What is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's legacy


Ulrich Schmid

To person

Ulrich Schmid is Professor of Culture and Society in Russia at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He is also an employee of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

In Russia's history, the state and culture are closely interwoven. From the first state ideology to the censorship of the "Red Terror" to freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the 1990s, cultural policy was subject to profound changes.

Visitors look at a picture in a Moscow exhibition on Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose famous camp story "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was published during the cultural-political thaw in the 1960s. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The state has a special place in Russian cultural history. For most of the Russian territory, a basic law was not introduced until 1905 and a proper constitution only in 1918. The legalization of the relations between state and society and therefore also the definition of the framework conditions for cultural creation took place very late in a European comparison and initially only achieved formal, not factual validity.

The first state ideology under Ivan the Terrible

The first state ideology in Russia was drafted by Abbot Joseph Sanin of Volokolamsk (1440-1515). Joseph recognized the tsar's human nature, but from his point of view the tsar's power was divine. There were no limits to the exercise of power. Even intrigues and deceptions were explicitly allowed to protect orthodoxy in the tsarist empire. Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) adopted Joseph's conception and elevated it to the status of a state ideology. Ivan's Josephite views are most evident in the correspondence between the tsar and the renegade prince Andrei Kurbsky (1528-1583). The former Russian military leader Kurbsky had fled to Lithuania for fear of persecution and denounced the tsar's terror regime in exile. Ivan, in turn, referred to his absolute rule in his answers to the "dog" Kurbski. He did not see his reign as an "office", but as a divine mandate. The dispute between the letter writers had not only an ideological, but also a stylistic dimension. Andrej Kurbsky used a Latin impregnated syntax, while Ivan chose a Byzantine pomp style.

The limits of enlightened absolutism

Peter the Great (1672-1725) transformed the tsarist empire into an empire. His rule also established a state culture in which the praise of the ruler played an important role. This panegyric culminated in the reign of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), which was sung about in the odes of Mikhail Lomonossow (1711-1765) and Gawriil Derzhawin (1743-1816). Katharina represented an enlightened absolutism and corresponded with the leading French intellectuals of her time such as Voltaire, D’Alembert and Diderot. She also tried to create a literary public in Russia. However, their intellectual curiosity came up against a sharp limit during the French Revolution. In the last years of her life, Katharina acted brutally against all too liberal spirits and had private printing works closed.

The 19th century was characterized by a rule of aristocracy, which at the beginning was entirely geared towards the court of the tsars. Napoleon's Russian campaign led to a fundamental reflection on their own Russian national culture. Nikolaj Karamsin (1766-1826) had long contemplated writing a history of Russia, but as a private citizen did not dare to undertake such an undertaking. It was only when he was appointed court historiographer that he was empowered to undertake his project, which culminated in a twelve-volume history of the Russian state (1818-1829).

In the area of ​​poetry, too, the court dominated as the most important point of reference. Wassili Zhukowski (1783-1852) had sung about Russia's military successes in various poems and thus acquired the reputation of a loyal poet who was able to represent the official literary ideal with dignity. The state-supporting function of literary production is clearly shown in the fact that Zhukowski was appointed tutor of the heir to the throne primarily because of his literary achievements. Zhukowski had thus achieved a monopoly-like position in the cultural sector. In 1845 the chief of the secret police asked the aging Zhukovsky for an opinion on the political reliability of Nikolaj Gogol, to whom a support payment was to be made.

Decembrist Rebellion and the Buturlin Committee

The Decembrist uprising of 1825 marked a deep turning point in the relationship between Tsarism and the aristocratic bearers of culture. For the first time it became apparent that the young cultural elite did not naturally support autocracy as a form of government. The uprising was suppressed by Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) and five noble leaders were hanged. The combination of literary production and political unreliability, which is characteristic of the Decembrists, determined the principles of state cultural policy up to the 1860s. It is significant that Nicholas I did not even want to keep the political poetry of the Decembrists as evidence: at the highest order, the poems were removed from the investigation files and destroyed.

