Solzhenitsyn says naught for the comfort of Moscow's rulers: Andrew Higgins in Vladivostok finds Russia's returning dissident is staking a claim to guide the nation's destiny

EVEN AT a distance of 5,700 miles from Moscow, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is proving an unsettling guest for Russia's power-holders and power-seekers, taunting their ambitions with a subversive dictum from The First Circle: 'for a country to have a great writer is like having another government.'

While disavowing any interest in political office, the 75-year-old Nobel Prize laureate has made it clear he wants to influence events, from the way Russians speak their language - purged of English words - to how the state sells its assets and fixes its borders.

'Not only do I think I am not late,' he declared on Saturday, his first full day home in 20 years, from the tribune of what used to be the Communist Party headquarters, 'I feel I've come at just the right time.

'I will not occupy any political post either by appointment or by elections. But I certainly want to help our homeland out of its extremely difficult situation, through public action, meetings, through my articles, through persuasion.'

Russia's democracy, he said, is a sham, its privatisation programme a plunder of national wealth and its borders with Kazakhstan and Ukraine a Leninist folly that must be corrected to bring millions of ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics back into the fold.

Yegor Gaidar, the former prime minister who drew up the blueprint for economic reform, committed the mistake of Peter the Great: he tried to copy the West.

'Monkeys mimic. One should not mimic anything. Our life, spiritual and otherwise must grow out of our traditions, our understandings, our customs, our atmosphere.' Mr Gaidar's policies, he said, were 'brainless'.

The former vice-president, Alexander Rutskoi, sees an endorsement of his irreconcilable hostility towards the Kremlin. 'Once he's been in Moscow a month, Alexander Isayevich will find his place in politics,' said Mr Rutskoi. 'I have no doubt his choice will be with us, with the opposition.'

Solzhenitsyn has little but contempt for Russia's entire political elite. He condemned Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a 'caricature of a patriot' and said: 'I will join no party or movement.'

He rejects suggestions that he is returning to Russia in the same way Maxim Gorky returned to the Russia of Lenin: 'He came back as a slave to serve the regime. I am not going to serve any regime.'

When the regional vice-governor, Igor Lebedinets, read out a telegram from President Boris Yeltsin, hailing Solzhenitsyn's 'talent and experience', the writer sat in stony silence.

Solzhenitsyn has a moral stature that sets him apart from the squabbling of Moscow politics. He has survived, three years as a front-line artillery captain against the Nazis, a battle with what was diagnosed as terminal cancer, eight years in the Gulag, a decade of harassment by the KGB and 20 years in exile in Europe and the United States. He is untainted by the bloodshed of last October. He supported Mr Yeltsin from afar, but escaped the dishonour that fell on other intellectuals.

It may be difficult for Solzhenitsyn to be heard. Remarks critical of Boris Yeltsin's reforms were passed over in silence by state-controlled television and radio. An opinion poll in Moscow said only seven per cent of Russians believe Solzhenitsyn will influence political life.

To try and penetrate this indifference, he will travel back to Moscow by train, stopping along the way to gauge Russia's mood, a tour reminiscent of Boris Yeltsin's state-of-the-nation trip in 1990.

He will travel in two de luxe railway carriages with his wife, Natalia, two sons, Yermolai and Stepan, several retainers and a BBC documentary team. The plan places him with Pushkin, Chekhov and Tolstoy in a tradition of epic literary travels far from the capital, seen as a place of impurity. Many Soviet-era writers made the trans-Siberian journey in the opposite direction, in freight cars on the way to Stalin's Gulag.

His first brush with the reality of the new Russia has been uncomfortable: a room in a Vladivostok hotel with a magnificent view, no hot water and an in-house brothel.

He rails against foreign infiltration of the Russian language and says the West misunderstands Russia. But he resists the nationalist temptation to blame outsiders for all Russia's ills. Patriotism, he said, is 'love for your homeland without giving in to its unjust claims and with a candid admission of its faults and sins'.

Russia, he said, must learn to help itself: 'In the West there is a widespread and very hurtful view that our people have no initiative: that they cannot build their own future and must always wait for somebody above to tell us - a monarch, a nobleman, the Politburo, the secretary-general of the Party Central Committee.

'We will never get anything until we realise that we are masters of our own fate.'