THE sentinel of the Russian conscience is coming home.
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."
This nomenklatura, or party elite, has combined with what Solzhenitsyn calls "the sharks of the financial underworld whom I loathe to call entrepreneurs," referring to the new business class that has emerged with the beginnings of the market economy. Alongside them is the KGB, he says, which continues to exist virtually unaltered.
"If such a ruling class is formed, it will exploit us not for 70 years but for 170 years," Solzhenitsyn exclaims.
The writer echoes many here who assail the economic reforms being pursued by the government of President Boris Yeltsin in concert with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He warns against believing that "brilliant reforms" or advice from an IMF that "doesn't know how to transform our system" will solve Russia's problems.
Solzhenitsyn offers little concrete in place of the hopes to move to a Western-style market economy. "Conscience should be above economy," he contends. "First of all, the recovery of Russia, its moral, spiritual recovery.... And then we will overcome any difficulties."
Such views resonate well with what is popularly known here as the "national patriotic movement," the label attached to a wide range of groups from extreme anti-Semitic organizations, such as Pamyat, to the newly organized Russian National Assembly led by Siberian writer Valentin Rasputin and former KGB Gen. Alexander Sterligov.
Some such company may be hard for Solzhenitsyn to stomach, though he calls for "democrats" and "patriots" to unite against the current system.
But the most likely response to Solzhenitsyn's bid for a political role may be the most disappointing to him - to be ignored. His television appearance generated very little response.
One of the few commentaries appeared in the liberal daily Izvestia, which praised the film and the man.
"In Russia, even in the political market which is inevitable under conditions of democracy, we cannot survive without unshakeable moral authorities, without great men, the unifiers," wrote longtime analyst Stanislav Kondrashov. "Who suits such a mission better than Alexander Solzhenitsyn?"
Solzhenitsyn's moral stature is still eagerly sought, even by politicians he assails. President Yeltsin went out of his way to publicize a phone call he made to the writer during his visit last summer to the US, inviting him to come home.
The coolest reaction, however, comes from the younger generation, for whom Solzhenitsyn is an old-fashioned symbol, not part of the Russia of McDonalds, heavy-metal rock music, and sidewalk entrepreneurs.
"The majority believes he is out of touch, that he doesn't know what is happening in this country," says young historian Viktor Bezotosny. He ironically compares Solzhenitsyn to Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary who sat in Switzerland penning the dogma of a new order.
"Having spent a long time abroad, Solzhenitsyn is trying to impose his views on the society he left," says Mr. Bezotosny. He worries that "the ideas Solzhenitsyn is expressing could be implemented here in a more distorted manner than he proposes."