An awkward fit in the Russian Pantheon
I always found Alexander Solzhenitsyn a puzzle and sometimes very unsettling. He was a communist who became an ex-communist and attacked the system with relentless courage, a writer with exotic religious and political views, a hero to some very unattractive elements in the west, especially the United States, despite his frequent reproaches for our many collective failures.
Having just finished reading Orlando Figes's sweeping, magnificent work of Russian cultural history, Natasha's Dance, I can only wish I'd read it sooner. Though Figes has surprisingly little to say about Solzhenitsyn himself - just three indexed references in the Penguin edition - he provides context and makes sense of him.
Russian history, it transpires, is full of such people - not just Tolstoy whom everyone knows about - artists and intellectuals committed to trying to make sense of Russia's autocratic history, its people and its place in the world. Is it part of Europe, essentially Asiatic - as the pro-Slavs insisted - or something unique to itself which links both traditions, cultural and political, but remains different?
Thus the "children of 1812" - including the doomed Decembrists, who attempted to reform or overthrow the Tzar in 1825 - were aristocratic pro-Europeans, for whom Peter the Great, builder of St Petersburg in the Baltic marshes, was the emblematic moderniser. Moscow was the rival pole of attraction, the capital of old Rus which had thrown off the Mongol yoke.
For the Decembrists, the courage of the serfs in harrying Napoleon's Grand Army out of Mother Russia after the capture of Moscow in 1812 ( Muscovites promptly burned it down, making Bonaparte say admiringly, "what a people... the barbarians") had been the turning point: transforming those with a previous passion for France - and French - to nationalists that favoufred emancipation of the serfs.
A romantic view of the serfs (emancipated just ahead of American slaves in 1861) became a recurring theme of Russian artists and intellectuals, the Slav tendency - orchestrated by the nationalist critic Vladimir Stasov for many years - as well as the Europeans, mystics and others. The Bolsheviks cleverly played on this theme when elevating the urban working class - the proletariat - after their seizure of power in 1917, though Lenin and Stalin both despised the peasants, ie most Russians, as they later demonstrated by murdering millions of them.
Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, up to Rachmaninov and artists of the 20th century, can all be placed in one camp or another, all praised or discarded, lionised, exiled or shot by the regime in the Kremlin, then or later. Solzhenitsyn fits as awkwardly into the Pantheon as anyone else.
The intensity of their feeling for the emancipation and fulfilment of Russia's destiny - and the risks many took - makes our own politicking, and much of our intellectual life, look pretty frivolous. Lucky us, you might say, to live in a country where there has long been enough space for free politics that our artists are not required by a sense of duty to engage relentlessly in the "Whither Russia?" debate.
Two stories I did not previously know stay with me. One concerns the Decembrist general, Prince Sergei Volkonsky (1788-1865) - idealised as Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace - who was spared the gallows in 1825 because he was a childhood playmate of the Tsar. Dispatched instead to 20 years hard labour in Siberia (his wife, Maria followed him, knowing there would be no return), he survived and lived as a peasant farmer on the eastern rim of Russia's great Asian empire - the bit which unravelled so fast after 1989. In 1852 he was even allowed to return to European Russia (not to Moscow) by the new reformist Tsar, Alexander II (later assassinated), still a monarchist and nationalist, universally revered. At 64, he volunteered to fight in the Crimean War - even as a private.
The second concerns the poet, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), who was already famous in 1917 but, unlike so many of her class and artistic ability, chose to stay on in her beloved St Petersburg after the revolution despite not being a sympathiser - as were so many intellectuals who did stay. According to Figes, a controversial figure among some Russian scholars, her purpose was to share Russia's suffering. Which she did. Hounded before World War II and hounded afterwards, she was put on the radio - a symbol of Russia - during the 900-day German siege of the city.
She died in her bed. But it must sometimes have been touch and go. In 1938, when her son was arrested by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB), during the Yehhov terror against the intellectuals, Akhmatova was recognised during her grim daily ritual, standing in line to deliver a food parcel to the Kresty jail, knowing that if the parcel is rejected the loved one would be dead. "Can you describe this?" a woman whispered. "And I answered, 'Yes, I can,'" she later recalled in the preface of Requiem, eventually published in Munich in 1963. "Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her [the woman's] face."
You may know all this, I didn't and I pass it on to help answer the question being asked in some quarters today: does Solzhenitsyn's death
represent the end of a great Russian tradition? No, it doesn't because the eternal "Whither Russia? " question endures, as strong as ever. So
does the Kremlin.