Mark Steel: A reactionary called Solzhenitsyn

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The Independent Online

I had no idea Solzhenitsyn was still alive, so I couldn't work out how to feel at the news he'd died. It was as if someone said "Have you heard the sad news – Joan of Arc's dead." It must have been difficult for him returning to Russia as an old man, as presumably he saw the shopping malls and McDonald's and thought "Dear oh dear, nothing's the same. When I was a boy it was all gulags round here."

Also, while his courage and impact was clearly immense, hardly anyone appears to have read any of his books. Maybe this is because every Russian novel seems to involve prison and frostbite and cannon-fire and families slaughtered by Cossacks.

If the Russians tried to do the Mr Men series it would go, "Mr Smiley was smiling away on the bus to Noverchekask to buy a packet of balloons for his birthday. 'Oh what a shame', he smiled at the man in the shop. 'You haven't any purple ones and purples are my favourite'. Then Mr Smiley felt a hand on his shoulder. 'So you are critical of the policies of the balloon-colouring commissariat of the regional Politburo are you Smiley?' said a man with a bristly moustache, and so Mr Smiley spent his next nine birthdays smiling in solitary confinement in a four foot square bare earth cell hacking at a frozen solid raw potato for his dinner with a fork that had two prongs missing."

There's an added confusion in the response to his death, which is that the most militaristic Bush-supporting faction of Western society leap on him as their hero. At one level, this is easy to understand. They probably read his stuff and think, "These prisons he's describing are abominable. Add in orange hoods and waterboarding and they'll be perfect." And the person who had to write the eulogy for some papers will have been especially perplexed, as their first draft must have been, "Once again us mugs in the West had to bail out a so-called refugee who'd suffered 'torture' in his own country, but came here to exploit our superior health system to tend to his frostbite." Until the editor explained, "No – we wanted this one here."

But there's something else that makes him more complex than just a victim of tyranny and a crusader against it. Once in America and feted by Western leaders, he urged the US to continue bombing Vietnam. He condemned Amnesty International as too liberal, opposed democracy in Russia, and supported General Franco.

Solzhenitsyn himself can be excused, because who knows what it does to the mind to spend eight years in a barbaric Russian jail. But the reason he appeared so contradictory is the question at the centre of the 20th century. The obvious route for anyone appalled by one side in the Cold War was to embrace the other. But both sides were driven by a rationale that owed nothing to morals and humanity and everything to profit and power. So anyone attempting to defend one side against the other gets in a tangle, condemning the gulags but justifying napalm on Vietnam, or condemning the US-backed coup in Chile but supporting the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Or maybe it's a Russian thing, in which they were isolated from world opinion for so long they go wonky when they talk about anything outside Russia. So all Russian writers seem to compose epic novels detailing a history of plague and war and terror across four centuries. Then they follow it up with a pamphlet about how the world economy should be governed by Robert Kilroy-Silk and we should all live under the sea. When the only sane perspective is to comprehend that it's not odd bits of the world that are mad, but all of it.

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