Alexander Solzhenitsyn was many things. A fearless champion of freedom in an age of totalitarianism. A fearless critic of Communism. A fearless critic of the modern hedonistic West. A great historian. A great novelist. A Nobel Prize winner. A prophet.
Regarding the last of these, Solzhenitsyn prophesied, at the height of the Soviet Union’s power, that he would outlive the USSR and would return to his native Russia after the Soviet Union’s demise. As is the fate of prophets, he was not taken seriously. It was assumed by all the “experts” that the Soviet Empire was here to stay and would be part of the global geo-political landscape for the foreseeable future. As history has attested, the prophet was right and the experts wrong.
Clearly Solzhenitsyn is worth taking seriously. Nowhere is this more evident than in his remarkable prescience about the present crisis in Ukraine.
As far back as 1968, during his writing of what would later be published as The Gulag Archipelago, he wrote of his fears of future conflict between Russia and Ukraine: “It pains me to write this as Ukraine and Russia are merged in my blood, in my heart, and in my thoughts. But extensive experience of friendly contacts with Ukrainians in the camps has shown me how much of a painful grudge they hold. Our generation will not escape from paying for the mistakes of our fathers.”
Foreseeing the rise of nationalism and its territorial claims, Solzhenitsyn lamented that it was much easier “to stamp one’s foot and shout This is mine!” than to seek reconciliation and co-existence:
Surprising as it may be, the Marxist teaching prediction that nationalism is fading has not come true. On the contrary, in an age of nuclear research and cybernetics, it has for some reason flourished. And time is coming for us, whether we like it or not, to repay all the promissory notes of self-determination and independence; do it ourselves rather than wait to be burnt at the stake, drowned in a river or beheaded. We must prove whether we are a great nation not with the vastness of our territory or the number of peoples in our care but with the greatness of our deeds.
Russia should be content with “ploughing what we shall have left after those lands that will not want to stay with us secede”. In the case of Ukraine, Solzhenitsyn predicted that “things will get extremely painful”. It was necessary, however, for Russians “to understand the degree of tension” that the Ukrainians feel.
With his customary grasp of history, he lamented that it had proved impossible over the centuries to resolve the differences between the Russian and the Ukrainian people, making it necessary for the Russians “to show good sense”: “We must hand over the decision-making to them: federalists or separatists, whichever of them wins. Not to give in would be mad and cruel. The more lenient, patient, coherent we now are, the more hope there will be to restore unity in future.”
The greatest difficulty arose from the ethnic mix in Ukraine itself in which, in different regions of the country, there were different proportions of those who consider themselves Ukrainians, those who consider themselves Russians and those who consider themselves neither. “Maybe it will be necessary to have a referendum in each region and then ensure preferential and delicate treatment of those who would want to leave.” For this to happen, Ukraine would need to show the same restraint and good sense towards the regions in which Russians predominated as Russia needed to show to Ukraine as a whole.
This was especially necessary because of the arbitrary nature of the area designated as belonging to Ukraine: “Not the whole of Ukraine in its current formal Soviet borders is indeed Ukraine. Some regions … clearly lean more towards Russia. As for Crimea, Khrushchev’s decision to hand it over to Ukraine was totally arbitrary.” The way in which ethnic Ukrainians treated the ethnic Russians within these largely arbitrary borders would “serve as a test”: “while demanding justice for themselves, how just will the Ukrainians be to Carpathian Russians?”
Several years later, in April 1981, Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter to the Toronto conference on Russian-Ukrainian relations in which he wrote that “the Russian-Ukrainian problem is one of the major current issues and, certainly, of crucial importance to our peoples”. The problem was, however, exacerbated by “the red-hot passion and the resultant sizzling temperatures” which were “pernicious”: “I have repeatedly stated and am reiterating here and now that no one can be retained by force, none of the antagonists should resort to coercion towards the other side or towards its own side, the people on the whole or any small minority it embraces, for each minority contains, in turn, its own minority.”
Following the principles of subsidiarity which had always animated his political thought, Solzhenitsyn insisted on the rights of localities to determine their own destinies, free from the coercive force of alien and alienating central government, whether that government was in Moscow or Kiev: “In all cases local opinion must be identified and implemented. Therefore, all issues can be truly resolved only by the local population ….” Meanwhile, the “fierce intolerance” that animated extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide would be “fatal to both nations and beneficial only for their enemies”.
In 1990, in his seminal and groundbreaking book, Rebuilding Russia, Solzhenitsyn prophesied the danger inherent in the ethnic composition of Ukraine:
To separate Ukraine today means to cut through millions of families and people: just consider how mixed the population is; there are whole regions with a predominantly Russian population; how many people there are who find it difficult to choose which of the two nationalities they belong to; how many people are of mixed origin; how many mixed marriages there are (by the way, nobody has until now thought of them as mixed).
Although Solzhenitsyn feared the consequences of an independent Ukraine, he respected the right of the Ukrainian people to secede, a right which they duly exercised as the former Soviet Union unraveled. Reiterating his subsidiarist principles he insisted once again that “only the local population … can decide the fate of their locality, of their region, while each newly formed ethnic minority in that locality should be treated with the same non-violence”.
Today, almost fourteen years after his death, Solzhenitsyn’s position is still the only sane and safe solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Those regions of eastern Ukraine which desire to secede from the Ukrainian-dominated west of the country should be allowed to do so. There are already two nations in the de facto sense. It makes sense, therefore, that this de facto reality should be honoured with de jure status. Any other suggested solution is not only unjust but will lead to even greater injustice in the form of war, terrorism and hatred. In this, as in so much else, the voice of the prophet should be heeded.
Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from one that first appeared in June 2014 in The Imaginative Conservative.