In 1976 Alexander Solzhenitsyn addressed the Hoover Institution on Russia, the Soviet Union, and historical memory. Needless to say, these are the great writer’s major areas of expertise. Further, these remarks were important for their challenge to American intellectuals.
Like always, Solzhenitsyn not only took the Soviet Unions to task—always easy to do—but also the United States, the west, and in particular, the American academic establishment and their approaches to Russian history.
His main thesis is that, even under the Tsars, western writers on Russia got it wrong. Their images of Russia, her people and her history were distorted. They mistook centralization for tyranny, and military necessity for “backwardness.” They write as if countries merely invent themselves rathe than respond to external and internal attributes beyond their control. What western historians have done is condescend to Russian history rather than write it.
Specifically, western writers have refused to understand Russia as having a history that contains nearly every form of government, economy and military organization. While it is true that Moscow grew up under the tutelage of the Suzdal-Vladimir state, this is a far cry from proving that Russians love power and centralization. Suzdal developed as it did because it was a forested kingdom threatened by many enemies—often simultaneously.
What this kind of analysis does is create a stereotype rather than knowledge. Solzhenitsyn reminds his listeners that Kievan-Rus was highly democratic and decentralized, and even the Suzdal organization had its forest hermits and independent communities that only on occasion paid taxes to the central state.
It is true that imperial Russia was, at lest at the top, authoritarian, but that is only part of the story. The peasant commune was a purely democratic and elective organization, and was the closest and most powerful authority to the average Russian. The urban “artel,” or guild, was a voluntary and democratic organization to distribute the fruits of labor in the Tsarist era. In the 17th century, popular resistance to centralization was immense, leading to large and violent rebellions. Even the freebooting Cossacks were highly democratic.
Solzhenitsyn makes the point in his little known 1977 speech that history creates present realities. The writing—or rewriting—of history is about manipulating political attitudes in the present. By glossing over or ignoring central aspects of Russian history that show her democratic character serves to deliberately distort the Russian mind and mission. By showing Russians as savage, backward people still in the tribal stage of organization is not history, but the imposition of an ideology onto a highly democratic and religious people.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. “Remarks at the Hoover Institution, 1976.” Russian Review, 1977.