George Walden: Who was the real Alexander Solzhenitsyn?

A brave dissident novelist who told the truth about Stalin's Gulag or a nationalist Slavophile who distrusted Western democracy?

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The year that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published I was studying Russian literat-ure in Moscow. Its impact was explosive. It wasn't just the revelations of the book – by 1962 students knew all about the camps, and half the jokes I was told were about them – it was the idea of having something worth reading.

I had embarked on a crash course of literary classics to keep up with Russian friends who, in the absence of anything contemporary, read the best of the past. The idea of something being published that not only told the truth about Stalin, but was also well written, was life-affirming. Even the most melancholy of my Russian friends were momentarily shaken out of their drunken cynicism.

Flash forward four decades. As chairman of the Russian Booker Prize for fiction, a few years ago I handed an award to one of the shortlisted authors, a shaven-headed young writer called Zakhar Prilepin, for his novel Sanka, whose hero is a member of a gang of super-patriotic anti-Western youths, not dissimilar to the violent National Bolshevik Party of which Prilepin himself was once leader. Its brute nationalism reflected a nasty strand of Russian thinking, with roots in the Slavophiles of the 19th century, and in the latter-day Solzhenitsyn. Prilepin was later received, among a group of young writers, by President Vladimir Putin.

Then, last year, Solzhenitsyn accepted the State Prize of the Russian Federation for humanitarian achievement from President Putin, whom he had taken to commending for restoring Russia's international power and influence. Eyebrows were raised at a former KGB officer presenting a Gulag inmate with flowers. Yet again the writer's patriotism overcame all other considerations: Putin had not been involved in running the camps, he said, and there was nothing wrong with foreign intelligence-gathering.

None of this is to suggest that Solzhenitsyn remains a favourite with young people today. When I checked out the reactions of Russian literary friends to his death, the consensus was that, though people say he was the last great Russian writer, his contribution to what Russians call "public thought" was greater than his contribution to fiction.

He is certainly the last writer with a prophetic function. "His absence will not be felt in the field of literature," I was told. Now the most important thing about Solzhenitsyn was: "Who will wield his name from now on, and for what purpose?"

The news that President Dimitry Medvedev had broken his holiday to attend the funeral service, all four hours of which were broadcast, goes some way to answering that.

Even if there is an official campaign to boost his standing as a leading patriot, a posthumous literary comeback seems unlikely. It is not just the triumph of Stephen King et al with Russian readers, overwhelming as this is. For all Solzhenitsyn's heroic status, he was associated with a past that many were only too happy to forget in their eagerness to improve their lives – an anxiety the monkish author tirelessly denounced as the corruption of the Russian soul by sordid Western materialism.

Solzhenitsyn's works are not just about unjust punishment inflicted by a merciless state, but about the ability to absorb it and to inflict it on oneself. The assumption that this capacity for suffering is relished by his readers can be seen in the length and repetitiveness of his less impressive works.

A taste for highly serious writing continues to exist. (The main highbrow magazine is the excellent Russkaya Kultura, a broadsheet with long articles, small print, no pictures, and no coverage of popular culture.) But the appetite for hedonism in today's Russia is far greater than for the pains of history, self-inflicted or otherwise.

The winners of the Russian Booker, now the most prestigious prize in Russia, reflect this movement. At first, there were Solzhenitsyn echoes in the many novels submitted on corruption in the Communist Party, the camps, the war with Hitler. Now, they tend to be a little more entertaining.

There has also been decline in the Russian tradition of publicistika – writing on social, moral or political themes that can include didactic novels such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 19th-century revolutionary tract What Is to Be Done? The collapse of communism led to uncertainty about the purpose of the novel. One writer I knew, though overjoyed by the opening up of Russia, despaired for his future.

In the Nineties, novelists were at last free from censorship, but freedom seemed a burden. What were they to write? What was the point of pouring your heart into fiction criticising society in return for a pittance, when you were free to say whatever you had to in a 1,000-word article – and get paid on the dot.

Solzhenitsyn's later pronouncements sometimes made you shake your head, murmuring that, in Russia, nothing changes. The comparison with Dostoyevsky is as familiar as it is compelling, and recent years have made it more relevant still.

Involved in revolutionary circles, he too was sent to Siberia and recorded his sufferings, in The House of the Dead. Like Solzhenitsyn he travelled, but could live only in Russia. Echoes of his famous speech on Pushkin's death about the spiritual and philosophical divide between Russia and Europe persists to this day in the Russian distrust of Western democracy, where less than 50 per cent of Russians see the need for an opposition, and demokratizatsia – "shitocracy" – gives a flavour of young, nationalistic opinion. And, like Dostoyevsky, in his last years Solzhenitsyn reconciled himself to authority. Some fellow intellectuals have been harsh. "He was a conservative nationalist, a religious man who wanted to return Russia to somewhere in the 16th century," said Roy Medvedev, a dissident historian, after Solzhenitsyn's death, refraining from adding that it was the century of Ivan the Terrible.

It is becoming more difficult to remember that Solzhenitsyn was once Russia's most famous dissident. If the truth is not told, he wrote in The Cancer Ward, one's fellow countrymen become harder to understand than Martians. But how far was the anti-democratic, Slavophile and exalted prophet telling the truth about contemporary Russia?

Why did he not demur at the revising upwards of Stalin's reputation in the history books? Or at a tendency, which is confirmed in polls, to view the mass murderer more favourably as time passes, even if the creeping rehabilitation is disguised as admiration for him as a wartime leader? And why, one young writer asked me, had the man who once wrote of censorship – that "this is not merely interference with the freedom of the press, but the sealing up of a nation's heart, the excision of its memory" – not taken the lead in denouncing a new self-censorship in literature? And what would he have said, one can't help wondering, about his country's violent intervention in Georgia today? Nothing, perhaps.

The only time I saw Solzhenitsyn was a few years ago, at a private meeting in Moscow, where a friend had got me in. The prophet's words, though few and gloomy, were ecstatically greeted. But then, though in our mid-50s, we must have been the youngest people there. And when his remarks were over, you expected someone to say: "Let us pray."

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