The World from Berlin 'The Solzhenitsyn Shock'

With the death of Russia's Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the world has lost one of the great figures of the past century. In Germany, though, editorialists criticize the role the Nobel Prize winner played in his later life in pushing Moscow away from the West.

In the West, Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn is hailed as a vital figure in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. By publishing his heart-wrenching accounts of life inside the brutal forced labor camps, the gulags, the author, Westerners like to believe, hammered one of the largest nails in the coffin of socialism.

There is, no doubt, some truth to this reading of Solzhenitsyn. His writings about the gulags provided definitive proof of the terror of Stalinism and ultimately helped to unravel the Soviet state. But his story is more complex than that. Later in his life -- after unhappy years of exile in the United States -- Solzhenitsyn became a controversial figure in the West. He was praised for casting a spotlight on the human rights abuses taking place behind the Iron Curtain. But he also alienated himself from the West with his later writings and political support for a Russia that valued state power and self preservation far more than the rights of individuals.

Solzhenitsyn's death on Sunday at the age of 89 has German commentators remembering Solzhenitsyn as one of the great men of the century. All agree that he was an important figure who helped bring an end to the ills of Stalinism and, ultimately, the Soviet Union. But they are critical of his later Slavic-centric writings, which many believed help push Russia further away from the West.

The leftist daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The gulag, the Soviet system of forced labor camps, was an issue avoided and hushed up by Western leftists -- until the publication of the Solzhenitsyn's works in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 'The Archipelago Gulag' and 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' were not only great works of literature. They also opened our eyes, including many on the left, to a universe of exploitation and repression. It's true that Solzhenitsyn quickly showed himself to be a conservative, Christian-Russian 'patriot' who rejected Western civilization and what he saw as a decay of values there, but despite the author's reactionary tenor, the truth about the gulags cannot be denied. The historical and moral importance of Solzhenitsyn's work is that he built a literary memorial to the 17 million Soviet citizens and people from dozens of other countries who had been detained in the camps."

"But how effective is this memorial today? In Russia it has been buried. The gulags have also been largely forgotten in the West; and that's why countries like Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, which saw hundreds of thousands schlepped off to gulags under Soviet occupation, complain of a divided European historical memory -- and of disrespect to the victims. This criticism underscores why the 'Archipelago Gulag' is still important today: As a call for us to show our support for all victims of violent regimes."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The 'Solzhenitsyn shock' was the last time a book caused an earthquake. For months the KGB had consumed most of its survaillance resources on one matter, almost as if it were a nuclear weapon: Did this manuscript get out of the country? The secret service did everything it could to try to keep the book from getting smuggled to the West. When it was published in Paris in 1973, the 'Archipelago Gulag' changed the tectonics of the intellectual world. Inflamed with rage, Western defenders of communism ran through the ruins of a world view that had collapsed around them. Solzhenitsyn didn’t just show the prisons, the torture chambers and the labor camps. He also claimed that the blueprint for the system itself had gone wayward and could only continue to lead to prison and barbed wire. Indeed, the Stalinistic terror was no small hiccup in history, it was a feature of Marxist ideology."

Financial daily Handelsblatt notes that Solzhenitsyn's late, anti-Western works served as a sort of template for former President Vladimir Putin's governance:

"Putin has tapped former dissident Solzhenitsyn's realm of ideas like no other, including his dream of finding a special path for Russia -- one that is closely linked to the strict morals of the orthodoxy of his church, a firm hand in dealing with Russia's south and the Caucuses and also an anti-Western course for the Slavic homeland."

"There is no doubt that Solzhenitsyn, who not even the destruction machine of the gulag could break, played a decisive role in aiding the forces that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. His books about the gulag cast a spotlight on the disrespect for human dignity that was integral to Stalinism. But there's one thing that Solzhenitsyn wasn't: a mastermind for a modern Russia."

"With his works about Ivan Denisovich and the first depths of hell, he gave Russia its soul back. But his oppressed homeland didn't bring much peace to his soul. Like the great Russian authors before him, including Dostoevsky or Gogol, Solzhenitsyn, particularly in his late work, was bound by the idea of the distinctiveness of Slavs. Has antipathy for the West ... was too strong. He helped lead the battle between Slavophiles and the West. But he missed the fact that even though Russia had to go its own way, it shouldn't have moved away from the West."

It's a view shared by the Financial Times Deutschland:

"By writing about the Stalinist system of labor camps, Solzhenitsyn awaked the conscience of the Soviets that something had gone awry in the workers' paradise. But to Western observers, he was always an alien figure, and this says a lot about the relationship between established democracies and Russia. As courageous as the maverick Solzhenitsyn may have been in the Soviet era, after his return from exile in 1994 he expressed an opinion that would come to be shared by millions of Russians: Namely, that the Western model of the market economy and democracy nearly destroyed Russia. Coming from the minds of simple Russians who lost their jobs as a result of the unbridled capitalism of the 1990s, that's an understandable position. But it's different coming from an intellectual who lived for years in the US."

"For most in Western Europe and America, it is accepted as fact that socialism itself led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, making the re-emergence of Russia possible. But the majority of Russians do not share this viewpoint. And Putin often enjoyed support not because he supported democracy, but because of his anti-democratic tendencies. The Russian people have an arcane yearning for an all-powerful leader. With his vision of a village-like Russian solidarity, Solzhenitsyn nourished and supported Putin. Though Solzhenitsyn contributed significantly to the fight against Stalinism, he had little interest in democracy."

Finally, the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"For too long, the West overlooked the Solzhenitsyn's reactionary, anti-modernist tendencies. … Soviet literary expert Efim Etkind once accused him of pursuing a theocracy, saying, 'Solzhenitsyn wants a Russian ayatollah.' Although that was a polemic, it is also true that the West confused Solzhenitsyn's hatred of the Soviet powers as a commitment to democracy. For Solzhenitsyn, a diversity of opinion was never a god given -- it was just a means for saving Russia -- and not a particularly reliable one. Solzhenitsyn was no human rights activist -- at least not in the modern, universal sense -- because he placed god and the almighty Russia above the rights of the individual."

"Of all people, it was former KGB chief Vladimir Putin who was finally accepted by Solzhenitsyn. Putin had disbursed a network of friends from the secret service to leadership posts around the country (the same people who had carried Solzhenitsyn off to the gulag in the Sixties), he had once again turned the media into an uncritical government mouthpiece and he had eliminated regional self-administration -- one of the author's pet projects. But that didn't seem to matter to Solzhenitsyn -- after all, Putin had restored Russia's greatness. That was merit enough for the author."

"Mikhail Gorbachev, who the author despised, praised Solzhenitsyn for his battle for a 'truly free and democratic country.' But it was a misunderstanding. The tragedy in Solzhenitsyn, this man of the century, is that he has never recognized his people's greatest historical achievement: That they liberated themselves from Bolshevism without any bloodshed. Nevertheless, he did help them to achieve this victory -- and that's a lot to accomplish in one lifetime."

-- Daryl Lindsey, 1:30 p.m. CET