Russia puts its prophet in his place

Solzhenitsyn/ defeat of a moral crusade

SURROUNDED by birch trees during his exile in a Vermont farmhouse, saluted by these emblems of Russian-ness during his stately progress across Siberia by train last summer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn now faces this outside his new home on the 12th floor of a Moscow block: two plastic trees and an encircling barricade of thick concrete.

The trees, erected at the entrance as part of a remodelled lobby dcor more reminiscent of corporate America than the shabby socialism of the Soviet Union he left in 1974, are permanently green, perfectly spherical and preposterously artificial.

Nearly a year after he returned to Russia, Solzhenitsyn remains a voice in the wilderness, the prickly prophet of lost authenticity in a Russia swamped by counterfeit promises and bedazzled by ersatz prosperity.

"Solzhenitsyn has great moral authority here but he has no influence at all," said Alexander Minkin, editor of Moscow's best-selling newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, a former organ of the Communist Party Youth League transformed into a punchy populist tribune. "Our society is in such a state these days that it is just impossible to have any influence on it. Morals no longer have any impact at all."

A near-recluse during his 20 years of exile, with only the most rudimentary grasp of English, Solzhenitsyn is now a far more gregarious public figure. He has a dacha in a wooded village outside Moscow, but spends most of his time in town. Since his arrival in Moscow after a long train journey from Vladivostok, he has had a tte-a-tte with Boris Yeltsin, delivered a caustic lecture to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, and appeared regularly on television and in the press.

About the only person he has steadfastly avoided seeing is his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, a lonely, angry but still devoted fan of the husband she lost in 1973 to the current and much younger wife, also Natalia. "Maybe this is because he said so many things about me which were not true and now he is afraid to look me in the eyes."

Now 76, half-blind and recovering from an operation for stomach cancer, she has just launched the latest salvo in a long-running feud with her former husband: a book of bitter-sweet reminiscences about life with Solzhenitsyn entitled Excommunication. Despite not visiting the woman who helped prepare the secret proofs of The Gulag Archipelago but was later accused of co-operating with the KGB, Solzhenitsyn has inquired indirectly about Mrs Reshetovskaya's health and sent money to pay medical expenses.

Instead of a stern Old Testament thunderer - the image of Solzhenitsyn in the West - many Russians have discovered a kindly, often amusing man with a thin, reedy voice and an appealing contempt for pompous politicians. "This is not democracy, but an oligarchy - rule by the few," he told parliament last October, voicing a view shared by most ordinary people. Russians, he warned the country's elected but increasingly distant and self-obsessed legislators, were "discouraged, stupified and in shock".

As well as his familiar themes - rage at "brainless" reforms, denunciation of borrowed foreign words as an "illness of our soul" and calls for a new grass-roots democracy built around a revival of 19th-century councils known as zemstvo - Solzhenitsyn has addressed topical issues such as the war in Chechnya. In an article in Argumenti i Fakti, he suggested that Moscow surrender the bulk of Chechnya and its Muslims and keep only a sliver long inhabited by Russians.

But Mr Solzhenitsyn's voice, whether sensible or dogmatic, has so far found little resonance. It is just one of many. Gone are the moral absolutes that led him, in The First Circle, to declare that "for a country to have a great writer is like having another government".

"When he was far away, with different authorities in power in Russia, his voice reminded us of a prophet," said Otto Latsis, a prominent political commentator. "But here in Moscow, he has found there is nothing for him to do. What he says is no longer prophetic but banal. His importance as a writer stays, but his influence in politics has melted."

His most attentive audience remains literary. The journal Moskva recently re-published a 15-year-old essay on the February revolution of 1917 and the political failures that paved the way for the Bolshevik revolution eight months later. "One cannot but be surpised to see so many warnings of possible mistakes, errors and even state crimes in our present difficult situation," Solzhenitsyn said in a preface.

Novy Mir, the journal that published The Gulag Archipelago in 1989, is now preparing to print two new works, the first he has written since his return. One, Ego, is about an uprising in the central Russian town of Tambov. The other, On the Edge, focuses on Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet Union's celebrated Second World War general.

They are far more modest than his previous ventures, short stories rather than sprawling epics. Nor have they excited the kind of frenzied interest that attended his earlier works. Devoured avidly by millions in the Soviet era, Russia's literary magazines have lost most of their readers and nearly all their impact.

It is a measure of the 76-year-old writer's position that his three sons have all returned to their lives abroad. Solzhenitsyn swears that all will "gradually return", insisting "our grandsons and great-grandsons will be Russian". His children's attitude mirrors that of many Russians. They respect, even revere Solzhenitsyn, but they also have their own very different lives.

When Solzhenitsyn came back to the country he had not seen since the KGB hustled him aboard a flight to Frankfurt in 1974, he set himself the task of what amounted to a moral crusade to salvage Russia's soul. Having completed his last major work of literature, a gigantic and largely unread multi-volume tome called The Red Wheel, he declared his literary career over and announced himself "ready to fulfill my duty to society".

Some imagined a Slavic Khomeini returning to drag Russia into the past. Others noted his choice of a train journey from Vladivostok - had not Lenin launched the revolution with his arrival at Finland Station?

Liberals hoped he might fill a void left by the death of Andrei Sakharov, the dissident nuclear physicist who had served as a moral beacon during perestroika. Some nationalists saw a champion of Slavic tradition who might buttress their cause.

All those who hoped to use Solzhenitsyn have been disappointed. He has backed no political group and criticised all. Instead of fearing him, politicians now mostly ignore him. The struggle for power in Russia today turns on money, not morals.

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