian of the Soviet Gulags at Yaroslavsky station. It was a fitting place for his return, since this was where dissidents were usually reunited with their loved ones when they returned from serving labour-camp sentences in Siberia.

It was very hard to see or hear Solzhenitsyn as he disembarked but once a microphone was switched on he recounted that he had talked to Russians in all walks of life during his journey from the Far East and he very much hoped he would now have access to those with power and influence.

The country was falling apart and the state was failing in its duty to ordinary citizens. Enterprises were closing and whole communities were dying. Qualified people such as teachers and doctors were on their last legs, working out of duty for a pittance. Two- thirds of the population lived in poverty. Crime threatened to suffocate Russia. 'The people are not masters in their own house and therefore there is no democracy in Russia,' he thundered.

The only thing which inspired Solzhenitsyn was the spirituality which he said he found among those he had met. 'We will get out of this hole,' he promised the crowd, 'and I am here to help.' But he reiterated that he had no intention of standing for public office.

He is due to meet President Yeltsin and address parliament, although dates for these encounters have yet to be set.

The nationalist opposition would also like to claim the writer as their own.

Just before Solzhenitsyn's arrival, the hardline MP Sergei Baburin expressed confidence that a short time in Moscow, with its wild capitalism, would be enough to get the writer siding with the opposition. Only Vladimir Zhirinovsky seemed not to want Solzhenitsyn's endorsement. The maverick nationalist declared: 'He should go back where he came from. We don't need emigres who have sat out there for 20 years and spread lies about our people.'