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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Russian Question
at the End of the Twentieth Century
Toward the End of the Twentieth Century

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The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century: Toward the End of the Twentieth Century

Although Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn never precisely defines what the question is in the title of his latest book, " 'The Russian Question' at the End of the 20th Century," his subject is obviously the future of the Russian people.

He does pose the question, "Russkiy or Rossiiskiy?" To this the translator, his son Yermolai, adds in a footnote: "Both terms mean 'Russian.' Russkiy refers to the Russian language and ethnicity; Rossiiskiy -- to the Russian state, to geographical Russia (Rossiya). A citizen of Russia is Rossiyanin." So Mr. Solzhenitsyn's question is clearly, Should the future of the Russians be defined in merely territorial terms or in spiritual ones as well?

To answer, he reviews the last 500 years of Russian history, from the 17th-century "Time of Troubles" (1605-1613) to the present. This history is dense, elliptical, compressed. The prose (or the translation of it) is blunt and somewhat clumsy. A typical passage reads like this: "The Russian character developed naturally in Pomorye, uninhibited by Moscow's rule and without the inclination to maraud, a tendency notably adopted by the Cossacks of the southern rivers. (That the light of Lomonosov came to us precisely from Pomorye is no accident.)" The translator's footnotes help only a little.

Still, what Mr. Solzhenitsyn is driving at emerges clearly enough. Arguing that Russia's natural boundaries include the Black Sea and the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, he concludes that the country was misguided in expanding beyond them. And the country was equally mistaken to become so involved in European affairs.

These errors led to Russia's involvement in World War I, which in turn resulted in the 1917 revolution and the Communist era. The main burden of these catastrophes landed on the Russian people, Mr. Solzhenitsyn concludes. As a consequence they are now literally "dying out," what with the current decline of life expectancy and birth rate.

What they must now do, he writes, is rebuild, "the optimal solution" being "a union of the three Slavic republics" -- Russia, Ukraine and Belarus -- "and Kazakhstan." "But when we say 'nationality,' " he writes, "we do not mean blood, but always a spirit, a consciousness, a person's orientation of preferences." Above all, the Russians must salvage their traditional character, which he defines at length as "openness, straightforwardness, a natural ease, a heightened simplicity, an easy disposition, a trusting resignation to fate, patience, endurance, lack of aspiration to external success, a readiness for self-reproach, for repentance, humility in heroic deeds, compassion and magnanimity."

How does he propose that the Russians should accomplish all this? He offers a hint in his book's second essay, "Address to the International Academy of Philosophy." Here in a speech delivered in Liechtenstein on Sept. 14, 1993, Mr. Solzhenitsyn reviews the rise of Benthamite utilitarianism (the greatest happiness of the greatest number) and the idea of progress, and he laments the consequent loss of a sense of purpose in human endeavors. Yet all he proposes as antidotes are a return to "morality in politics" and an effort "to limit our wants," or "the application of the principle of self-restraint to groups, professions, parties or entire countries."

If this seems somewhat vague, then one should probably invoke the rest of Mr. Solzhenitsyn's considerable body of writing. This along with his upright public conduct surely constitute a prescription for moral conduct.

Still, one's irritation at the hollowness of "The Russian Question" goes beyond mere frustration. The feeling is crystallized by certain passages in Richard Pipes's new book, "A Concise History of the Russian Revolution." This volume is what the author calls "a precis of my 'Russian Revolution' (1990) and 'Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime' (1994)." It was prepared for readers concerned with the subject who "cannot find the time to read two volumes totaling 1,300 pages supported by 4,500 references."

The most telling effect of the abridgment is to bring into sharper relief Mr. Pipes's deep and eloquent condemnation of the revolution and its aftermath, which argues forcibly was of a piece, Stalin's excesses having been an inevitable outgrowth of Lenin's, as the author sees them. In conclusion he pointedly asks, "Can one -- should one -- view such an unprecedented calamity with dispassion?" His answer is a sustained venting of outrage.

In particular, Mr. Pipes holds in contempt the sort of "radical intellectuals" who translate "concrete complaints" about a system (like Czarist Russia's) "into an all-consuming destructive force." He goes on to point out that to the members of such a "revolutionary intelligentsia," politics "was not simply a matter of better or worse, to be tested by experience, but of good and bad, to be decided on principle." He is, in short, criticizing moral politics, which is precisely what Mr. Solzhenitsyn seems to be calling for.

Of course what Mr. Solzhenitsyn is articulating in "The Russian Question" is less a political program than a sense of longing and hope. "We must build a moral Russia, or none at all -- it would not then matter anyhow," he writes at the end of his main essay. "We must preserve and nourish all the good seeds which miraculously have not been trampled down in Russia."

And at the end of his "Address," Mr. Solzhenitsyn writes: "And yet surely we have not experienced the trials of the 20th century in vain. Let us hope: we have, after all, been tempered by these trials, and our hard-won firmness will in some fashion be passed on to the following generations."

In short, his answer to "The Russian Question" is that the virtues of the Russian character will reassert themselves spontaneously. After reading Mr. Pipes's assessment of Russian history, you are left to wonder. --Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NYTimes

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