Russians 'bored' by sage Solzhenitsyn

It was an article that most of the world's serious newspapers would have published without hesitation: 2,000 words by one of the 20th century's foremost writers and dissidents, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, excoriating Russia. Understandably, the New York Times gave it pride of place on its opinion pages.

Despite what the West thinks, democracy does not exist in post-Communist Russia, the great man argued; nor does freedom of the press. For the past decade, the Russian government had not taken "a single step unmarked by ineptitude". The country is run by a power-hungry oligarchy of 150 to 200 people, who are morally no better than their Communist predecessors.

This was far from the first time that the Nobel Prize winner has taken his motherland to task. But his piece, published four days before Boris Yeltsin was whisked off to hospital with pneumonia, reviving claims that the country is adrift, was one of his most strident indictments to date. You might think, then, that it would have aroused a twinge of interest, a frisson of indignation even.

Alas, no. The article, partially reprinted by the International Herald Tribune, has been ignored by Russia's media. Many journalists - not to mention the public - were unaware of its existence.

Two and a half years after his hugely publicised return from 18 years of exile in the US, Solzhenitsyn's voice is attracting less and

less attention in Russia. He has fallen victim to the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher. They are revered as history's giants abroad, even by their ideological opponents. But back home, the yawns are deafening.

His descent into domestic neglect has been under way for well over a year. Shortly after his return home, Russian Public Television gave him a 15-minute programme. Twice a month, Russians could tune in to his laments about the state of the nation, and the need to return to traditional spiritual and cultural roots.

In September 1995, as Russia geared up for parliamentary elections, the programme was abruptly hauled off the air. His wife, Natalia, blamed Soviet- style censorship. But the general consensus was otherwise. The bearded old prophet was, quite simply, boring. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is worth more than all the days of Solzhenitsyn on television," carped the writer Konstantin Kedrov.

Yet there is more to it than mere ennui. For many Russians, he has become a figure whose exposure of the crimes of Stalin and Soviet Communism has deservedly earned him a place in history - but not in the present. "He is not talking about issues that people care about today, like money, foreign currency supplies, consumer goods, apartments," says Viktor Kremenyuk, a political analyst. In a country where most people's lives are bound up with the struggle to survive, ideologues are out of fashion.