WHEN Alexander Solzhenitsyn set foot on Moscow soil July 21 after 20 years of forced exile, the influential Russian literary journal, Novy Mir, was already preparing to publish his programmatic tract, "The Russian Question at the End of the 20th Century."
The lengthy article, which examines Russian history since the 17th century and sums up the writer's historio-philosophical views, is "as significant as his celebrated 1990 essay 'How to Rebuild Russia,' " Novy Mir editor Sergei Zalygin excitedly told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
But what new ideas does Mr. Solzhenitsyn truly bring to his Russian brethren? Surprisingly few. In fact, the man acclaimed as Russia's greatest living writer presents almost nothing that hasn't been heard before, either from him or the host of Russian nationalist Slavophiles dating back to the 19th century. Indeed, the 40-page essay is permeated with familiar principles such as "healthy isolationism," antidemocratism, nationalism, and xenophobia.
Solzhenitsyn begins his exposition of Russian history from the "Smuta," or "Time of Troubles," echoing 19th century Slavophile Ivan Aksakov, who wrote that "local self-government with the autocratic czar at the head is the Russian political ideal." In particular, Solzhenitsyn praises the political system that sprang up at the end of the Smuta, when Czar Mikhail Romanov worked closely with the Assembly of the Land: "There was no formal restriction of the Sovereign's power, but [there was] a close link between the Czar and 'all the Land.'
"Like Aksakov, who believed this system was "incomparably broader than any Western republican formula," Solzhenitsyn proudly states that "all this Russian statehood was by no means created under the Western influence, and it copied nobody.
"In the Slavophile tradition, Solzhenitsyn goes on to sharply censure Peter I (he never calls him Peter the Great) and the entire "Petersburg period" of Russian history. For him, Peter was a "mediocre man if not a barbarian," a Bolshevik type who crushed Russia's "historical spirit, domestic faith, soul, and way of life."
Solzhenitsyn's comments echo the harsh pronouncements of another renowned Slavophile - Ivan Aksakov's brother Konstantin - who asserted in his memorandum, "On Russia's Internal State," that the Petrine governmental system was "completely antithetical to the Russian people: It interfered into the social freedom of life, suppressing freedom of spirit, thought, opinion and turning a subject into a slave."
Sharing the basic tenets of Slavophilism and, above all, the idea of Russia's unique historical path, Solzhenitsyn puts forward the three evils of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. Again, they are familiar: Russia's aping of all things Western; its excessive engagement in European affairs; and its expansion "beyond its natural boundaries."
To see how Solzhenitsyn connects these developments, one must know he belongs to a school of Russian nationalism that Harvard's Roman Szporluk defines as "cultural" or "spiritual" nationalism. Like 19th century Russian conservative thinker Konstantin Leontyev, Solzhenitsyn views a mixing of cultures and histories as inadmissable."
At long last, one should understand that the Transcaucasus regions have their own [historical] path which differs from ours, that Moldova has its own path, that the Baltics have their own path, and that Central Asia, all the more, [has its own path]," he writes. Absorbing the Caucasus regions and Central Asia into Russia was, he asserts, a gross historical blunder that sapped resources, hindering Russia.
This view mirrors an assessment made more than 100 years ago by Russian nationalists such as Gen. Rostislav Fadeyev, writer Yevgeny Markov, and Count Dmitri Tolstoy. Still, Solzhenitsyn insists he does not belong with active Russian imperialists and ultranationalists today.
He openly scorns Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his "wild, loud and insane" declarations. It is "impossible to draw a worse caricature of Russian patriotism, and it's impossible to offer a shorter path in order to drown Russia in blood," he writes. He is sure that "to restore the USSR is the true path leading toward the eternal ruination and suppression of the Russian people."
But Solzhenitsyn's credentials as an anti-imperialist end there. He fails to recognize the new borders of the former Soviet republics, and complains that the Soviet collapse took place along "false Leninist borders, leading to secession of entire Russian provinces from Russia." He bemoans the plight of the 25 million ethnic Russians living outside Russia.
Although he refrains from naming President Boris Yeltsin, Solzhenitsyn chastises the Yeltsin government for meekly acquiescing to "this horrible event, the colossal historical defeat of Russia." The inviolability-of-borders principle does not seem to exist for Solzhenitsyn. Rather, he sets forth a provocative maxim: "In fact, it's not the borders that should be immutable, but rather the will of nations that reside on [certain] territories." The best solution, he says, would be a Slavic state combining Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
One might ask if there is anything original and praiseworthy in his essay. I would answer yes: It is the sincere spiritual anguish we hear as Solzhenitsyn reviews Russia's economic and political situation. The man who eloquently chronicled Stalin's Gulags talks meaningfully about Russia's deep crisis, "The Great Russian Catastrophe" at the end of the 20th century. But the same strong bitter anguish hinders him from analyzing events accurately.
Like his Slavophile and nationalist mentors, Solzhenitsyn takes an ahistorical approach to tangled historical events. He analyzes social, political, and cultural phenomena with no regard for their historical context. He judges present day events using old-fashioned formulas - and past events using contemporary ones. He may be a good writer and his essay may show the depth of his despair. But his historical approach does not always work.
* Igor Torbakov is a scholar at at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.