AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 30/2007

SPIEGEL Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn 'I Am Not Afraid of Death'

Part 4: 'Faith is the Foundation of One's Life'


SPIEGEL: Does Russia need a national idea, and what might it look like?

Solzhenitsyn: The term “national idea” is an unclear one. One might think of it as a widely shared understanding among a people as to the desired way of life in their country, an idea that holds sway over the population. A unifying concept like that can be useful, but should never be created artificially or imposed top-down by the powers-that-be.

Over the latest historical periods these concepts have been developed in France, for example after the eighteenth century, in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Poland etc. When the whole discussion of “developing a national idea” hastily began in post-Soviet Russia, I tried to pour cold water on it with the objection that, after all the devastating losses we had experienced, it would be quite sufficient to have just one task: the preservation of a dying people.

SPIEGEL: But Russia often finds itself alone. Recently relations between Russia and the West have gotten somewhat colder, and this includes Russian-European relations. What is the reason? What are the West’s difficulties in understanding modern Russia?

Solzhenitsyn: I can name many reasons, but the most interesting ones are psychological, i.e. the clash of illusory hopes against reality. This happened both in Russia and in West. When I returned to Russia in 1994, the Western world and its states were practically being worshipped. Admittedly, this was caused not so much by real knowledge or a conscious choice, but by the natural disgust with the Bolshevik regime and its anti-Western propaganda.

This mood started changing with the cruel NATO bombings of Serbia. It’s fair to say that all layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings. The situation then became worse when NATO started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by literally millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one fell stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc.

So, the perception of the West as mostly a "knight of democracy" has been replaced with the disappointed belief that pragmatism, often cynical and selfish, lies at the core of Western policies. For many Russians it was a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals.

At the same time the West was enjoying its victory after the exhausting Cold War, and observing the 15-year-long anarchy under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In this context it was easy to get accustomed to the idea that Russia had become almost a Third World country and would remain so forever. When Russia started to regain some of its strength as an economy and as a state, the West’s reaction -- perhaps a subconscious one, based on erstwhile fears -- was panic.

SPIEGEL: The West associated it with the ex-superpower, the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn: Which is too bad. But even before that, the West deluded itself -- or maybe conveniently ignored the reality -- by regarding Russia as a young democracy, whereas in fact there was no democracy at all. Of course Russia is not a democratic country yet; it is just starting to build democracy. It is all too easy to take Russia to task with a long list of omissions, violations and mistakes.

But did not Russia clearly and unambiguously stretch its helping hand to the West after 9/11? Only a psychological shortcoming, or else a disastrous shortsightedness, can explain the West’s irrational refusal of this hand. No sooner did the USA accept Russia’s critically important aid in Afghanistan than it immediately started making newer and newer demands. As for Europe, its claims towards Russia are fairly transparently based on fears about energy, unjustified fears at that.

Isn’t it a luxury for the West to be pushing Russia aside now, especially in the face of new threats? In my last Western interview before I returned to Russia (for Forbes magazine in April 1994) I said: "If we look far into the future, one can see a time in the 21st century when both Europe and the USA will be in dire need of Russia as an ally."

SPIEGEL: You have read Goethe, Schiller and Heine in the original German, and you have always hoped that Germany would be something of a bridge between Russia and the rest of the world. Do you believe Germans can still play this role?

Solzhenitsyn: I do. There is something predetermined in the mutual attraction between Germany and Russia. Otherwise, this attraction would not have survived two ghastly World Wars.

SPIEGEL: Which German poets, writers and philosophers have influenced you the most?

Solzhenitsyn: Schiller and Goethe were very much present in my childhood and adolescence. Later I was drawn by Schelling. I highly appreciate the great German musical tradition. I can't imagine my life without Bach, Beethoven and Schubert.

SPIEGEL: The West knows nearly nothing about modern Russian literature. What is, in your opinion, the situation in Russian literature today?

Solzhenitsyn: Periods of rapid and fundamental change were never favorable for literature. Significant works, not to mention great works, have nearly always and everywhere been created in periods of stability, be it a good or a bad stability. Modern Russian literature is no exception. The educated reader today is much more interested in non-fiction -- memoirs, biographies, and documentary prose. However, I do believe that justice and conscience will not be cast to the four winds, but will remain in the foundations of Russian literature, so that it may be of service in brightening our spirit and enhancing our comprehension.

SPIEGEL: The idea of the influence of Orthodox Christianity on the Russian world can be traced throughout your works. What is the moral qualification of the Russian church? We think it is turning into a state church today, just like it was centuries ago -- an institution that in practice legitimizes the head of Kremlin as the representative of God.

Solzhenitsyn: On the contrary, we should be surprised that our church has gained a somewhat independent position during the very few years since it was freed from total subjugation to the communist government. Do not forget what a horrible human toll the Russian Orthodox Church suffered throughout almost the entire 20th century. The Church is just rising from its knees. Our young post-Soviet state is just learning to respect the Church as an independent institution. The “Social Doctrine” of the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, goes much further than do government programs. Recently Metropolitan Kirill, a prominent expounder of the Church’s position, has made repeated calls for reforming the taxation system. His views are quite different from those of government, yet he airs them in public, on national television. As for "legitimizing the head of Kremlin," do you mean the funeral service for Yeltsin in the main cathedral and the decision not to hold a civil funeral ceremony?

SPIEGEL: That too.

Solzhenitsyn: Well, it was probably the only way to keep in check public anger, which has not fully subsided, and avoid possible manifestations of anger during the burial. But I see no reason to treat the ceremony as the new protocol for the funerals of all Russian presidents in the future. As far as the past is concerned, our Church holds round-the-clock prayers for the repose of the victims of communist massacres in Butovo near Moscow, on the Solovetsky Islands and other places of mass burials.

SPIEGEL: In 1987 in your interview with SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein you said it was really hard for you to speak about religion in public. What does faith mean for you?

Solzhenitsyn: For me faith is the foundation and support of one’s life.

SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of death?

Solzhenitsyn: No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me -- he died at the age of 27 -- and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.

SPIEGEL: Anyhow, we wish you many years of creative life.

Solzhenitsyn: No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.

SPIEGEL: Alexander Isayevich, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp.

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© DER SPIEGEL 30/2007
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