In 1956, after 11 years in Siberian prison camp and internal exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn began writing seriously. He never expected to see a single word of his in print.
But in 1962, his first novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” appeared in a Russian magazine. It was for many years the last of his work that would make it into print in the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn was exiled in 1974, and the KGB, the secret police serving at the direction of the Soviet government, launched a campaign to publicly discredit him. A year later, Vladimir Putin joined the KGB.
When I assigned “Ivan Denisovich” for my composition students this fall at Rocky Mountain College, I wasn’t thinking about presidential politics. Although some students find the book boring, I assign it from time to time anyway. With rare exceptions, they haven’t heard of Solzhenitsyn, and I think they should.
I also think they should be exposed to the literary power of his simple, unvarnished narrative. The novel’s closing sentences are among the most heartbreaking in all of literature.
For context, we talk for a few minutes about Russian history. I tell them about the nearly three centuries of Mongolian domination and the long succession of czars. I sometimes say that Catherine the Great and Peter the Great weren’t really all that great, and Ivan the Terrible really was terrible—among his crimes was the murder of his own son.
Then there was the collapse during World War I, the Russian Revolution and the years of mass oppression under Stalin, whose many trivial reasons for sending Russians off to long prison terms included becoming a prisoner of war. Like Donald Trump, he liked soldiers who weren’t captured.
The brief thaw that allowed “Ivan Denisovich” to be published was followed by the clampdown that resulted in Solzhenitsyn’s exile to America.
Eventually, the Soviet Union disintegrated, leaving behind the capitalistic chaos of the Yeltsin administration and then a return to authoritarian rule under Putin. Now that a major party’s presidential candidate has endorsed Putin as a strong and effective leader, I wonder how to explain that Putin is much closer to Ivan the Terrible than to George Washington.
It probably does no good to explain that no American president will ever be as powerful as a Russian dictator. That’s a feature of American government, not a bug.
Perhaps it would work better to explain that nearly everything Republicans complain about in the Obama administration is worse in Russia. Think the U.S. economy has languished under Obama? Russia is going through its worst recession in two decades.
Think Obama is trying to destroy the fossil fuel industry? Although oil is Russia’s most important export, the United States produced more barrels per day in 2014 than Russia did, when biofuels and similar liquids are considered.
Think Obama presides over a country controlled by crony capitalists? In May, the Economist’s crony-capitalism index ranked Russia as the worst in the world. In 2015, Transparency International ranked Russia 119th out of 168 countries in corruption, worse than Vietnam, Togo and Colombia.
Think the Obama administration lacks transparency? At least three dozen journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1992, most of them with impunity. In terms of unsolved murders of journalists since 2005, Russia ranks 10th worst in the world.
Perhaps it would work better to cite examples of Russians who have had direct dealings with Putin’s leadership style. Some of the best known victims of his strong leadership can’t speak; they have been assassinated. Others live on.
After Trump’s vice presidential candidate, Mike Pence, said it is “inarguable” that Putin is a stronger leader than Obama, Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and human rights activist, tweeted, “Governor Pence, Vladimir Putin is a strong leader in the same way arsenic is a strong drink. Your country should be ashamed of you.”
Kasparov left Russia for New York City in 2013 out of fear that Putin would have him arrested again. He has been arrested at least three times, and he has been subjected to mysterious beatings.
Vladimir Bukovksy, famous for exposing the Soviet practice of confining dissidents to mental hospitals, has predicted that as soon as Putin surrenders power, he will go to prison—if he isn’t murdered instead.
Bukovsky, now living in England, has accused the Russian government of planting images of child pornography on his computer and then tipping off British police. Sounds improbable, but we know that Russian hackers have the ability and the amoral fiber to do things like that.
Maria Alekhina of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk protest collective, said Russians thought it was a joke when Putin was first elected. Then came war in the Ukraine, the annexation of the Crimea and intervention in the Syrian morass.
“Everybody [is] joking about Donald Trump now,” she told Huffington Post, “but it’s a very short way from joke to sad reality when you have a really crazy president speaking about breaking every moral and logic norm. So I hope that he will not be president. That’s very simple.”
For her dissidence, Alekhina was sentenced to a prison camp not too different from what Solzhenitsyn experienced more than 50 years earlier.
In Russia, not much has changed. It is, as writer Marsha Gessen says, “a dark and dangerous place.”
What has changed is that a major U.S. presidential candidate now praises that kind of leadership. And millions of Americans approve.
So what do I tell my students about Putin? In class last week, all I could do was shake my head.