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Solzhenitsyn's Widow: On Putin, Russian Soul And French Lit

Aleksander and Natalia Solzhenitsyn in 1994
Aleksander and Natalia Solzhenitsyn in 1994
Laure Mandeville

PARIS — As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the author of The Gulag Archipelago, his widow and intellectual accomplice, granted a rare and exclusive interview to Le Figaro. Natalia Solzhenitsyn evokes her husband's gigantic literary and historical work in identifying the causes of the Russian tragedy. She recalls that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, though he spent his life fighting against totalitarianism, was in favor of a strong government in Russia. This undoubtedly helps to explain Vladimir Putin's sympathy for him. Deploring the humiliation Russia suffered in the 1990s, Natalia Solzhenitsyn considers that "Crimea is Russian" but that the Kremlin should never have interfered with the Donbass. She also regrets the fact that President Emmanuel Macron recently snubbed the official Russian stand at the Paris Book Fair (though Russia was this year's guest-of-honor), and says that Russia needs help rather than condescension.

LE FIGARO: You shared your life with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the most important figures of the 20th century, the man who destroyed Communism with his pen. What do you see as the most important aspect of this extraordinary life?

Natalia Solzhenitsyn: Everything was important, really everything. Our life circumstances were very difficult. But between us, it was happiness! Really! All around, things were complicated, but we went through these difficulties together. We didn't agree on certain tactical choices, and with my confrontational temperament I would stand up to him. But we always agreed on the essential, the strategic things. I think we were both very lucky. People often ask me: was it hard to live with such a man, so focused on his goal, so focused on the great things? Is it hard to sleep with a genius? I think there are no rules and it depends on both parties! For me, it was both natural and exciting. The limitations imposed on us seemed acceptable to me because there was a much greater goal to achieve, for which we were fighting.

This year Russia will celebrate the 100th anniversary of your husband's birth. Do you feel that the country is ready to welcome his lessons?

The lessons are necessary but not welcomed in their entirety. Our society is fragmented on almost all issues, including on Solzhenitsyn. He is taught at school and high school, but as far as University is concerned, it depends on the professors. As far as books are concerned, he is constantly reprinted, which shows that people read him. But of course, there are opponents, especially among the Communists who find him responsible for the end of Communism and bring up all the lies propagated in the Soviet era.

It's no secret that the current Russian power has a good relationship with you...

It's Putin himself, personally, who feels sympathy towards Solzhenitsyn. I would say that he gives him "inner attention". I don't know exactly why. But I know, for example, that his Reflections on the February Revolution, published by the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta a decade ago, was given to Putin. It was seen later on his working desk, with annotations. What has brought them together is undoubtedly the fact that Solzhenitsyn is, like him, a supporter of a strong government.

At the same time, the power refuses to face up to the past and puts Stalin back in the spotlight. Opponents are emigrating... Is it starting all over again?

I'd say we're dealing with a form of schizophrenia. On the one hand, a lot of books about Stalin are being published, we celebrate his birth and death, but on the other hand, saying that the government is encouraging it isn't fair. Putin says nothing to support such initiatives. But it's true that he does not oppose it. On October 30, a new wall to the victims of all political repression was erected and Putin came to this inauguration ceremony. His presence was an anti-Stalinist gesture and was perceived as such. He gave a speech in which every word was right. The contradiction you point out is a reflection of the schism that runs through our society. Putin no doubt believes that as president of all Russians, he must accept this coexistence.

Radicalism is part of our national character.

What was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's main lesson from his study of 1917?

He believed that the main cause of the February Revolution was the fatal confrontation of power and educated society, a confrontation that had lasted for half a century. In theory, such a confrontation is normal and healthy, but not in such a radical form, when there is no room for compromise.

Why was there no compromise?

Partly because of the Russian character, the radicalism of the national character. But also because of the obtuse nature of power, which when it's absolute isn't capable of an organic link with society. Admittedly, on the eve of the revolution, that power was no longer absolute, but the amount of hatred accumulated was such that there was no capacity for compromise. Solzhenitsyn always said that in such cases, both parties have a share of responsibility, even if the government's is greater. This is a great lesson for the future.

Is it out of fear of this radicalism that you remain open to dialogue with Putin's authorities?

Yes, I'm trying to have a centrist stance. After spending so many years studying our history, I'm very afraid of another fatal confrontation. I have no desire whatsoever for our educated society to persist in a position of absolute intransigence to the point of absurdity. We must criticize power but also engage with it.

Natalia Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Putin — Photo: Kremlin Pool/ZUMA

Would the man from The Gulag Archipelago have accepted dialogue?

