Solzhenitsyn on Russia, America, and Ukraine

Here are some thoughts from Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Russia, America, and Ukraine from a 1994 interview in Forbes. They are very relevant to the contemporary crisis. The whole interview is worth reading, but I have excerpted the portion that deals most directly with the current situation.

Forbes: Tension is mounting between Russia and the now independent Ukraine, with the West strongly backing Ukrainian territorial integrity. Henry Kissinger argues that Russia will always threaten the interests of the West, no matter what kind of government it has.

Solzhenitsyn: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, [historian] Richard Pipes and many other American politicians and publicists are frozen in a mode of thought they developed a long time ago. With unchanging blindness and stubbornness they keep repeating and repeating this theory about the supposed age-old aggressiveness of Russia, without taking into consideration today’s reality.

Well, what about Ukraine? Hasn’t Russia made threats toward several of the former U.S.S.R. member states?Imagine that one not very fine day two or three of your states in the Southwest, in the space of 24 hours, declare themselves independent of the U.S. They declare themselves a fully sovereign nation, decreeing that Spanish will be the only language. All English-speaking residents, even if their ancestors have lived there for 200 years, have to take a test in the Spanish language within one or two years and swear allegiance to the new nation. Otherwise they will not receive citizenship and be deprived of civic, property and employment rights.What would be the reaction of the United States? I have no doubt that it would be immediate military intervention.But today Russia faces precisely this scenario. In 24 hours she lost eight to 10 purely Russian provinces, 25 million ethnic Russians who have ended up in this very way–as “undesirable aliens.” In places where their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers have lived since way back–even from the 17th century–they face persecution in their jobs and the suppression of their culture, education and language.

Meanwhile, in Central Asia, those wishing to leave are not permitted to take even their personal property. The authorities tell them, “There is no such concept as ‘personal property’!”And in this situation “imperialist Russia” has not made a single forceful move to rectify this monstrous mess. Without a murmur she has given away 25 million of her compatriots–the largest diaspora in the world!You see Russia as the victim of aggression, not as the aggressor.Who can find in world history another such example of peaceful conduct? And if Russia keeps the peace in the single most vital question that concerns her, why should one expect her to be aggressive in secondary issues?With Russia in chaos, it does sound a bit far-fetched to see her as an aggressor.Russia today is terribly sick. Her people are sick to the point of total exhaustion. But even so, have a conscience and don’t demand that–just to please America–Russia throw away the last vestiges of her concern for her security and her unprecedented collapse. After all, this concern in no way threatens the United States.Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski disagrees. He argues that the U.S. must defend the independence of Ukraine.In 1919, when he imposed his regime on Ukraine, Lenin gave her several Russian provinces to assuage her feelings. These provinces have never historically belonged to Ukraine. I am talking about the eastern and southern territories of today’s Ukraine.Then, in 1954, Khrushchev, with the arbitrary capriciousness of a satrap, made a “gift” of the Crimea to Ukraine. But even he did not manage to make Ukraine a “gift” of Sevastopol, which remained a separate city under the jurisdiction of the U.S.S.R. central government. This was accomplished by the American State Department, first verbally through Ambassador Popadiuk in Kiev and later in a more official manner.Why does the State Department decide who should get Sevastopol? If one recalls the tactless declaration of President Bush about supporting Ukrainian sovereignty even before the referendum on that matter, one must conclude that all this stems from a common aim: to use all means possible, no matter what the consequences, to weaken Russia.Why does independence for Ukraine weaken Russia?As a result of the sudden and crude fragmentation of the intermingled Slavic peoples, the borders have torn apart millions of ties of family and friendship. Is this acceptable? The recent elections in Ukraine, for instance, clearly show the [Russian] sympathies of the Crimean and Donets populations. And a democracy must respect this.I myself am nearly half Ukrainian. I grew up with the sounds of Ukrainian speech. I love her culture and genuinely wish all kinds of success for Ukraine–but only within her real ethnic boundaries, without grabbing Russian provinces. And not in the form of a “great power,” the concept on which Ukrainian nationalists have placed their bets. They are acting out and trumpeting a cult of force, persistently inflating Russia into the image of an “enemy.” Militant slogans are proclaimed. And the Ukrainian army is being indoctrinated with the propaganda that war with Russia is inevitable.

