Cablegate: Russia Remembers Solzhenitsyn

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1. (SBU) Summary: In bidding farewell to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
Russia took a moment to honor a great writer and dissident, and
remember an historical period often glossed over in this era of
gangbuster economic growth and public trumpeting of Russia's
resurgent geopolitical power and pride. Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev praised Solzhenitsyn's
commitment to his country and principles of freedom. The public
viewing at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the high-level
attendance at the funeral underscored Solzhenitsyn's stature as a
historical figure, but his August 4 death provoked only limited
reflection on his writings or the political system which exiled him
in 1974. Despite the official pomp and circumstance and heavy media
coverage of his funeral, for most Russians Solzhenitsyn's death was
simply a reminder of an era long past. End Summary.

The Dissident gets a State Funeral

2. (SBU) Solzhenitsyn had remained largely out of the public
spotlight since his 1994 return to Russia and brief, unsuccessful
foray on Russian television, but the Russian government spared
little effort in arranging public events for his wake and funeral.
Surrounded by a military color guard, portraits, official funerary
wreaths as well as hundreds of flowers brought in ones and twos by
mourners, Solzhenitsyn's open casket remained in the Russian Academy
of Sciences (RAN) all day August 5. Early in the day, Putin
personally offered his condolences to the family and told the press
that Solzhenitsyn's work should have a more prominent role in the
national educational curricula. Heavy rains may have discouraged
some mourners from venturing out; when the Charge brought flowers to
the viewing, only a handful of visitors were present. The Charge
expressed his sympathy to two of Solzhenitsyn's sons Stepan and
Yermolai and noted that the author had been a bridge between our two

3. (U) The August 5 funeral service led by Patriarch Alexei II at
Donskoi Monastery drew larger crowds, including Moscow Mayor
Luzhkov, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President
Medvedev, who cut short his vacation to attend the funeral and was
shown on television with tears in his eyes during the service. The
Charg appeared to be the only diplomatic emissary present.
Hundreds of mourners, mostly aged 50 and older, passed by the casket
during the two-hour liturgy and 75-minute funeral rites, and a crowd
of around 2000 waited outside the cathedral. State television
broadcast the entire service live. Earlier in the day, Medvedev
signed a decree cementing Solzhenitsyn's legacy by naming a
university scholarship, and streets in Moscow, Kislovodsk and
Rostov-on-Don after Solzhenitsyn.

4. (SBU) Mourners and friends had a chance to express their
condolences at a second memorial event at the Russian Academy of
Sciences immediately after the funeral service. PolOff observed
that in contrast to the wake and funeral, no one from the government
attended and the guests -- largely older, poorly-dressed
intelligentsia types -- could only enter with a ticket. After an
opening toast by RAN head Yuriy Osipov, people were invited to make
their own remarks at a microphone in the center of the room across
from the head table at which the extended family and several
Orthodox priests sat. Guests sat at tables spread with typical
Russian banquet fare and toasted with vodka, water and wine or
juice. Several speakers called Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov the
"conscience" of Russia. The son of Soviet composer Dmitriy
Shostakovich said his family only decided to come back to Russia
once Solzhenitsyn had returned. Solzhenitsyn's wife Natalya said
that the most enduring memorial to him would be to fix all the
insufficiencies and inadequacies in present-day Russia.

5. (SBU) Public officials heaped praise on Solzhenitsyn but
carefully avoided any comments about his political activism, or the
circumstances under which Solzhenitsyn lost his citizenship and
spent 17 years in exile. President Medvedev wrote in his letter of
condolences that Solzhenitsyn "served his country as a true citizen
and patriot and ... cared wholeheartedly about Russia's reformation
... His studies of the most dramatic parts of the Russian history
made an enormous contribution to world culture." Prime Minister
Putin's letter of condolences stressed that "Solzhenitsyn's thorny
life was an example of true service to the ideals of freedom,
justice and humanism." Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov told the press at
Solzhenitsyn's funeral: "His expressions of concern about [Russia's
future] were justified ... Solzhenitsyn was right: we have no future
just living off oil and gas." Finance Minister Kudrin declared
Solzhenitsyn, along with Andrei Sakharov and Dmitry Likhachev,
"Russia's moral compass."

"He was our Homer"

6. (U) Some media commentary observed that despite being one of the
great Russian writers, Solzhenitsyn's voice had lost some resonance
and influence in post-Soviet Russia. Vremya Novostey editorialized:

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"Russians did not notice Solzhenitsyn after his return, and nothing
suggests that they will after his death. Still, authorities used
him for their shifting political goals. His views were suitable for
the current Russian leadership. Mass-circulation tabloid Argumenty
I Fakty said: "Those who were in a hurry to express their respect
[at the time he returned to Russia] would not listen to what he had
to say about reforming Russia. Solzhenitsyn said bitterly that
'Russia chose the most tortuous and difficult way of parting with
Communism.' And we still have not reached the end of this tortuous
path." Interfax pointed out: "The epitaphs voiced from different
political camps could not hide the obvious: Solzhenitsyn's political
potential has not been called for since his return from immigration,
and his attitude towards the state remained uncompromising and

7. (SBU) But most coverage lionized Solzhenitsyn's historical
significance in Russia and the world. Liberal daily Gazeta ran this
on the front page: "Several generations of thinking Russians could
not imagine what their lives would have been without Solzhenitsyn.
Words cannot describe what he was and what he did. The words
'writer' and 'public figure' are too specific and functional to
attach to the name of Solzhenitsyn. Of course, he was both. Also,
he was a historian and original thinker, but there is also something
about him that defies definition. To a majority of Russians,
Solzhenitsyn is a symbol, one of the keys to what you could call a
Russian cultural code." On the front page of liberal Kommersant:
"He was all he is called now, after his death - difficult, harsh,
confusing, arrogant, humane, prophetic, scary, conflict-prone,
unsociable, great, and naive. He wasn't the sort of man everybody
liked. But his role in history is great - you can't overstate it.
(Stage director) Yuriy Lyubimov said better than anyone else, 'He
was our Homer.'"


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