Solzhenitsyn, Putin and the historical myth-making that drives Russian imperialism

Undeniably there are deep cultural and political ties between Russia and Ukraine. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a hero in much of the West, but he helped inspire in Putin a destructive scepticism about Ukraine's status as a nation.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The monument to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Vladivostok. Credit: Vladimir Arndt / Alamy Stock Photo

In November 2016, two years after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas region in east Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin unveiled a statue in the centre of Moscow of a figure pivotal to his ideological vision: Saint Vladimir the Great. The Ukrainians have a different name for this figure: Saint Volodymyr. He was the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’ from 980 to 1015 and, according to Putin and many others, the father of the Russian people.

Kiev, the capital city of his dynasty, is thus an integral part of historic Russia. A succession of tsars, from Ivan III in the fifteenth century onwards, have justified their legitimacy by invoking their connection to Kievan Rus’. And it is where Prince Vladimir (or Volodymyr) converted to Christianity in 988, which cemented the connection between Orthodox Christianity and East Slavic people. But Kyiv is also the capital of Ukraine today.

The current Russo-Ukrainian War is about whether Ukraine is a sovereign nation or a part of Russia. Putin’s unveiling of the monument was a provocation that illustrated, once again, where he stood on that question. An interesting guest, however, also attended the unveiling and cheered on Putin: Natalia Svetlova Solzhenitsyn, the widow of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The link may at first seem unlikely but there is, in fact, common ground between the Soviet era dissident and the present-day dictator.

In 1973, Solzhenitsyn, a saturnine man with a shaggy beard, released a book that shook an empire. The Gulag Archipelago  threatened Brezhnev’s Soviet Union so much that just killing him would have been insufficient for the magnitude of his treason; he had to be exiled. Off he went, first to Zürich in 1974 and, two years later, to Vermont; the incendiary dissident had moved to the sleepiest state in America. And he lived there with his wife and children for nearly 20 years. When the Soviet Empire finally collapsed — something Solzhenitsyn confidently prophesied — he moved back home. The evil of Russian communism had been defeated.

Solzhenitsyn is the dissident writer-intellectual incarnate. He makes Orwell, Camus and Koestler look like pygmies. The scope of The Gulag Archipelago, his one large book, and the force of his small masterpiece, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, exposed the enormity of totalitarian dictatorship more powerfully than the essays and novels of those other writers. Born in 1918, he served during the Second World War — mythologised in Russia as the Great Patriotic War — as a captain on the East Prussian Front. He was arrested in 1945 for making a joke about Joseph Stalin and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag prison system, not in icy Siberia but in Kazakhstan.

The French loved him. The nouveaux philosophes intellectuals of the 1970s — the likes of André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy – recognised that communism was an unequivocally malign force. No ifs, no buts. The time of Jean-Paul Sartre and his Soviet apologism was over. The Americans, however, were more ambivalent. They accepted he was an important critic of what President Reagan would later call the ‘evil empire’. But Solzhenitsyn’s attitude to the culture of American liberal democracy — the affluent society — was also damning.

In a famous address in 1978 at Harvard University, for instance, he complained about the ‘film producers’ and ‘publishers’ who were poisoning the ‘younger generations with corrupting filth’. He intoned sarcastically: ‘Freedom! For adolescents of fourteen to eighteen to immerse themselves in idleness and pleasure instead of intensive study and spiritual growth.’ He was the cool dissident abroad; but in America he was the Russian version of the charismatic televangelist Pat Robertson.

The depth of anti-Westernisation rhetoric expressed by Solzhenitsyn is thus key to reading Putin. But the two men shared something else: a similar understanding of how the nation of Ukraine came into being. In an interview with the New YorkerDavid Remnick in 1994, Solzhenitsyn said it was Lenin who created modern-day Ukraine, a view Putin echoed in a speech just before he launched his invasion.

For Solzhenitsyn, Ukraine doesn’t correspond to ethnicity or culture or language. In his eyes it is an ugly mess. ‘I greatly respect the Ukrainian people; I have great sympathy for them,’ Solzhenitsyn said in the interview. ‘I myself am part Ukrainian. If you want to be separate, by all means go ahead please. But within the borders of the true Ukraine. The historical Ukraine, the place where Ukrainians really live.’ Solzhenitsyn was drawing a distinction between west Ukraine — the areas that were part of the historic regions of Galicia, Volhynia, Bukovina and Transcarpathia — and areas to the east of the country. For him, West Ukraine is the real Ukraine. Meanwhile, he believed that the east (and the Crimean Peninsula, which was given to Ukraine in 1954) has such a large Russian-speaking population that it should never have been separated from Russia in the first place.Solzhenitsyn thought that the dissolution of the Soviet Union, while a good thing because it meant the end of communism in Russia, was also disastrous because it isolated more than thirty million Russian people in countries outside the modern Russian state — their homeland. It was like losing limbs to save a heart.