For every country, great power status deforms and harms the national character. I have never wished great power status for Russia, and do not wish it for the United States. I don’t wish it for Ukraine. She would not be able to perform even the cultural task required to achieve great power status: In her current borders, 63% of the population consider Russian to be their native language, a number three times larger than the number of ethnic Russians. And all these people will have to be re-educated in the Ukrainian language, while the language itself will have to be raised to international standards and usage. This is a task that would require over 100 years.At the heart of all this is a central question: What about Russia and the U.S.? Are we historic rivals?Before the [Russian] revolution, they were natural allies. You know that during the American Civil War, Russia supported Lincoln and the North [in contrast to Britain and France, which supported the Confederacy]. Then, we were effectively allies in the First World War. But beginning with communism, Russia ceased to exist. What is there to talk about? The confrontation was not at all with Russia but with the communist U.S.S.R.

  1. Ontheleftcoast

    Ukraine’s anschluss to Russia was brokered by Bohdan Khmelnytsky. He was a Cossack hetman, and per that culture, selected by quasi democratic means. Shortly after his deal with the Tsar, he pledged to ethnically cleanse the Ukraine of its Jews; his followers enthusiastically killed many tens of thousands of Jews in so doing. 

    At the time, Ukraine was under threat from the Ottomans; that probably explains the fact that Khmelnytsky is a great national hero of Ukraine for bringing Ukraine into the Russian empire even though this cost his land its independence. The Russians, too, regard him as a national hero for this. 

    For Jews, not so much.

  2. Israel P.

    It’s interesting that Putin does not see any reason to get this point of view out.

    (I am not saying I agree with it, mind you.)

    It would soften the Russian image and give Obama and western Europe a fig leaf to hide behind. Of course, he may not want to soften his image. Some cultures prefer the violence of, say, jihad.

    It certainly lays out the pretext for the Baltic states. (Obama will have no sympathy for the successful capitalist society that is Estonia.)

  3. Klaatu

    I find it interesting Russia (to the best if my knowledge) has not used the 29 years since this interview to make the case Solzhenitsyn does and negotiate with the Ukrainians regarding the issue. There have been negotiations over the naval facilities in Crimea but even with a Russian friendly regime in Kiev, nothing on the fate of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

    If I am wrong and such talks have occurred, what has been the result?

  4. Douglas

    I agree with everything Solz said, because it’s based on fact, facts that we in the West simply don’t like to hear. What’s gonna be funny is seeing the same people that praised him for his resistance against the Soviets doing cognitive gymnastics about Crimea now. He’s also completely right about what would happen if the situation was reversed, and, after all, we’ve been there: Lincoln conquered the seceding states. But then we’ve always been selective when it comes to those self-determination principles, now haven’t we. 

  5. John Grant
    C

    Hi Klaatu,

    To the best of my knowledge Russia has not engaged in negotiations with Ukraine.

    The recent revolution in Ukraine was rather sudden. I suspect that Russia was willing to live with the earlier status quo. The pre-revolutionary regime was not very pro-Russian. They moved away from the deal with the EU because the Russians were giving them a pile of money, not out of love for or subservience to Russia.

  6. Danny Alexander

    Unquestionably compelling.

    Unfortunately, however, the timing (and players) put both the major powers in the wrong, in the least desirable fashion.

    Putin and Russia may be animated precisely by the thoughts Solzhenitsyn expresses here — and accordingly may have the right of things in terms of facts, state logic, and even morality.  But unfortunately Putin has been a thug and his country a hybrid police state and thugocracy.

    Obama and the US might have benefited (beyond pure fig-leaf-ism) from acceding to the thoughts Solzhenitsyn expresses here — and accordingly might have headed off Putin’s/Russia’s current foray or at least handled it in a manner that everyone could have pointed to as a “success” and a “win-win” (or win-win-win) for all stakeholders.  But unfortunately Obama has been at best a feckless scold and at worst a thoroughgoing abettor of globally ambitious (even apocalyptic) thugs and their thugocracies.

    All of which is why the “importance” of the Ukraine issue is now amplified as it is:  Iran, for example, is unquestionably paying attention — Obama has given the Khomeinists every reason to. 

  7. Petty Boozswha

    it’s easy to conflate language with boundaries, but they don’t always line up. If they did the USA should march in and liberate Toronto and the oil fields of Alberta from those pesky Frenchies up north. In Ukraine both the new leader/former PM and one of the leading opposition leaders – spelling his name escapes me right now, the former heavyweight boxing champ – speak Russian at home rather than Ukrainian, but both believe in a strong independent Ukraine not part of Russia. Likewise many in the eastern third of the country, though not as culturally influenced by the Hapsburg Empire and the pre-WWII Poland as the western two thirds are, still see themselves as not part of Russia despite a large Russian speaking population.

