The Prophet and the Commissars

Even in death, Alexander Solzhenitsyn will remain a force to be reckoned with. Having been used by Nikita Khrushchev to undermine the Stalin era's moral pretenses, and by Vladimir Putin to uphold the ideals of Russian nationalism, perhaps one day his work will be restored to its rightful place as a monument to individual freedom.

MOSCOW – Prophets, it is said, are supposed to be without honor in their homeland. Yet Moscow has just witnessed the extraordinary sight of Alexander Solzhenitsyn – the dissident and once-exiled author of the Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – receiving what amounts to a state funeral, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acting as chief mourner.

So, even in death, Alexander Solzhenitsyn will, it seems, remain a force to be reckoned with. But will he be a force in keeping with the liberating vistas of his greatest works?

Sadly, art in Russia is always used to reinforce the narcissism of power. Solzhenitsyn was used in this way twice. The paradox is that, in the Soviet era, his art was used, briefly, as a force for liberation, because Nikita Khrushchev allowed the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in order to buttress his anti-Stalin thaw. In today’s supposedly free and democratic Russia, however, Solzhenitsyn is idealized for his nationalism and Orthodox messianism, his contempt for the West’s supposed decadence, all messages that Putin’s regime proclaims loudly and daily.

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