Solzhenitsyn Had a Thing or Two to Say

I finished up The Solzhenitsyn Reader a couple of days back. Here are some more excerpts and some thoughts that came to mind during my reading.

First, this bit from The Gulag Archepelago, in which he discusses the reluctance of the victims, perpetrators, and collaborators in the Soviet Union to try to come to some sort of accounting for what took place.

Yes, so-and-so many millions did get mowed down — but no one was to blame for it. And if someone pipes up: “What about those who…” the answer comes from all sides, reproachfully and amicably at first: “What are you talking about, comrade! Why open old wounds?

I thought of this chapter when I read that Spain may shame the United States further by prosecuting our torturers and war criminals for us.

Solzhenitsyn again:

In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. … Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity. ¶ It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!

As long as the torturers and war criminals at loose in the United States enjoy their legal and moral immunity, the torture policy of the United States remains intact. Obama issued an executive order banning torture, but doesn’t anyone remember that even Dubya did that? The policy of the United States is that the government may torture its prisoners if the president says so, laws and treaties be damned, and its torturers will enjoy effective immunity and its victims will have no recourse to justice. That policy is still fully in effect as far as I can see.

Of course, I don’t put my hope in Obama or The Law to put things right. But is it too much to ask that someone like John Yoo be shunned as the repulsive moral cretin he is? Do we have to leave it to Spain to call him the accused while we continue to call him “professor” and pretend this is all just a difference of opinion?

I think maybe I’m a patriot in spite of myself, considering how badly I feel at how shamefully the United States is acting. If I didn’t have a little patriotism lurking in my heart it wouldn’t bother me so much that the U.S. doesn’t have the moral fortitude to cast its torturers and war criminals out of respectable society.

When Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event he hadn’t allowed himself to hope would happen in his lifetime, he found a nation wrecked — “crushed beneath the rubble” of the collapsing communist behemoth.

People had great hopes for the change of regime, but by the time Solzhenitsyn returned their hopes had been dashed as kleptocratic remnants of the old regime stayed on in new clothes to make themselves rich at public expense. People told him:

  • “The common man is being robbed.”
  • “I don’t believe anything these authorities say.”
  • “Whoever works honestly has no future in life anymore.”
  • “Will we live to see the day when science is valued more than making a buck?”
  • “Kids in school go faint from hunger.”
  • “I set money aside, saved it all my life, and now they’ve turned it into nothing. What did they rob me for?”
  • “How many times have we been deceived already?”
  • “Legalized bandits occupy our highest levels of power.”
  • “If I should fall ill, I have no money for getting better.”
  • “We now are ruled by an ideology of seizing and envy.”
  • “The government has taken up pillaging.”
  • “Not a single official comes before a court.”
  • “The democrats turned out to be the biggest bribe-takers of all.”

Solzhenitsyn put some thought into coming up with a plan for saving Russia. His advice was for Russians to come together and work on local solutions and create their own grass-roots, small-scale political infrastructure, independently of the state:

People’s real everyday life, four-fifths of it or more, depends not on the events taking place on the national level, but on local events, and therefore on local self-government that directs the course of life in a small district. This is exactly how life is regulated in the nations of the West: through effective local self-government, where each has the opportunity to participate in the decisions that most directly affect his existence. Only this type of arrangement can be called a democracy.

Now you’re probably thinking “where exactly in the nations of the West is life regulated in this way?” Here in the U.S., public policy is mostly established by cabals of politicians and industry interest groups without anything like “each [having] the opportunity to participate in the decisions that most directly affect his existence.”

When Solzhenitsyn was exiled in the United States, he stayed in Cavendish, Vermont. Vermont is among the New England states that periodically use the very democratic town meeting to decide some political questions. He attended town meetings and was impressed by the institution, which probably gave a romantic glow to his general impression of democracy in America and “the nations of the West.”

When he left Vermont, he said that there, “I have observed the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities” (he added, “unfortunately, we do not have this in Russia, and that is still our geatest shortcoming.”)

And when he returned to Russia, he carried that message there:

Our State Duma, in both its sessions, one as indifferent as the other, put the brakes on any substantive legislation enabling local self-government, refusing to vest it with real authority and an independent financial base.

But even if no one will open the gates to local self-government, it is still in the vital interest of the people to act! Let all who have not yet lost their resolve act on their own, without waiting for the blessing of an enabling statute out of the calicified Center, which may yet take a long time before it awakens. Much already is not functioning in today’s Russia, and we must not let the rest of it stall.

We should begin with patient decision-making about specific local problems, coming together to address each and every issue that arises affecting the community: physical, professional, cultural, social. We should come together in active civic, professional, and cultural groups. In whatever place, and in however small a number, we must work on every short-term and every long-term task. Every such association, in form and substance, bridges the void of our ill, indifferent times.

He’s calling for people to create their own parallel, voluntaryist, local institutions to take the place of the government — rather than waiting in vain for the national government to reconstitute itself and exert authority. Remarkable stuff from someone who’s usually caricatured as a reactionary nationalist.

Every time that there forms a little center, a link in a chain, an initiative — whether around culture, education, child-rearing, a particular profession, local history, the environment, community planning, even just gardening — such groups are the seedlings of local self-government, and may even become component parts in its future structure. It is for them to form in a common endeavor, and to begin to guide local life — with wisdom, toward its preservation, and not into a dead end, where many a boss and many a Decree has led us. At the outset, it may be necessary to come together even before the law permits real and meaningful elections of local government.

Some will complain: But we do not know how. Our people have weak awareness of their rights. However, the calamities that have befallen the people are actively sharpening such awareness. It will gain strength through the very process of fighting for popular self-government. Besides, one cannot create the finished product all at once, but only by stepwise approximations, through constant attempts.

This all seems like sensible advice to me, not just for post-collapse Russia, but for any country whose corrupt kleptocrats have lost the respect of its citizens.

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