  8. John Grant
    C

    Israel,

    Good point. I do wonder how we would know the Russian point of view. The American media is much more overtly anti-Russian than it was anti-Soviet in the 80′s from what I can tell.

    I think the points Solzhenitsyn makes are serious and relevant even if Putin is not bringing them up. For one thing, these remarks remind us that we were demanding an independent Ukraine before Ukraine was independent.

  9. AIG

    Several points:

    1) Solzhenitsyn’s opposition to communism was based on the suppression of Russian Orthodox-ism and nationalism, not on an ideological case for free-markets or “Western” ideologies of the sort. So one doesn’t need to reconcile his anti-communist views with his Russian-nationalism. He was never a “friend” of “western ideologies:. 

    2) His premise is flawed. The ethnic Russians living in those places came as conquerors. Most settled there in the past 2-3 generations, and did so as a result of ethnically cleaning or otherwise displacing the local populations. Crimea, being a prime example of this. 

    So the only argument he is making here is: we conquered them and colonized them, and now they want to restore their separate countries. We can’t let that happen. 

    And as usual, this is supported with fancy-ful stories of “Russians” being persecuted in these former Soviet colonies. These sort of cheap Pravda-esque propaganda is even hurled at EU and NATO members, in the Baltic countries. 

    PS: These exact same arguments, BTW, were used in the Balkans to commit mass murder and ethnic cleansing. These are not “reasonable” arguments. They are pure ethnic chauvinism. 

  10. Klaatu

    Hello Professor,

    My understanding is the Ukrainian government prior to the Orange Revolution was fairly pro-Russian, the Revolution led to a western leaning regime, this regime lost the most recent election to the now deposed president. The electoral strength of the deposed president was in the eastern, Russian speaking area and the Crimea.

  11. AIG

    PPS: One more thing. There is also the case that the US example, or Israel etc are not morally equivalent to Russian/Soviet occupation. One would have to assume moral equivalency between the US and Russia, in order to compare the two simply on the bases of “technicalities”. I would hope that at least Ricochet wouldn’t be the sort of place for that. 

  12. AIG

    So I would have to agree with Kissinger here: Russia has always operated on nationalism and on empire-building. As such, it has always stood in opposition to “the West” because it saw it as the main threat to Russian expansionism. Nothing has demonstrated this better than modern-day Russia under Putin. Russia has never had, in its entire history, a political system or a national identity which mirrored any Western ideologies. Quite the opposite, it has always actively attempted to distance itself from Western ideologies, while attempting to copy Western outcomes. 

    So the details of Crimea or Ukraine aren’t as important (not least of all because most of what he says here is pretty fictitious) as the overall picture that Russia represents the anti-theses of the “western world”, and always has. 

  13. John Grant
    C

    AIG,

    Your posts are full of inaccuracies.

    Solzhenitsyn was not opposed to the free market–he addresses this even in the interview to which I linked.

    He also makes the point that Russians have been living in what we now call the Ukraine for centuries, and that part of what we now call Ukraine was part of Russia before 1919. Those are simply facts.

    Solzhenitsyn also addressed the Balkan issue in the interview. Obviously you know more about Russian, the Balkans, and Ukraine than Solzhenitsyn.

    Your smears on Solzhenitsyn as a proponent of ethnic cleansing and propaganda are beneath contempt and unworthy of further comment. Do you know anything about the man at all?

    AIG: PPS: One more thing. There is also the case that the US example, or Israel etc are not morally equivalent to Russian/Soviet occupation. One would have to assume moral equivalency between the US and Russia, in order to compare the two simply on the bases of “technicalities”. I would hope that at least Ricochet wouldn’t be the sort of place for that.  · 7 minutes ago

  14. John Grant
    C

    This is blather. What are “Western ideologies?” Marxism, Nazism,  Ultramontanism, the divine right of kings–all of these are “Western ideologies.” So what if Russia has never adopted them?

    And actually Russia did adopt Marxism, which is a rather obvious point. If you had studied Solzhenitsyn, you would know this.

