SPIEGEL Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn 'I Am Not Afraid of Death'
Part 3: 'Putin Inherited a Ransacked Country'
Solzhenitsyn (left) together with the German writer Heinrich Böll in 1974 after Solzhenitsyn had been expelled from the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn: Gorbachevs administration was amazingly politically naïve, inexperienced and irresponsible towards the country. It was not governance but a thoughtless renunciation of power. The admiration of the West in return only strengthened his conviction that his approach was right. But let us be clear that it was Gorbachev, and not Yeltsin, as is now widely being claimed, who first gave freedom of speech and movement to the citizens of our country.
Yeltsins period was characterized by a no less irresponsible attitude to peoples lives, but in other ways. In his haste to have private rather than state ownership as quickly as possible, Yeltsin started a mass, multi-billion-dollar fire sale of the national patrimony. Wanting to gain the support of regional leaders, Yeltsin called directly for separatism and passed laws that encouraged and empowered the collapse of the Russian state. This, of course, deprived Russia of its historical role for which it had worked so hard, and lowered its standing in the international community. All this met with even more hearty Western applause.
Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible -- a slow and gradual restoration. These efforts were not noticed, nor appreciated, immediately. In any case, one is hard pressed to find examples in history when steps by one country to restore its strength were met favorably by other governments.
SPIEGEL: It has gradually become clear to everyone that the stability of Russia is of benefit to the West. But there is one thing that surprises us in particular: When speaking about the right form of statehood for Russia, you were always in favor of civil self- government, and you contrasted this model with Western democracy. After seven years of Putins governance we can observe totally the opposite phenomenon: Power is concentrated in the hands of the president, everything is oriented toward him.
Solzhenitsyn: Yes, I have always insisted on the need for local self-government for Russia, but I never opposed this model to Western democracy. On the contrary, I have tried to convince my fellow citizens by citing the examples of highly effective local self-government systems in Switzerland and New England, both of which I saw first-hand.
In your question you confuse local self-government, which is possible on the most grassroots level only, when people know their elected officials personally, with the dominance of a few dozen regional governors, who during Yeltsins period were only too happy to join the federal government in suppressing any local self-government initiatives.
Today I continue to be extremely worried by the slow and inefficient development of local self-government. But it has finally started to take place. In Yeltsins time, local self-government was actually barred on the regulatory level, whereas the state's "vertical of power" (i.e. Putin's centralized and top-down administration) is delegating more and more decisions to the local population. Unfortunately, this process is still not systematic in character.
SPIEGEL: But there is hardy any opposition.
Solzhenitsyn: Of course, an opposition is necessary and desirable for the healthy development of any country. You can scarcely find anyone in opposition, except for the communists, just like in Yeltsins times. However, when you say there is nearly no opposition, you probably mean the democratic parties of the 1990s. But if you take an unbiased look at the situation: there was a rapid decline of living standards in the 1990s, which affected three quarters of Russian families, and all under the democratic banner. Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore. And now the leaders of these parties cannot even agree on how to share portfolios in an illusory shadow government. It is regrettable that there is still no constructive, clear and large-scale opposition in Russia. The growth and development of an opposition, as well as the maturing of other democratic institutions, will take more time and experience.
SPIEGEL: During our last interview you criticized the election rules for State Duma deputies, because only half of them were directly elected in their constituencies, whereas the other half, representatives of the political parties, were dominant. After the election reform made by president Putin, there is no direct constituency at all. Is this not a step back?
Solzhenitsyn: Yes, I think it is a mistake. I am a convinced and consistent critic of party-parliamentarism. I am for non-partisan elections of true peoples representatives who are accountable to their regions and districts; and who in case of unsatisfactory work can be recalled. I do understand and respect the formation of groups on economical, cooperative, territorial, educational, professional and industrial principles, but I see nothing organic in political parties. Politically motivated ties can be unstable and quite often they have selfish ulterior motives. Leon Trotsky said it accurately during the October Revolution: A party that does not strive for the seizure of power is worth nothing. We are talking about seeking benefit for the party itself at the expense of the rest of the people. This can happen whether the takeover is peaceful or not. Voting for impersonal parties and their programs is a false substitute for the only true way to elect peoples representatives: voting by an actual person for an actual candidate. This is the whole point behind popular representation.
SPIEGEL: In spite of high revenues from oil and gas exports, in spite of the development of a middle class, there is a vast contrast between rich and poor in Russia. What can be done to improve the situation?
Solzhenitsyn: I think the gap between the rich and the poor is an extremely dangerous phenomenon in Russia and it needs the immediate attention of the state. Although many fortunes were amassed in Yeltsins times by ransacking, the only reasonable way to correct the situation today is not to go after big businesses -- the present owners are trying to run them as effectively as they can -- but to give breathing room to medium and small businesses. That means protecting citizens and small entrepreneurs from arbitrary rule and from corruption. It means investing the revenues from the national natural resources into the national infrastructure, education and health care. And we must learn to do so without shameful theft and embezzlement.