Russian restoration

The Baltimore Sun

Here is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of The Gulag Archipelago, the man who more than any other made the world understand the cruelty and senselessness of the Soviet prison camp system and, by extension, of the Soviet Union itself.

Here is Mr. Solzhenitsyn, a former prisoner of the gulag, an exile in Vermont for many years, more recently a refusenik by choice when offered prizes by Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin - here he is accepting an award in June from President Vladimir V. Putin, whose career began in the organization that imprisoned the truth-seeking writer.

And here is Mr. Solzhenitsyn, at age 88, in this week's issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel, praising Mr. Putin and what he has restored to Russia.

"Greatness" is perhaps the word that best captures what he means: Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin destroyed the Soviet Union, but they also destroyed Russia's greatness. Mr. Putin is rebuilding it. And of course the West doesn't like it, because when has any country enjoyed the rise of another?

Mr. Solzhenitsyn grumbles about Eastern Europeans who blame Russia for their unhappy pasts, but it wasn't Russia at all - it was Soviet Communism. Mr. Putin was a KGB agent, but in foreign intelligence, which is no disgrace, and whatever he's doing now (restoring the Soviet anthem, and the red flag for the army, among other things), it's as a Russian and not as a Communist. It's a fine distinction Mr. Solzhenitsyn draws, but it's not, theoretically, impossible to follow.

Can a nation deserve greatness? And can greatness excuse abusive and violent behavior? Russians aren't the only ones who might ask themselves those questions. In the interview, Mr. Solzhenitsyn laments Russia's endemic corruption and strongly praises local democracy, of the New England town meeting variety, but suggests that Mr. Putin, at the pinnacle of the "vertical of power," necessarily operates by a different set of rules. He sounds just a little bit like those who argue for the "unitary executive" in this country, though he's considerably more eloquent.

Garry Kasparov, the chess player, had a different take in The Wall Street Journal yesterday. If you want to understand the Russian president and the ruthless way he wields power, always taking and never giving, don't look to Russian literature. Read Mario Puzo, he wrote. Read The Godfather.

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