The Prophet and the Commissars

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.

The old Soviet iconography has broken down completely; despite heroic efforts, not even Putin could restore Lenin, Stalin, and the old Soviet pantheon. Yet the Kremlin understands that something is needed to replace them as Russia adapts to its new oil-fueled autocracy. Solzhenitsyn, one of the most famous and heroic dissidents of the Soviet era, now seems certain to become a towering figure in the iconography of Putinism.