After the Decembrist uprising, civil service lost a lot of its attractiveness in the eyes of the cultural bearers. In addition, Nikolaj introduced a strict censorship law as early as 1826. The secret police also began to monitor the writers more closely. From 1848 to 1855 there was even a censorship of the censorship with the so-called Buturlin Committee: If a censor judged literary texts too mildly, he was punished. A relaxation of the situation was only possible under the "liberator tsar" Alexander II (1818-1881). The censorship was not completely abolished, but the publishers no longer had to submit their texts to the authorities in manuscripts, but only after they had been printed. After the tsar was assassinated in 1881, the screws were tightened again. In 1882 a press committee was formed with far-reaching competencies, in which, in addition to the ministers for interior affairs, education and justice, the reactionary chief procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonoszew (1827-1907), took a seat. The influential Pobedonoszew was a close confidante of the authoritarian Tsar Alexander III. (1845-1894) and determined the tsarist cultural policy for a quarter of a century after 1880.

Autonomous prestige areas

Towards the end of the 19th century it became increasingly clear that the Russian public had created autonomous spaces of prestige. The most prominent example is Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910). His artistic and moral authority dwarfed the traditional, even anachronistic, tsarist rule. As early as 1886 he had written a harsh article against Nicholas I, which he attacked as a "beating nicolaus". He expressed himself even more radically during the famine of 1891: "The people starve because we are full. All the palaces, theaters, museums, all this trinket, all these riches - all this was earned by the starving people. The people are made by us always kept starving. This is our means of making it work for us. " Of course, this article was immediately branded as "socialist" and banned by the censors. After the turn of the century, Tolstoy's interventions became more common. Under the impression of student unrest, terrorism and social misery, he repeatedly took up pen and sent the tsar long letters demanding the abolition of land ownership, the abolition of censorship, better education for all and freedom of religion.

There was an open split between Russian society and the Tsar in 1905. On St. Petersburg's Bloody Sunday, a peaceful demonstration in front of the Winter Palace was bloodily suppressed by the army. Several hundred people were killed. This event severely damaged the reputation of the tsar, even in moderate circles. As a result, a wave of strikes and protests swept through the country, which only subsided after the introduction of basic civil rights and the establishment of the Duma. However, the innovations of the October Manifesto of 1905 were only a sham democracy: the tsar dissolved parliament at every opportunity, thus making continuous legislative work impossible.

Censorship of the "Red Terror"

Between the February and October revolutions of 1917, Russian culture was free from all regulations. However, the creative conditions in the chaos of war and protest were miserable. After the Bolsheviks came to power, censorship was quickly reintroduced as part of the "Red Terror". Lenin himself held back on questions of cultural policy because, with his conservative taste, he felt that he was not very competent in this area. Lenin's 1905 article "Party Organization and Party Literature", in which he anchored the principle of the partiality of literature, became binding for the entire Soviet period. Lenin represented a very narrow concept of freedom of the press: everything that was not on the party line was considered a lie and false information. Lenin turned particularly vehemently against the bourgeois press, which is dominated by the economic imperatives of the market and can therefore by no means be considered free. Lenin came to the conclusion that literary activity should function like a "cog and screw" in the great mechanism of socialist society and should be fully integrated into general party work.

Trotsky took a more liberal position than Lenin. In his book Literature and Revolution from 1923, he stated that the party "has no fixed positions on questions of verse form, the evolution of the theater, the renewal of literary language, the architectural style, nor can they have any, just as they - in another area - has no fixed positions on the best fertilization, the right organization of traffic and the best machine gun mechanism. "

An important CC decision of June 1925 took up the term “fellow travelers” coined by Trotsky. Those authors who had positioned themselves neither positively nor negatively on the Bolshevik government fell into this category. The Central Committee resolution called for tolerance towards the "followers" who were supposed to play a quality-assuring role within the proletarian "cultural revolution".

