Saturday, 10 September 2016

Rebuilding Russia, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Aleander Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia, 1990, Moscow

Come writers and critics
Who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Bob Dylan

At the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian writer and Gulag survivor, Alexander Solzhenitsyn offered his thoughts on what kind of form the new post-Soviet Russia should take. The political system he articulates in this book is a very ground-up model of government, with local democracy at its foundation.

A key part of Solzhenitsyn's vision was that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine should be kept together as a united east slav union. He believed that Ukraine, while having distinct traditions and customs was fundamentally part of Russia. He did allow that if Ukraine wanted to be independent, they must be allowed to be, though this needed to be decided by a fair national plebiscite. It was, they did and they were. Ukrainians voted for independence. Ukrainians in both the west and the Russian-speaking east were in favour of independence. Despite this, political hacks, policy wonks and history geeks predicted for years that Ukraine would break in half. It never did. The present conflict in Ukraine has occurred on the fringes of the nation, in Crimea and Donbas. While the Ossetians and Abkhazians had been fighting to break from Georgia for years, the fraction of Crimea and Donbas took place rapidly after Russian intervention, rather than arising from persistent and sustained resistance, as with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Solzhenitsyn was unable to see the strength of national consciousness among Ukrainians.

Part of my frustration with this book comes from the sense that Solzhenitsyn was not at his best here. He was a man of great courage and conviction, with a deep sense of moral purpose, as well as compassion. Yet the subject of this book is the nuts and bolts of democratic systems and governments. It was a bit too easy for an idealist like Solzhenitsyn to criticize every structure of the new Russia without having to do the dirty work of running for election and actually implementing his policies. Our author expresses his disgust in this book at the prospect of career politicians arising in Russia. Yet every nation needs career politicians. A democratic system does not just require idealists and visionaries. It also requires boring, but smooth-talking men and women who are efficient at managing things. You don't need a dictator to make trains run on time; you need a transport minister who can read her briefings and make sensible decisions about railway contracts.

There are some who have made a link between this manifesto and Putin's regime. I personally would not say this. I think there is too much of a sense of humanity and compassion here for that and Solzhenitsyn is very clear in his rejection of great power politics. This is fundamentally the work of an agrarian romantic, rather than an authoritarian nationalist. I do suspect though, that had Solzhenitsyn's ideas been implemented in the new Russia of 1990, we would have ended up with something resembling Putinism.

As a monarchist, my biggest disappointment of this book is Solzhenitsyn's failure to call for the restoration of the Russian monarchy. The monarchy was central to the fabric of Russian life before the revolution and the lack of a restoration has left a deep void in the soul of Russian national existence.

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