Can Solzhenitsyn save Russia?

May 19, 1994|By Boris Paramonov & Dmitri Shalin

ALEXANDER Solzhenitsyn is about to end his 20-year exile and return to his native Russia. "I hope I can be at least of some help to my tormented nation," he recently told a town meeting in Cavendish, Vt. Many in his homeland harbor similar hopes. The desperate conditions Russia faces today make his entry into politics not only feasible but also desirable.

The political process in today's Russia is hopelessly deadlocked. It is immaterial who is heading the government, for the state currently has no power to carry out a coherent policy or enforce its decrees. A recent proof is Boris Yeltsin's embarrassing failure to block the release from prison of his political foes. But the ultrapatriots have failed to capitalize on Yeltsin's weakness. As Yeltsin's ratings slip, so do Vladimir Zhirinovsky's.

The economic situation in the country remains gloomy. Political pressure compels government to step up subsidies to money-losing enterprises. Cross-breeding between state bureaucracies and organized crime is proceeding apace. Private companies add little to the nation's manufacturing capabilities and are tied primarily to service, inflation-driven financial speculation and dumping raw materials on world markets. Those entrepreneurs who are willing to invest in production are saddled with taxes on profit exceeding 80 percent.

The public's patience is strained to the limit. Workers in state enterprises go for months without pay and see their salaries devoured by inflation. Although retirees have their pensions indexed to inflation, they are doomed to subsist close to the poverty line. All vital indicators -- crime, ecological calamities, increasing suicide rates, negative population growth -- point to a country in distress.

The yearning for a bold leader and a powerful state has never been stronger in Russia. Calls for law and order are heard not only from the red-brown (communists-ultranationalists) alliance but also from labor, business and the clergy.

Even some liberal politicians wonder if market mechanisms alone would suffice to bring a viable market economy and functioning democracy to Russia. Once firmly opposed to authoritarian rule, Russian liberals now mull over the "Chilean model" and remind themselves that Augusto Pinochet brought in American economists to restore his country's market economy.

That's the backdrop against which we must view Mr. Solzhenitsyn's possible entry into Russia's politics. Can he assume the strongman's mantle? Should the West fear him as a new Ayatollah Khomeini or welcome his as a bulwark against Russian fundamentalism? While he is unlikely to run for a public office, Mr. Solzhenitsyn is certain to use his authority to break the country's stalemate. Hence, the need to take a closer look at his statements.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn's critics charge that he disdains the West, overstates Russia's uniqueness and espouses veiled anti-Semitism. He has strenuously denied such charges. Moreover, he pointedly refused to endorse pseudo-patriotic factions that fan hatred in Russia. Mr. Solzhenitsyn criticized the West for its litigious ways and pursuit of unlimited economic growth, but he has never favored autocracy over democracy or renounced Western civilization.

In domestic politics, Mr. Solzhenitsyn comes across as a regionalist. An admirer of Switzerland's canton system, he wants to see Moscow delegate as much power as possible to local administrations. Mr. Solzhenitsyn's foreign policy would block efforts to restore the Russian empire and encourage a loose federation of Slavic states emerging from the gradually renewed ties between Russia and its neighbors.

In the economic sphere, Mr. Solzhenitsyn urges a shift from unsustainable economic expansion to the post-industrial agenda combining a controlled growth, environmentally sound development and concern for the economically disadvantaged. Since his days in the gulag, Mr. Solzhenitsyn has harbored contempt for professional criminals and is certain to clamp down on organized crime, which intimidates local producers.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn's social policies are more problematic. His moral rigorism, contempt for mass culture and orthodox religious convictions make Western-style liberals wonder if he will tolerate alternative lifestyles and show sensitivity toward religious minorities.

He may be uneasy about feminism and have little taste for rock music, but that does not mean he will use state power to impose his personal preferences on others.

It is wishful thinking to paint Mr. Solzhenitsyn as Russia's would-be savior. Still, we need to lay out scenarios for the future that could alleviate human suffering. Given the current deadlock in Russia, Mr. Solzhenitsyn is bound to emerge as a power-broker, and his impact on his nation's politics could be positive. His moderate nationalism is sure to cut the neo-fascists down to size. His foreign policy would be welcomed by the West. Even his puritanism might be what Russia's nascent capitalism needs to legitimize itself in the public mind. At 75, Mr. Solzhenitsyn has no time to waste.

Boris Paramonov is senior correspondent for Radio Liberty. Dmitri Shalin is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada.

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