He would never have accepted dialogue and compromise with the former Soviet power, which was totalitarian and which he considered anti-human. But with this government, which to be sure has made huge mistakes, no doubt he would have. Because the country is different! Yes, there is some corruption and lies. But it is not total. It's like in all dictatorships on the right. There's a way out. To escape totalitarianism is something completely different. Only Russia has experienced this and has not yet fully come out of it. Today, we have a form of autocracy, which is was what Solzhenitsyn thought actually. It is, therefore, possible to make democracy grow, but this won't be possible without dialogue.

In Rebuilding Russia, Solzhenitsyn had put forward the idea that Russia should abandon the empire. Isn't the government letting itself be dragged into new fatal foreign ventures like in Ukraine?

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn had indeed called for an end to Russian imperialism, to the empire. But I don't think there's any real danger there. We have to distinguish between Crimea and the Donbass. I regret very much what happened in the Donbass, the Russians should never have gotten involved. But as far as Crimea is concerned, despite a questionable approach from the point of view of international law, this region belongs to Russia. Imagine a divorce between a man and a woman in totally unforeseen conditions, those of a war for example. They don't have time to think, to get lawyers. As a result, the woman or the man takes something that absolutely doesn't belong to her or him. That is exactly what happened with Ukraine's independence. No one asked the people of Crimea or of Ukraine what they thought. From my perspective, the return of Crimea does justice to history.

If we accept your reasoning, tomorrow Russia may decide to recover a piece of the Baltic countries that were in the Russian empire in the name of historical justice...

I know that my position is very controversial in the West, but the Baltic countries are a completely different matter. That will not happen. Crimea is special, it's a historically Russian land. Of course, what is happening in the Donbass gives arguments to your concerns about the idea of a precedent. I think it was a huge mistake and Russia will regret it. But it won't go any further, simply because it doesn't have the strength.

You said in an interview that Solzhenitsyn would have died if he had seen the conflict in Ukraine.

This rift was upsetting for him. A large part of Solzhenitsyn's family was Ukrainian. If he had seen the 2014 Kiev conflict, he would have died of grief. At the same time, he always said that Ukraine would leave. He knew it would be very painful but likely. But the fact that Crimea and Sevastopol had left Russia put him in a state of indignation! NATO has a huge responsibility in this matter because it never stopped trying to install its fleet there.

We must take care not to be crushed beneath the rubble.

French President Emmanuel Macron boycotted Russia's stand in solidarity with London, after the mysterious chemical attack against a former Russian agent. Do you understand his position?

No! Russia was the guest of honor at this (literary) exhibition and he didn't come to the Russian stand. I regret that. Your president talks about the necessary dialogue between the people of Russian culture and the French but, at the same time, he abstains from it. Even during the Cold War, France allowed itself to have an independent stance on cultural matters that had nothing to do with loyalty to military allies. In the Russian delegation were many writers who are de facto members of the opposition and write critically about the government. This boycott is therefore very disappointing and even a little pathetic.

What did Aleksander Solzhenitsyn like about France?

Life played a good trick on Solzhenitsyn. He didn't consider himself a Francophile at all, in fact, he didn't take France very seriously. He was more familiar with Germany and would read Schiller and Goethe in German, he also had a high opinion of the Anglo-Saxon world. But when he arrived in Switzerland and then in Germany, he felt very much hemmed in. On the other hand, when he arrived in France, he liked everything right away. The warmth, the atmosphere. Moreover, people in France are readers. France was the first Western country to read, translate and publish him. In short, he fell in love with France, and even called it his "unexpected homeland."

When he died in 2008, was he worried about the course of events in Russia?

He was very worried. He'd understood that the Cold War was going to come back and that Russia had made many mistakes, as had the West by encircling it with military bases. Remember the first lines of Rebuilding Russia: "Time has finally run out for Communism. But its concrete edifice has not yet crumbled. And we must take care not to be crushed beneath its rubble instead of gaining liberty." That is exactly what is happening, and especially in people's minds. The love for Stalin and nostalgia for the end of the USSR have a protest aspect. The promises of the 1990s could not be kept. The introduction of the market economy without preparation turned into a heist. That's tragic. Russia is going through a period that no other country has ever been through. It needs help, but not dictatorial and condescending help, as the United States has been doing with the IMF. The great mistake of the U.S. was to think that it had won the Cold War and that Russia would no longer be a player. A catastrophic approach! Because when pressured Russia bounces back like a spring. It felt humiliated, encircled. Much of the support for Putin can be explained by this feeling of humiliation. You must be firm with Russia, but issuing ultimatums is totally counterproductive.

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