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Solzhenitsyn Joins Debate On Russia's Political Path

The famed author prepares to go home - and enter political fray

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 16, 1992


THE sentinel of the Russian conscience is coming home.

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the greatest Russian writer of the postwar era, forced into exile by the Soviet authorities in 1974 for his epic account of life in Stalin's slave-labor camps, is readying for his long-awaited return to his motherland.

The bearded author seeks to go back not as a literary figure but as a political one.

He has delayed his return until he completes a multi-volume historical novel on the Bolshevik Revolution, letting it be known through his spokesmen that he intends to devote all his time to public affairs after he sets foot in Russia.

The date of Mr. Solzhenitsyn's return has not been announced, although US News and World Report recently said that he intends to arrive early next year. In the meantime, he has been preparing the way, emerging from his home in the Vermont woods with his manifesto of Russian national revival and spiritual reawakening.

After decades in which Solzhenitsyn was either reviled or ignored in the Soviet mass media, the famed dissident made his first appearance before the general public two weeks ago in a two-part television documentary prepared at his request. Viewers watched an extensive interview with Solzhenitsyn devoted entirely to his views on current politics, interwoven with footage of his wife and three sons, his comfortable wood-paneled home and their life in Vermont.

In its totality, the film, prepared by controversial filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin, conveys the image of a man in almost saintly isolation, deliberately cutting himself off from the American society around him as he gazes out from his study on a setting of white birch trees chosen for its similarity to the Russian forests he left behind.

In the interview, Solzhenitsyn combines a doctrine of anti-communism with a warning to avoid Western models of liberal democracy and market economics. He offers in its place a paean to Russian spiritualism and a return to the values of pre-revolutionary Russia, including the need for semi-authoritarian government during this time of change.

Solzhenitsyn's disdain of parliamentary democracy is not new. He offered the same praise of an authoritarianism tempered by spiritual belief in an early 1970s critique of the views of another famed dissident and moral voice, physicist Andrei Sakharov. Defending himself now against charges he opposes democracy, Solzhenitsyn argues for a slow path to that end.

"If we find ourselves on top of the cold cliff of totalitarianism, we just cannot jump down to reach the valley," Solzhenitsyn says in the film. "We should, having a firm and confident authority, slowly zig-zag down the slope to the valley of democracy."

The powerful critic of Soviet communism dismisses the changes of recent years, including the events which followed last year's failed putsch, as a continuation of past evils in new guise.

"What we have seen is not a final collapse of communism," he declares. "It was the upper tier that collapsed. The middle tier, a very tenacious one, still persists and lots of nomenklatura members declared themselves democrats."