In Russia, writers are more than just writers. Russians look to their literary heroes not simply for beauty and entertainment, but for a philosophy of life. Writers do more than simply tell the truth to the temporal power — they are Russia’s spiritual legislators. The stern old God of Orthodoxy provides an immutable baseline of good and evil. But it is in the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Pushkin and Chekhov that Russians find their universal truths, the nuts and bolts of people wrestling with freedom and oppression.
Russians look to their writers not just to think but to live more deeply than ordinary mortals; the best ones end up crucified on crosses of their own weakness, or of the state’s disapproval. This was certainly true of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Not only did he, in the pungent Russian phrase, experience the horrors of the Russian century ‘on his own hide’, but he was possessed with an overwhelming moral imperative to record what he saw and felt. The impulse was so strong that while he was in the Gulag he memorised thousands of lines of his own poetry and prose when there was no paper to write on; the rest he scribbled on pieces of cement and scrounged scraps of paper.
When Solzhenitsyn died, Vladimir Putin came to pay his respects at his lying-in-state at the Academy of Sciences, and President Dmitry Medvedev bowed to his grave at the Donstkoi monastery. Thousands of people — many of them older members of the intelligentsia, in shabby clothes and thick glasses — had queued in pouring summer rain to see his body and lay flowers. But though Russia’s new masters had bowed their heads to Russia’s greatest dissident, in truth Solzhenitsyn was largely ignored in the new Russia when he was alive.