In 1990, twenty years after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature’, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote an essay entitled How to Rebuild Russia? He argued that the USSR should splinter along ‘ethnic’ lines: the Baltic states, Moldova, the South Caucasus and most of the Central Asian republics should be let go, while a new Russian nation would include Ukraine, Belarus and the ethnic Russian parts of Kazakhstan. The essay overemphasised the similarities between the peoples who would live in this imagined country, and brushed off the repression they suffered under the tsarist and Soviet regimes.
Solzhenitsyn at least acknowledged that ‘if the Ukrainian people really wanted to secede, no one would dare to keep them by force.’ Vladimir Putin – who once called Solzhenitsyn a ‘true and real patriot’ – must have missed that sentence. Solzhenitsyn returned the compliment, expressing his admiration for Putin on several counts. ‘I would like to praise the prudence and soundness of his decisions and judgments,’ he said in September 2000, months after the obliteration of Grozny. In 2006 he praised Putin’s ‘efforts to save the country’s lost statehood’. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered that year. In 2007 Solzhenitsyn accepted the State Prize of the Russian Federation from Putin.
Dostoevsky, too, embraced authoritarianism in later life and adopted an imperialist, messianic view of Russia, as he became a friend and supporter of the conservative thinker Konstantin Pobedonostsev, future imperial high commissioner of the Most Holy Synod. In The Devils, Shatov asks: ‘Do you know who are the only God-bearing people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world in the name of a new God, and to whom are given the keys of life and of the new world?’ The answer, of course, is ‘the Russian nation’. Dostoevsky restated the idea in The Diary of a Writer:
Isn’t there in Orthodoxy alone both the truth and the salvation of the Russian people, and in the forthcoming centuries – of mankind as a whole? Hasn’t there been preserved in Orthodoxy alone, in all its purity, the Divine image of Christ? And, perhaps, the most momentous preordained destiny of the Russian people, within the destinies of mankind at large, consists in the preservation in their midst of the Divine image of Christ, in all its purity, and, when the time comes, in the revelation of this image to the world which has lost its way!
A hundred and fifty years later, Patriarch Kirill has expressed his full support for Putin’s attack on Ukraine, justifying it as a ‘metaphysical’ struggle against Western depravity and ‘gay parades’.
As Russian society will – I pray – try to come to grips with its imperialist politics, it will also have to become more critical of the cultural foundations of its dangerous dream of national grandeur. Tolstoy had nothing but contempt for Pobedonostsev, who was a model for Toporov in The Resurrection, his last novel, for which he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. And many writers today – including Boris Akunin, Dmitry Bykov, Yulia Latynina, Irina Prokhorova, Vladimir Sorokin, Ludmila Ulitskaya and Mikhail Zygar – are among those speaking out against Putin’s war of aggression. Yet others, including the former dissident and head of PEN Russia, Evgeny Popov, have expressed their support for Putin’s ‘military operation’. The bestselling novelist Zakhar Prilepin even fought in the war in Donbas and boasted of ‘killing many’. Eduard Limonov, too, celebrated the annexation of Crimea.
While I have nothing but contempt for Prilepin and Limonov, I am not suggesting Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn should be ‘cancelled’, though Western institutions could put more emphasis on studying Russian culture critically, rather than buying into mystical ideas of the ‘Russian soul’. But above all, I sincerely hope that once the terrible war that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine ends, Russian society confronts its imperialism, and looks to build a nation that serves the everyday needs of its impoverished citizens, rather than terrorising and annihilating its neighbours. Otherwise, as the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan has put it, ‘Russia’s “great humanist” culture is going to the bottom like the invincible Titanic. Sorry, I mean like a Russian warship.’