     

    AIG: So I would have to agree with Kissinger here: Russia has always operated on nationalism and on empire-building. As such, it has always stood in opposition to “the West” because it saw it as the main threat to Russian expansionism. Nothing has demonstrated this better than modern-day Russia under Putin. Russia has never had, in its entire history, a political system or a national identity which mirrored any Western ideologies. Quite the opposite, it has always actively attempted to distance itself from Western ideologies, while attempting to copy Western outcomes. 

    So the details of Crimea or Ukraine aren’t as important (not least of all because most of what he says here is pretty fictitious) as the overall picture that Russia represents the anti-theses of the “western world”, and always has.  · 8 minutes ago

  15. John Grant
    C

    Hi Klaatu,

    I think this is right. Usually the pro-Russian character of the pre-Revolutionary regime is overstated, at least based on what I have been able to find out.

    Most of what I read is very unhelpful. I would be glad for any references to things you have found useful on the situation.

    (And please call me John!)

    Klaatu: Hello Professor,

    My understanding is the Ukrainian government prior to the Orange Revolution was fairly pro-Russian, the Revolution led to a western leaning regime, this regime lost the most recent election to the now deposed president. The electoral strength of the deposed president was in the eastern, Russian speaking area and the Crimea. · 24 minutes ago

  16. Matty Van

    Whoa John, I’m with you bro on the importance of the interview and the need for Americans to know this. But take it easy on AIG! I don’t agree with him either but there’s nothing in his posts which is not worthy of anything but respectful disagreement and respectful rebuttal.

  17. jarhead
    C

    This is very interesting, and thanks for posting it.  I was not aware of Solzhenitsyn’s view, in contrast to what seems to be the prevailing view of most Americans.

    It’s also against that of Richard Pipes, who was a recent guest on the Ricochet podcast of Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger.

  18. captainpower
    AIG: (comment #8)

    The ethnic Russians living in those places came as conquerors. Most settled there in the past 2-3 generations, and did so as a result of ethnically cleaning or otherwise displacing the local populations. Crimea, being a prime example of this. 

    So the only argument he is making here is: we conquered them and colonized them, and now they want to restore their separate countries. We can’t let that happen. 

    And as usual, this is supported with fancy-ful stories of “Russians” being persecuted in these former Soviet colonies.

    John Grant: (comment #12)

    Solzhenitsyn … makes the point that Russians have been living in what we now call the Ukraine for centuries, and that part of what we now call Ukraine was part of Russia before 1919.

    Is it untrue that the Soviet Union/Russia displaced natives and transplanted Russian loyalists into their territory?

    If they are now using the descendants of these people to claim ownership of territory, that seems like they are just trying to compound their violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.

    p.s. As a lay person with interest in learning more here, I implore you to keep the discussion civil.

  19. captainpower
    jarhead: (comment #16)

    This is very interesting, and thanks for posting it.  I was not aware of Solzhenitsyn’s view, in contrast to what seems to be the prevailing view of most Americans.

    It’s also against that of Richard Pipes, who was a recent guest on the Ricochet podcast of Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger.

    Do you remember why Solzhenitsyn didn’t like Richard Pipes?

    I seem not to have committed that part of the conversation to my memory.

    Need To Know with Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger

    Episode 67: The Growling Bear

    http://ricochet.com/podcasts/need-to-know/The-Growling-Bear

  20. AIG

    John, I’m from that part of the world originally, so it’s not necessary for me to “know more” than him, to have a different POV.

    1) I didn’t say he was anti-free market. Simply that his opposition to communism wasn’t based on “Western ideals”, but rather Russian nationalism. His “ideals” of what post-communist Russia ought to be are quite different from what “we” in the West would envision. Hence I see no contradiction in  accepting his anti-communist views without supporting his Russian-nationalistic views.

    2) The points presented here are nothing “new”. Russian media has been repeating these same points for the better part of 20 years now, calling everyone and anyone opposed to Russian expansionism as “Nazis”, “fascists”, “CIA agents”. 

    What you’re saying is that these views represent a “rational” explanation for the events which, strangely, Russian media has not been “selling” in the West. The problem with this is that these views are based on the assumption that unless ‘Russian-speakers” in these countries are in the supremacy, then they are being “oppressed”. Russian nationalism does not allow for the possibility of these people being simply “citizens” of these countries. 

Want to comment on stories like these? Become a member today!

You'll have access to:

  • All Ricochet articles, posts and podcasts.
  • The conversation amongst our members.
  • The opportunity share your Ricochet experiences.

Join Today!

Already a Member? Sign In