Yelena Tregubova: The principles of the Gulag are still with us

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The Independent Online

I was lucky enough to read Solzhenitsyn in my Soviet schooldays – when it was still forbidden. My older friends – anti-Soviet dissidents – slipped me a copy of The Gulag Archipelago published abroad. If I had been caught reading it at school, the secret services could have arrested me.

At that time Solzhenitsyn symbolised Russian repentance for all the monstrous and inhuman outrages perpetrated against the whole country over 70 years by the criminal organisation, the KGB. Solzhenitsyn was "the voice crying in the wilderness".

When Yeltsin launched his democratic reforms and Solzhenitsyn was given the right to return to his homeland, leading intellectuals in Russia expected a "Nuremberg trial" of the KGB.

But the "New Nuremberg" never happened. The organisation and its employees, who for 70 years persecuted their fellow citizens, not only went unpunished, but gradually became so strong again, that they were able to organize a full-scale revenge with the blessing of Vladimir Putin. With Mr Putin, the former head of the KGB successor organisation, as president, they seized power in the country, destroyed media freedoms, and set about controlling the oil and gas industries, and Russia's biggest private companies.

Every great writer in the Russian history, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, was always seen in Russia as more than just a man of letters - they were prophet, oracle, martyr, and leader. Solzhenitsyn was such a man.

So exactly one year ago, in the summer 2007, after Solzhenitsyn welcomed Mr Putin to his dacha near Moscow, the pro-democracy intellectuals in Moscow started to say that the brave dissident Solzhenitsyn "had been unable to resist the temptation of glory and flattery from the Kremlin rulers".

At the very moment of their handshake, Mr Putin, who has never repented for the political persecution and crimes of the KGB in the past, was demonstrating to the world that he was ready to turn the clock back.

He has revived the long-forgotten category of the political prisoner, and of the forcible confinement of critics in psychiatric clinics.

While this clearly cannot be compared to the horrors of the Gulag, such a déjà vu seems like a 21st-century epilogue for The Gulag Archipelago.

So it is probably fitting that Solzhenitsyn died at a time when the last hope of repentance for Russia has faded.

His name will live forever as an example of the fact that a single person can make a difference, if he keeps on telling the truth. In the case of Solzhenitsyn, a single person was able to overcome the might of the most inhumane criminal system.

The writer is a journalist who fled Russia in 2007 and was given political asylum in the UK