In these days of acrimonious political mud-slinging, there seems to be almost nothing upon which the radicals on the left and the reactionaries on the right can agree. There is, however, one thing on which both ends of the political spectrum are in absolute agreement, and that’s their univocal and unadulterated disdain for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For those on the left, Putin is beyond the pale because of his failure to endorse the homosexual agenda. Over the past couple of years, Putin has supported the passing of laws in Russia banning “homosexual propaganda.” For those on the right, Putin represents the resurrection of the Soviet bogeyman, a sort of reincarnation of Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev.
Considering the universal condemnation and demonization of the Russian president, it might seem foolish and perhaps perilous to seek a more balanced perspective. On the other hand, the demonization of opponents seldom solves problems and the lack of balance usually exacerbates them. It is, therefore, in the spirit of the immortal Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s "holy foolishness" (iurodstvo) that this effort at perspective is offered.
Putin is an authoritarian. He believes that big problems require the intervention of big government. As such, he has much in common with U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration is seeking to impose one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems of health care and education, which trample on the rights of religious conscience and parental choice in the name of ideologically driven agendas. Like Obama’s America, Putin’s Russia also has a state-“encouraged” common core curriculum. It is intriguing, however, that three of the major works of the anti-Communist dissident and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn are required reading at all Russian high schools. These three works are the novella "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," a harrowing account of the cruelty and barbarism of the Soviet labor camps; "The Gulag Archipelago," a monumental history of the Soviet prison system and its inherent and endemic injustices; and "Matryona’s House," a short story about the heroine’s retention of traditional Christian virtue in the face of Communist tyranny.
It is worthy of note that Putin is a great admirer of Solzhenitsyn. He met him in September 2000 and was at pains to emphasize that he had Solzhenitsyn’s approval for his education policies. In August 2001, Putin stated that, prior to his education reforms, he had contacted eminent people “known and respected by the country, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” In October 2010, after it was announced that Solzhenitsyn’s works would become required reading for all Russian high school students, Putin described "The Gulag Archipelago" as “essential reading”: “Without the knowledge of that book, we would lack a full understanding of our country and it would be difficult for us to think about the future.”
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Although one might justifiably lament the usurpation of the rights of parents by central government in the setting of a common core for education, whether such usurpation takes place in Russia or the United States, it must be said that the inclusion of a moral and literary giant such as Solzhenitsyn in Russia’s common core serves to highlight the relative trash and trivia included in the common core in the USA. At least Russia’s common core offers real meat and gravitas, whereas American kids are being fed a thin gruel of nutrient-free nonsense. The former is health food for the mind and soul, full of nourishing traditions; the latter is fast food and junk food for the soulless and the mindless.
In June 2007, Putin signed a decree honoring Solzhenitsyn (who died in 2008) “for exemplary achievements in the area of humanitarian activities.” This apparent rapprochement between the apparatchik and the dissident, between Putin, the former KGB operative, and Solzhenitsyn, the former victim of a failed KGB assassination attempt, has understandably puzzled many observers. Endeavoring to explain the seemingly inexplicable, Daniel Mahoney, author of "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology" and co-editor of "The Solzhenitsyn Reader," saw the solution to the conundrum in Solzhenitsyn’s frank appraisal of Putin’s political achievements:
Solzhenitsyn, Mahoney wrote, "surely credits Putin for taking on the most unsavory of the oligarchs, confronting the demographic crisis (it was Solzhenitsyn who first warned in his speech to the Duma in the fall of 1994 that Russians were in danger of dying out), and restoring Russian self-respect (although Solzhenitsyn adamantly opposes every identification of Russian patriotism with Soviet-style imperialism)."
In my own book, "Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile," I also endeavor to put the Putin-Solzhenitsyn alliance in perspective. I note that in his discussions with Putin, Solzhenitsyn was simply pursuing the desire for dialogue which he had shown in his "Letter to Soviet Leaders" in 1973. The only difference was that Putin was prepared to listen to Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom, and to discuss it with him in person, whereas the Communist old guard had sought to silence him. If Putin was really prepared to listen to Solzhenitsyn’s warning about the population implosion caused by the culture of death, or about the need to tackle corruption, or the necessity of strong local democracy, or the difference between true nationalism and chauvinistic imperialism, why should Putin be criticized for listening or Solzhenitsyn for speaking his mind?
Asked by the German magazine Der Spiegel how he could have such a friendly relationship with Putin, a former KGB officer, Solzhenitsyn responded that Putin’s work was in foreign intelligence and that, therefore, he was not a KGB investigator spying on Russian dissidents, “nor was he the head of a camp in the Gulag.” He also pointed to the fact that “George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA.” As for Putin himself, he publicly distanced himself from his own past at the end of 2007 when he visited Butovo, just outside Moscow, the scene of mass killings of dissidents by the NKVD, the forerunners of the KGB, in the 1930s. His visit coincided with the canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church of hundreds of victims of communism. Putin’s own statement, issued on the day of his visit to Butovo, condemned the evils of ideology and paid tribute to the millions who had perished at the hands of the communist regime.
In the final analysis, and in spite of the knee-jerk reactions of commentators on the left and the right, Putin cannot be dismissed as a mere reincarnation of the Soviet bogeyman. He inherited a Russia that was economically and morally bankrupt, crippled by the kleptocracy that followed in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He has taken on many of the worst oligarchs, has restored the Russian economy to a position of relative health, and has introduced family and child-friendly policies that have led to a significant increase in birth rates, thereby averting the imminent demographic death of Russia from population implosion. None of this justifies or excuses acts of imperialism on Russia’s borders, but it does demand a more measured approach to our understanding of the Russian president. He is not a saint, and none but a fool would seek to canonize him, but nor is he a tyrant, and none but fools should seek to demonize him.
Joseph Pearce, writer in residence and Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, is the author of "Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile" (Ignatius Press), the recipient of the John Pollock Award for Christian Biography in 2002.