- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

The news broadcast was for me like a sudden clap of thunder on a lazy, sunny afternoon: Alexander Issayevich Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Laureate, heroic dissident in the dark Soviet days, author of "The Gulag Archipelago," had met at his dacha with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the country's future. What could Stalin's ex-prisoner possibly talk about for two hours with this ex-KGB spy?

Statesmen and diplomats of the democracies have to deal with whoever is in command of a foreign country: Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Jiang Zemin, Pol Pot or with unforgettable genocidists like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho, etc. President Clinton shakes hands with Fidel Castro; that's part of the diplomatic bazaar. But surely Mr. Solzhenitsyn, a moral beacon, doesn't have to sit down with the man whose Russian troops have committed all-out atrocities against the Chechen people, the overwhelming majority of whom were innocent of any crimes, including terrorism. So on Sept. 21 Mr. Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, presented a large bouquet of flowers and then Mr. Solzhenitsyn and his wife, Natalya, invited them in for a glass of tea. How cozy.

At one time, Mr. Solzhenitsyn blasted the 1994-96 war against Chechnya. He supported Chechnya's right to independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart. Something happened last year to change his mind; he began to believe that it was the Chechens who were attacking Mother Russia and therefore he supported the war against the beleaguered Chechens. It is a war financed by the West. Billions of dollars, supplied of course by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and private lenders, are being spent to crush the Chechens.

I recalled the many columns I wrote about Mr. Solzhenitsyn, the first one for the Boston Globe in 1974 predicting that Mr. Solzhenitsyn had become so much part of the world conscience that his Politburo tormentors would not dare do anything to him other than expel him from the Soviet fatherland. And so they did, and he was welcomed to the United States as the guest of honor at a huge AFL-CIO dinner in Washington. President Gerald Ford, who later regretted his action, refused to invite him to the White House lest it offend the Russians.

I recalled the chapter, "The Law Today," in the 1985 one-volume edition of "The Gulag Archipelago," in which Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote about the post-Brezhnev USSR:

"It should rightly be called 'There Is No Law.' The same treacherous secrecy, the same fog of injustice, still hangs in our air, worse than the smoke of city chimneys. For half a century and more the enormous state has towered over us, girded with hoops of steel. The hoops are still there. There is no law."

So what do we have in Russia today? Is there a rule of law? Is there a market economy? The son of Nikita Khrushchev, Sergei, now an American citizen, has just told us that the market economy will never succeed in Russia until government corruption is wiped out. "You ask a person in the countryside, 'What do you think of democracy?' and they will say democracy has brought crime," Mr. Khrushchev said during a weekend speech at the University of Minnesota.

A report of the Solzhenitsyn-Putin meeting in the Soviet newspaper, Trud, quotes the writer as telling Mr. Putin that "I feel great pain because our state is based today on a thieves' foundation and a thieves' ideology … Regardless of international meetings we might have, we have been labeled as a country saturated with robbery with the apparat hooked in graft and based on robbery."

Mr. Solzhenitsyn in his novel, "The First Circle," once wrote: "A great writer in a country is like a second government." But not when the great writer becomes a captive of the apparat, not when he starts talking like a Foreign Office official: "I think our meeting was very useful and necessary. I am grateful to the president that he has found the time to talk with me."

As I read Mr. Solzhenitsyn's own report of the meeting, I thought of Robert Browning's poem, "The Lost Leader," with its bitterly nostalgic lines:

We that had loved him so, followed him, honored him,

Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,

Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,

Made him our pattern to live and to die.

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a Washington Times columnist.

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