An object of investigation in the West for spreading fake news, Vladimir Putin paid tribute on Tuesday to a man known for truth-telling. The Russian president praised the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the centennial of his birth and unveiled a statue honoring the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Mr. Putin’s highest praise – for a writer known for exposing the ideological lies of tyrants – was that Solzhenitsyn never allowed anyone to speak “badly about his motherland.”
That may have been news to those attending the event in Moscow. For decades, Solzhenitsyn was a fierce critic of his country. Fortunately, Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia Svetlova, also spoke, reminding Russians that people today are still kept in “heavy conditions” like the fictional character in the writer’s first novel published in 1962. The book, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” depicts the unpleasant truths of an inmate’s day in a slave labor camp, or gulag, under dictator Joseph Stalin.
“We have to remember...,” she said, “to look around us with open eyes, and to provide help to Ivan Denisovich if he needs it.”
Truth-tellers, or those with “open eyes,” are as needed today in Russia as they were in the Soviet Union of 1917 to 1991. Even a decade after his death, Solzhenitsyn still stands out as an icon of how individuals speaking the simplest truths can bring down a corrupt system.
“One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” he said, based on what he called “an unchanging Higher Power above us.” And his corollary was just as important: “Never knowingly support lies.”
More than any other Soviet dissident, Solzhenitsyn’s great writings, especially the nonfiction trilogy “The Gulag Archipelago,” helped collapse the Soviet Union from within. In contrast, Putin regards the end of the communist empire as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20th century. The more Putin tries to honor Solzhenitsyn, even by claiming the writer disapproved of criticism of Russia, perhaps the more Russians will write and speak in ways that counter fake news.
Putin is no Stalin but his actions, such as jailing human rights activists, have turned many in the West against him. In a Pew poll of 25 countries this year, 63 percent of people had no confidence in Putin to do the right thing in global affairs.
Both Putin and Solzhenitsyn are Russian patriots. But the latter saw patriotism in a different way. “A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country,” he wrote. “And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers.” In his later years, Solzhenitsyn welcomed praise from Putin. But he never relinquished his role as a truth-teller or his wish for Russians to speak the truth as well.