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The near unanimous support which Solzhenitsyn had among those who were not supporters of the Soviet regime began to break up about the time of his expulsion with the publication of his Letter to the Soviet Leaders[1] Previous to this, Solzhenitsyn was known as a novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, causing offence because he specialised in exposing the dark aspects of Soviet life.  His novels - especially The First Circle - were full of political ideas, but these were expressed by his characters and if Solzhenitsyn's own sympathies were clear enough, they didn't amount to a political programme. His more direct political interventions were mainly demands for more freedom in Soviet literature. The publication of the Letter to the Soviet Leaders coincided with the publication in Paris of The Gulag Archipelago, but even this was simply an accumulation of facts. Given the devastating nature of those facts one might reasonably conclude that such a  monstrous system should be overthrown, by whatever means might be necessary. But no policy recommendations are made. Policy recommendations were made in the Letter. But they were not quite what one might have expected.

[1]  Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Letter to Soviet Leaders, translation by Hilary Sternberg with a preface by Michael Scammell, London, Index on Censorship, 1973. In Le Grain tombé entre les meules - esquisses d'exil, tome 1, Fayard, 1998, p. 393, Solzhenitsyn says (my translation from the French): 'Starting with the Letter to the Leaders the ban on criticising me or mounting accusations against me which society had imposed on itself was lifted and angry voices could be heard from all sides.'

For a start, Solzhenitsyn is not calling for an overthrow of the regime:

'Having proposed a dialogue on the basis of realism, I too must confess that from my experience of Russian history I have become an opponent of all revolutions and all armed convulsions, including future ones - both those you crave (not in our country) and those you fear (in  our country). Intensive study has convinced me that bloody mass revolutions are always disastrous for the people in whose midst they occur. And in our present-day society I am by no means alone in that conviction. The sudden upheaval of any hastily carried out change of the present leadership (the whole pyramid) might provoke only a new and destructive struggle and would certainly lead to only a very dubious gain in the quality of the leadership.'

One might think that this is a reasonable precaution given that Solzhenitsyn was still living in the Soviet Union and had no intention of leaving it. But we have every reason to believe that his opposition to a revolutionary overthrow of the regime was more than just a tactical adaptation, or a realistic assessment of the likelihood of achieving it. Solzhenitsyn's study of the revolution of February 1917 had indeed left him with a horror of revolution of any kind. Solzhenitsyn never to my knowledge expressed admiration for Thomas Hobbes, but he seems to have shared Hobbes' basic idea - that any state is better than no state.

His recommendations to the Soviet leaders are made on the assumption that they would continue to be the leaders - indeed, although he hardly conceals the contempt he feels for them, the letter seems to have been seriously intended. It was not in the first instance an open letter. Solzhenitsyn did not publish it (in Samizdat)) until it was clear that he wouldn't have a reply. And here is a second surprising thing about it, calculated to offend those who might have expected to be his supporters. He doesn't suggest to the Soviet leaders that they should introduce 'democracy' - at least not at the sovereign, national level. He defends the principle of 'authoritarian' government. Ideally he argues that this authoritarian government should have a moral character but it is still clear that, in the first instance at least, he expects the authoritarian government to be exercised by the people he is addressing, the people he regards with contempt, people who, we can be sure, possess not the slightest shred of moral authority:

'Here in Russia, for sheer lack of practice, democracy survived for only eight months - from February to October 1917. The émigré 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 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 multi-party parliamentary system, could only have diminished. I am inclined to think that its sudden reintroduction now would merely be a melancholy repetition of 1917 ...

'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, Russia is nevertheless destined to have an authoritarian order? Perhaps this is all that she is ripe for today?

'Everything depend 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 ...

'The considerations which guide our country must be these: to encourage the inner, the moral, the healthy development of the people: to liberate women from the forced labour of money-earning - especially from the crowbar and the shovel: to improve schooling and children's upbringing; to save the soil and the waters and all of Russian nature: to re-establish healthy cities and complete the conquest of the North-East. Let us hear no more about outer space and the cosmos, no more historic victories of universal significance, and no more dreaming up of international missions ...

'What have you to fear? Is the idea really so terrible? You will still have absolute and impregnable power, a separate, strong and exclusive party, the army, the police force, industry, transport, communications, mineral wealth, a monopoly of foreign trade, an artificial rate of exchange for the rouble - let the people breathe, let them think and develop!' 

Solzhenitsyn's central political idea could be summed up in a single, albeit hyphenated, word - 'self-limitation', which he regards as inseparable from the need to renounce 'ideology', specifically of course the world embracing, world conquering ideology of Marxism.

Ideology obliges the leaders to waste enormous resources on military adventures overseas, on policing the near abroad (Eastern Europe), on the grandiose prestige-building trips into outer space, on a fruitless confrontation, which he sees as entirely ideologically driven, with China. At the same time the simple means by which life could be enhanced - an emphasis on agriculture, small towns and villages on a human scale - are disregarded. And here again we may be surprised and understand how shocking this might have been to people who would otherwise have been his supporters. Behind Marxism, Solzhenitsyn sees the whole ideology of 'progress', going back through the 'Enlightenment' to the 'Renaissance':

'They [the 'progressive publicists'] 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, at the end of the twentieth century, and again from progressive Western scholars, what any village greybeard 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 time in that dizzy fever of theirs to consult them: that a dozen maggots 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 ... 

'Society must cease to look upon 'progress' as something desirable. 'Eternal progress' is a nonsensical myth. What must be implemented is not a 'steadily expanding economy' but a zero growth economy, a stable economy. Economic growth is not only unnecessary but ruinous. We must set ourselves the aim not of increasing natural resources but of conserving them. We must renounce, as a matter of urgency, the gigantic scale of modern technology in industry, agriculture and urban development (the cities of today are cancerous tumours). The chief aim of technology will now be to eradicate the lamentable results of previous technologies. The 'Third World' which has not yet started on the fatal path of Western civilisation, can only be saved by 'small scale technology' which requires an increase, not a reduction, in manual labour, uses the simplest of machinery and is based purely on local materials.'  

In all this, of course, Solzhenitsyn - while insisting that he is addressing the Soviet leaders as 'realists' - is also appealing to their better natures: 'I am writing this letter on the supposition that you too are swayed by this primary concern ['the good and salvation of our people, to which all of you - and I myself belong'], that you are not alien to your origins, to your fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, to the expanse of your homeland; and that you are conscious of your nationality. If I am mistaken, there is no point in your reading the rest of this letter.'