August 5, 2008

Homeland of Soviet Giant Has Moved on Solzhenitsyn’s Name Has Lost Some Impact

By Clifford J. Levy

In a museum here is a box of detergent that stands as a symbol of the reverence that Russians once held for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the literary giant who died Sunday night.

Within the box is concealed an illicit copy of Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece about the Soviet labor camps, "The Gulag Archipelago," which was obsessively circulated in Soviet times despite the penalties for those who read it.

On Monday, today's Russian leaders voiced their admiration for Solzhenitsyn, and television dutifully aired tributes, but there did not seem to be the kind of outpouring that arises when a beloved figure dies. And so one question that lingered was whether in a Russia that is far different from the Soviet Union that it replaced, Solzhenitsyn's life and work still resonated.

Russians who grew up in Soviet times continued to speak passionately about the achievements of the writer, who was 89 and had faded from public view in recent years since returning from exile after the fall of the Soviet Union. They compared him with writers like Leo Tolstoy and said he had forced the nation to confront the horrors wrought in the name of Communism.

"Solzhenitsyn was a person whose voice was able to express the pain of tens of millions of people, through 'The Gulag Archipelago,'" said Yuri Samodurov, 56, director of the Sakharov Museum in Moscow, which is dedicated to another Soviet-era dissident, the physicist Andrei Sakharov. "This book, it seems to me, will last forever."

The museum display is of a red box of Lotos laundry detergent, inside of which is a dog-eared edition of "Archipelago."

Before Solzhenitsyn's death, Samodurov was contributing material to a new exhibit that would have celebrated the author's 90th birthday and publicized his life.

Still, Samodurov said he feared that these days, most young people would not even recognize the names of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, perhaps the two most famous Soviet dissidents. (And men who did not always see eye to eye.)

Samodurov acknowledged that he was among the liberals who harbored misgivings about some of Solzhenitsyn's political views later in life, including the writer's fierce nationalism. Others, in turn, have criticized Solz-henitsyn's attacks on Soviet power, at a time when a revisionist movement has emerged that looks upon Soviet accomplishments more kindly.

After his death, though, political and cultural leaders tended to focus on his writing. President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both offered praise. The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, said in an interview with the Interfax news agency that Solzhenitsyn's books had "changed the minds of millions of people, making them rethink their past and present."

Solzhenitsyn is to be buried at the Donskoi monastery in Moscow on Wednesday after a Russian Orthodox funeral service, officials said.

The service is to receive widespread coverage in the state- controlled media, but in interviews, young people said they would not pay much attention. Approached at a park in Moscow, Taisiya Gunicheva, 17, a college student, said she had heard of Solzhenitsyn, but could not name any of his books.

She said his work, which is widely available in bookstores, was largely absent from her school curriculum. "Can you imagine, there is nothing about it at all," she said. "It is sad, but unfortunately, it's true."

Nearby was Anton Zimin, 26, an advertising copywriter, who said he was quite familiar with Solzhenitsyn but doubted that others of his generation were. He said people his age had lost touch with the struggles of their parents and grandparents.

"The problem is that now, it's all about consumption - this spirit that has engulfed everybody," Zimin said. "People prefer to consume everything, the simplest things, and the faster, the better. Books are something that force you to think. Reading books requires some effort. But they prefer entertainment."

Andrei Vasilevsky, 52, is familiar with such sentiments. He is editor in chief of Novy Mir, the magazine that published Solzhenitsyn's first major work, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," in 1962.

Vasilevsky said Monday that young people considered figures like Solzhenitsyn to be artifacts, and that Russian society in general was no longer interested in towering cultural or social figures.

"There is no demand for great people," he said. "I can't say why, but this fact is simply obvious to me. Famous, notable, popular - yes. But not great, in the fullest sense of the word."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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