Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Letter to the Soviet Leaders. 1974
Translation by Hilary Sternberg
The murky whirlwind of Progressive Ideology swept in on us from the West at the end of the last century, and has tormented and ravaged our soul quite enough …
A second danger is the multiple impasse in which Western civilization (which Russia long ago chose the honor of joining) finds itself, but it is not so imminent; there are still two or three decades in reserve. We share this impasse with all the advanced countries, which are in an even worse and more perilous predicament than we are, although people keep hoping for new scientific loopholes and inventions to stave off the day of retribution. I would not mention this danger in this letter if the solutions to both problems were not identical in many respects, if one and the same turnabout, a single decision, would not deliver us from both dangers. Such a happy coincidence is rare. Let us value history’s gift and not miss these opportunities.
And all this has so “suddenly” come tumbling out at mankind’s feet, and at Russia’s! How fond our progressive publicists were, both before and after the Revolution, of ridiculing those retrogrades (there were always so many of them in Russia): people who called upon us to cherish and have pity on our past, even on the most Godforsaken hamlet with a couple of hovels, even on the paths that run alongside the railroad track; who called upon us to keep horses even after the advent of the motorcar, not to abandon small factories for enormous plants and combines, not to discard organic manure in favor of chemical fertilizers, not to mass by the million in cities, not to clamber on top of one another in multistory apartment blocks. How they laughed, how they tormented those reactionary “Slavophiles” (the jibe became the accepted term, the simpletons never managed to think up another name for themselves). They hounded the men who said that it was perfectly feasible for a colossus like Russia, with all its spiritual peculiarities and folk traditions, to find its own particular path; and that it could not be that the whole of mankind should follow a single, absolutely identical pattern of development.
No, we had to be dragged along the whole of the Western bourgeois-industrial and Marxist path in order to discover, toward the close of the twentieth century, and again from progressive Western scholars, what any village graybeard in the Ukraine or Russia had understood from time immemorial and could have explained to the progressive commentators ages ago, had the commentators ever found the time in that dizzy fever of theirs to consult him: that a dozen worms can’t go on and on gnawing the same apple forever, that if the earth is a finite object, then its expanses and resources are finite also, and the endless, infinite progress dinned into our heads by the dreamers of the Enlightenment cannot be accomplished on it. No, we had to shuffle on and on behind other people, without knowing what lay ahead of us, until suddenly we now hear the scouts calling to one another: We’ve blundered into a blind alley, we’ll have to turn back. All that “endless progress” turned out to be an insane, ill-considered, furious dash into a blind alley. A civilization greedy for “perpetual progress” has now choked and is on its last legs …
But what about us? Us, with our unwieldiness and our inertia, with our flinching and inability to change even a single letter, a single syllable, of what Marx said in 1848 about industrial development? Economically and physically we are perfectly capable of saving ourselves. But there is a roadblock on the path to our salvation-the sole Progressive World View. If we renounce industrial development, what about the working class, socialism, communism, unlimited increase in productivity and all the rest? Marx is not to be corrected, that’s revisionism …
But you are already being called “revisionists” anyway, whatever you may do in the future. So wouldn’t it be better to do your duty soberly, responsibly and firmly, and give up the dead letter for the sake of a living people who are utterly dependent on your power and your decisions? And you must do it without delay. Why dawdle if we shall have to snap out of it sometime anyway? Why repeat what others have done and loop the agonizing loop right to the end, when we are not too far into it to turn back? If the man at the head of the column cries, “I have lost my way,” do we absolutely have to plow right on to the spot where he realized his mistake and only there -turn back? Why not turn and start on the right course from wherever we happen to be?
As it is, we have followed Western technology too long and too faithfully. We are supposed to be the “first socialist country in the world,” one which sets an example to other peoples, in both the East and the West, and we are supposed to have been so “original” in following various monstrous doctrines-on the peasantry, on small tradesmen-so why, then, have we been so dolefully unoriginal in technology, and why have we so unthinkingly, so blindly, copied Western civilization? (Why? From military haste, of course, and the haste stems from our immense “international responsibilities,” and all this because of Marxism again.)