Putin, meanwhile, has famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century. Moreover, he seems to think not only that the modern-day state of Ukraine was badly conceived, and the interests of Russian speakers abroad need to be defended, but also that Ukrainians and Russians are essentially the same people: for him, Ukrainians are simply ‘Little Russians’. This seems to conflict with Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that ‘if you want to be separate, by all means go ahead’ but this respect for autonomy belies another side to the great Russian defender of liberty: he had a sentimental attachment to the Ukrainian people, and viewed any aspiration on their part for autonomy from the Russians as a tragedy.

As Serhii Plokhy puts it, Solzhenitsyn was the unofficial leader of the Russian nationalist intelligentsia. He lamented in The Gulag Archipelago that ‘in the Kyivan period, we constituted a single people, but since then it has been torn apart, and for centuries our lives, habits, and languages went in different directions’. Elsewhere, he writes on the issue of Ukrainian separation, ‘let them live and try it out for themselves. It will soon become apparent to them that not all problems are to be solved by separation’. He was hopeful that Ukrainians would soon see the light and recognise that they shared a destiny with Russians. Solzhenitsyn’s mother was from Ukraine.

On May 24, 2009, a year after Solzhenitsyn died, Putin visited the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow where the writer is buried and laid flowers at his grave. Putin was also visiting the grave of General Anton Denikin, a military leader of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. In an interview with a journalist named Larisa Kaftan on that day, Putin recommended Denikin’s diaries: ‘Denikin discusses Great and Little Russia, Ukraine. He writes that no one may meddle in relations between us; that has always been the business of Russia itself.’

In his diaries, Denikin stated that: ‘No Russia, reactionary or democratic, republican or authoritarian, will ever allow Ukraine to be torn away. The foolish, baseless, and externally aggravated quarrel between Muscovite Rus’ and Kievan Rus’ is our internal quarrel, of no concern to anyone else, and it will be decided by ourselves.’ Those in the West who blame NATO for the current conflict are, whether they accept it or not, echoing Russian nationalist propaganda, viewing the conflict as an internal quarrel which is being aggravated by external Western forces.

In December 2018, two years after celebrating Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus’, Putin unveiled a monument in Moscow to Solzhenitsyn to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birth. Solzhenitsyn’s widow was again in attendance. Putin praised him as a great patriot. Even in exile, he ‘did not allow anyone to talk dismissively and badly about his motherland’. Putin added that ‘he stood up against any expression of Russophobia’. For Putin, as we have seen over the past few weeks, defending the Russian nation means incorporating Ukraine; it is a fundamental part of the Russian body.

But what do Ukrainians think? According to a recent CNN poll, just prior to the invasion, two-thirds of Ukrainians disagreed with the statement that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. There is no region or age group where the majority of Ukrainians said they and Russians are one people. Even in the region of east Ukraine, with its large Russian-speaking population, only 45 per cent said the Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

On the more pressing question of whether Russia and Ukraine should be one country, the figures are even more stark. Some 85 per cent of Ukrainians said they should be two separate countries, and only 18 per cent of people in east Ukraine said they should be one united country. I think Putin’s barbarism — bombing civilians and destroying children’s hospitals — will only have reinforced the need to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Ukraine is a country with a complex past. This is reflected by its Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic religions; the fact that parts of the country were once ruled by the Russian Empire, others by the Kingdom of Poland, and still others by the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and the reality of its present-day Ukrainian and Russian-speaking populations. In the Second World War, the country was battered so much by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that the historian Timothy Snyder describes it, along with much of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, as the bloodlands. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is a Jewish man from a Russian-speaking family whose ancestors both served in the Red Army and were killed in the Holocaust.

Volodymyr is the Ukrainian version of Vladimir; Zelensky shares with Putin the same first name as the sacralised Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’.

But deep historical and cultural ties do not imply indivisibility. All countries are complex; but all countries are still countries. Ukraine is not a part of Russia. And Ukrainians and Russians are not the same people. On this, Putin and Solzhenitsyn are wrong and Zelensky is right. We have a word for when one group of people claims another group belongs to them even when the latter group asserts its independence: imperialism.


Tomiwa Owolade