Socialist realism

With the consolidation of Stalin's power in the late 1920s, it became increasingly clear that the dictator wanted to tie the cultural industry closer to the state. Stalin was known for repeatedly intervening actively in the cultural scene and examining scripts, plays and prose texts. In 1932 all literary associations were forcibly dissolved and transferred to the newly founded Soviet Writers' Union. A little later, at the first writers' congress in 1934, the binding aesthetic program of "socialist realism" was defined. Among the official writers there were also intellectuals who kept a cautious course between being loyal to the line and their own convictions. Ilya Ehrenburg (1891-1967) enjoyed extensive travel privileges throughout the Stalin era and was regarded as the officious cultural ambassador of the Soviet Union. The price he had to pay for this role was deliberate silence about Stalin's crimes. In his memoirs from the 1960s, Ehrenburg compared his relationship with Stalin with that of the Jews with God: "It would be an exaggeration to say that I liked Stalin, but for a long time I believed in him and feared him. Like everyone else spoke I only from him as from the Führer. "

Brief cultural-political thaw

After Stalin's death there was a brief phase of a cultural and political thaw. In 1962, even Alexander Solzhenitsyn's camp story A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was able to appear in the country's largest literary magazine. The delicate manuscript passed all internal barriers of the Soviet bureaucracy under the label "the camp from the perspective of a peasant, a piece very close to the people" and was personally approved by Nikita Khrushchev. However, the Secretary General was very careful not to give up the reins: the propaganda orchestrated by the Soviet cultural authorities against the Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak in 1958 also fell during the Khrushchev era.

The increasing repression under Brezhnev gave way to a more liberal cultural policy in the years of perestroika. However, Gorbachev continued to speak out against the publication of Solzhenitsyn's camp encyclopedia Archipel Gulag, which he described as "anti-Soviet". However, the cultural-political discipline eroded from the fringes of the Soviet empire. The first Solzhenitsyn editions appeared in the Baltic States. In 1990 the censors' restrained literature broke the dam. The works of the banned authors were printed in the leading magazines and reached millions of copies.

Freedom of the press and expression in the 1990s

After the collapse of the Soviet system, there was absolute freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Russia in the 1990s. Oligarchs built influential television channels that were very critical of the government. After President Putin took office, the situation changed quickly. When the crew of the Kursk submarine was killed in an accident in the summer of 2000, Putin reacted very clumsily and too late. The media criticized the president for being callous and passive. The Kremlin responded immediately by bringing the independent television channels into line. NTV owner Vladimir Gusinski was arrested on an excuse and forced in prison to sell his transmitter to energy giant Gazprom. Today all Russian television channels are either state-owned or owned by state-owned holdings. The formerly critical broadcaster NTV has turned into the government's propaganda mouthpiece.

Construction of a conservative cultural ideal as a "national security strategy"

With President Putin's third term in office, the cultural-political line has tightened again. The political action art of "Pussy Riot" and Pyotr Pavlensky was persecuted with all the severity of the law. The political technologists swear society to a conservative cultural ideal. Since 2013, the propagation of homosexuality towards minors has been banned. The new law means that homosexuality may no longer be discussed in cultural productions. The arrest of the homosexual director Kirill Serebrennikow can also be seen against this background. In 2014, the Duma banned the use of swear words in works of art. Andrei Svyagintsev's award-winning film Leviathan then had to be dubbed for Russian cinemas. In current television series, non-normative language is consistently erased by beeps. The "National Security Strategy" of December 31, 2015 devotes an entire chapter to culture. The preservation and reinforcement of "traditional Russian spiritual and moral values" is named as a security goal. This includes the "primacy of the spiritual over the material", the "creative work" and the "service to the fatherland". These values ​​form the basis of society. With this in mind, children and young people should be brought up to become citizens.

The Internet, which has long been regarded as a space of relative freedom, has also recently come under increasing scrutiny from the Russian authorities. The criminal offense of "extremism" is interpreted very broadly and can already be used for liking content that is critical of the government. In the meantime, anonymization technologies are also banned. Anyone who tries to cover up their tracks on Russian social media is liable to prosecution. In general, all web service providers are obliged to also physically host their customer data in the Russian Federation. This is to ensure that the secret services have access to all Internet traffic.