One might have thought that, with the central planning of which we are so proud, we of all people had the chance not to spoil Russia’s natural beauty, not to create antihuman, multimillion concentrations of people. But we’ve done everything the other way round: we have dirtied and defiled the wide Russian spaces and disfigured the heart of Russia, our beloved Moscow. (What crazed, unfilial hand bulldozed the boulevards so that you can’t go along them now without diving down into degrading tunnels of stone? What evil, alien ax broke up the tree-fined boulevards of the Sadovoe Kol’tso and replaced them with a poisoned zone of asphalt and gasoline?) The irreplaceable face of the city and all the ancient city plan have been obliterated, and imitations of the West are being flung up, like the’ New Arbat; the city has been so squeezed, stretched and pushed upward that life has become intolerable-so what do we do now? Reconstruct the former Moscow in a new place? That is probably impossible. Accept, then, that we have lost it completely?
We have squandered our resources foolishly without so much as a backward glance, sapped our soil, mutilated our vast expanses with Idiotic “Inland seas” and contaminated belts of wasteland around our industrial centers-but for the moment, at least, far more still remains untainted by us, which we haven’t had time to touch. So let us come to our senses in time, let us change our course! …
This Ideology that fell to us by inheritance is not only decrepit and hopelessly antiquated now; even during its best decades it was totally mistaken in its predictions and was never a science.
A primitive, superficial economic theory, it declared that only the worker creates value and failed to take into account the contribution of either organizers, engineers, transportation or marketing systems. It was mistaken when it forecast that the proletariat would be endlessly oppressed and would never achieve anything in a bourgeois democracy-if only we could shower people with as much food, clothing and leisure as they have gained under capitalism! It missed the point when it asserted that the prosperity of the European countries depended on their colonies; it was only after they had shaken the colonies off that they began to accomplish their “economic miracles.” It was mistaken through and through in its prediction that socialists could never come to power except through an armed uprising. It miscalculated in thinking that the first uprisings would take place in the advanced industrial countries; quite the reverse. And the picture of how the whole world would rapidly be overtaken by revolutions and how states would soon wither away was sheer delusion, sheer ignorance of human nature. And as for wars being characteristic of capitalism alone and coming to an end when capitalism did-we have already witnessed the longest war of the twentieth century so far, and it was not capitalism that rejected negotiations and a truce for fifteen to twenty years; and God forbid that we should witness the bloodiest and most brutal of all mankind’s wars-a war between two Communist superpowers. Then there was nationalism, which this theory also buried in 1848 as a “survival”-but find a stronger force in the world today! And it’s the same with many other things too boring to list.
Marxism is not only not accurate, is not only not a science, has not only failed to predict a single event in terms of figures, quantities, time-scales or locations (something that electronic computers today do with laughable ease in the course of social forecasting, although never with the help of Marxism)-it absolutely astounds one by the economic and mechanistic crudity of its attempts to explain that most subtle of creatures, the human being, and that even more complex synthesis of millions of people, society. Only the cupidity of some, the blindness of others and a craving for faith on the part of still others can serve to explain this grim jest of the twentieth century: how can such a discredited and bankrupt doctrine still have so many followers in the West! In our country are left the fewest of all! We who have had a taste of it are only pretending willy-nilly …
Here in Russia, for sheer lack of practice, democracy survived for only eight months-from February to October, 1917. The »migr» groups of Constitutional Democrats and Social Democrats still pride themselves on it to this very day and say that outside forces brought about its collapse. But in reality that democracy was their disgrace; they invoked it and promised it so arrogantly, and then created merely a chaotic caricature of democracy, because first of all they turned out to be ill-prepared for it themselves, and then Russia was worse prepared still. Over the last half-century Russia’s preparedness for democracy, for a multiparty parliamentary system, could only have diminished. I am inclined to think that its sudden reintroduction now would merely be a melancholy repetition of 1917
Should we record as our democratic tradition the Land Assemblies of Muscovite Russia, Novgorod, the early Cossacks, the village commune? Or should we console ourselves with the thought that for a thousand years Russia lived with an authoritarian order-and at the beginning of the twentieth century both the physical and spiritual health of her people were still intact?
However, in those days an important condition was fulfilled: that authoritarian order possessed a strong moral foundation, embryonic and rudimentary though it was-not the ideology of universal violence, but Christian Orthodoxy, the ancient, seven-centuries-old Orthodoxy of Sergei of Radonezh and Nil Sorsky, before it was battered by Patriarch Nikon and bureaucratized by Peter the Great. From the end of the Moscow period and throughout the whole of the Petersburg period, once this moral principle was perverted and weakened, the authoritarian order, despite the apparent external successes of the state, gradually went into a decline and eventually perished.
But even the Russian intelligentsia, which for more than a century has invested all its strength in the struggle with an authoritarian regime-what has it achieved for itself or the common people by its enormous losses? The opposite of what it intended, of course. So should we not perhaps acknowledge that for Russia this path was either false or, premature? That for the foreseeable future, perhaps, whether we like it or not, whether we intend it or not, Russia is nevertheless destined to have an authoritarian order? Perhaps this is all that she is ripe for today? … Everything depends upon what sort of authoritarian order lies in store for us in the future.
It is not authoritarianism itself that is intolerable, but the ideological lies that are daily foisted upon us. Not so much authoritarianism as arbitrariness and illegality, the sheer illegality of having a single overlord in each district, each province and each sphere, often ignorant and brutal, whose will alone decides all things. An authoritarian order does not necessarily mean that laws are unnecessary or that they exist only on paper, or that they should not reflect the notions and will of the population. Nor does it mean that the legislative, executive and judicial authorities are not independent, any of them, that they are in fact not authorities at all but utterly at the mercy of a telephone call from the only true, self-appointed authority. May I remind you that the soviets, which gave their name to our system and existed until July 6, 1918, were in no way dependent upon Ideology: Ideology or no Ideology, they always envisaged the widest possible consultation with all working people.
Would it be still within the bounds of realism or a lapse daydreams if we were to propose that at least some of the real power of the soviets be restored? I do not know what can be said on the subject of our Constitution: from 1936 It has not been observed for a single day, and for that reason does not appear to be viable. But perhaps even the Constitution is not beyond all hope? …
So that the country and people do not suffocate, and so that they all have the chance to develop and enrich us with ideas, allow competition on an equal and honorable basis not for power, but for truth between all ideological and moral currents, in particular between all religions – there will be nobody to persecute them if their tormentor, Marxism, is deprived of its state privileges. But allow competition honestly, not the way you do now, not by gagging people; allow it to religious youth organizations (which are totally nonpolitical; let the Komsomol be the only political one), grant them the right to instruct and educate children, and the right to free parish activity. (I myself see Christianity today as the only living spiritual force capable of undertaking the spiritual healing of Russia. But I request and propose no special privileges for it, simply that it should be treated fairly and not suppressed.) Allow us a free art and literature, the free publication not just of political books-God preserve us!-and exhortations and election leaflets; allow us philosophical, ethical, economic and social studies, and you will see what a rich harvest it brings and how it bears fruit-for the good of Russia. Such an abundant and free flowering of inspiration will rapidly absolve us of the need to keep on belatedly translating new ideas from Western languages, as has been the case for the whole of the last fifty years-as you know.
What have you to fear? Is the idea really so terrible? Are you really so unsure of yourselves? You will still have absolute and impregnable power, a separate, strong and exclusive Party, the army, the police force, industry, transportation, communications, mineral wealth, a monopoly of foreign trade, an artificial rate of exchange for the ruble-but let the people breathe, let them think and develop! If you belong to the people heart and soul, there can be nothing to hold you back!
After all, does the human heart not still feel the need to atone for the past?
Source: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Letter to the Soviet Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 19-21, 24-26, 41-43, 51-54, 56-57.