Russian historian: Defeating Ukraine is no longer possible

Solzhenitsyn first firmly believed that during the period of Kievan Rus in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, the Ukrainians were one with the Russians, and later they were a fraternal nation. He changed his mind while serving his sentence, when he met Ukrainians from Galicia and Volhynia, former partisans. For him, they were people of a different category than Russians, those who fought for independence - says prof. Boris Sokolov, Russian historian and literary researcher.

TVP WEEKLY Do not you find it a little strange that the book about the Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner is published first in Poland and not in Russia?

Here in Russia we have not only technical but also economic problems. You all know the situation. I am now taking steps to publish in my country, but our book market is in a terrible state. People are much more interested in news than books these days. Poland, for example, has a population 3.5 times smaller and a publishing market, but the summary circulation of books here is higher than in Russia. So, I hope that the Solzhenitsyn biography will be available in Russia as well.

Let us talk about the writer you mentioned. You know, I always thought that Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to the most terrible gulag, but in this case the story was a little different.

Of course, during most of his sentence Solzhenitsyn was not in the forced labor camp far in Syberia, but in Moscow where he constructed buildings, and in the scientific institute for highly qualified prisoners. I would just like to remind that he was a mathematician and even during his imprisonment he was involved in creating projects for Moscow buildings. Only about the last three years he spent as a prisoner in forced labor special camp in Kazakhstan.

From your book we know that he was not only a war hero, but also a gifted scientist and a good communist. I have always asked myself, why did this system always want to destroy that kind of peoples?

Perhaps Solzhenitsyn was too involved with communism and sincerely believed in the idea. That is why he criticized Stalin's system as an distortion of Lenin's idea. He corresponded with his friend, and, unfortunately, the letters of the Red Army officers were checked by the special service SMERSH. His honest but careless behavior earned him an 8-year prison sentence for anti-Soviet views. Before his imprisonment, he was a supporter of the communist system, believing that the system should return to the roots set forth by Lenin. But during his imprisonment he realized that communism meant "evil" and he wanted to fight this "evil" as a writer.

How was it possible for "The Gulag Archipelago" to reach the West? Was it the first preview of glasnost or the carelessness of the KGB?

The book was published in December, 1973 with Solzhenitsyn's permission. One of the copies of the manuscript was confiscated by the KGB here in Russia. His assistant and typist Elizaveta Voronyanskaya was interrogated continuously for five days until she revealed the location of the manuscript. After that, she hanged herself. Then Solzhenitsyn ordered to publish "The Gulag Archipelago" in France, at the YMCA-Press Publishers. The publication of the book of the West was extremely unpleasant for the authorities of USSR, but brought Solzhenitsyn international recognition. And just after the publication of "The Gulag Archipelago" he was deported from the USSR.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Of course, we welcome Solzhenitsyn's anti-communist views on principle, but some of them contradict contemporary political correctness. For example, his anti-Semitism...

I'm convinced that he wasn't anti-Semitic. If you look at his works, for example, "In the First Circle" or "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," he wrote about his heroes who were Jews with great sympathy, without the kind of prejudice typical of Nikolai Gogol or Fyodor Dostoevsky. His book about the relations between Jews and Russians "Two Hundred Years Together" is just a historical essay. There are some mistakes in this book, but it is not anti-Semitic.

For example, that the majority of the Cheka and the NKVD were Jews?

That is true. The NKVD was dominated by Jews in the middle of 1930s, just in the years of the Great Terror. After that, the number of Jews in the NKVD greatly decreased.
In 2007, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded Russia's highest state award. Vladimir Putin came to the writer's house to personally congratulate him on the award. Photo Klimentyev Mikhail / TASS / Forum
Don't you think that there were two Solzhenitsyns, one the dissident critical of the state and once the creator of modern Russian nationalism, the man of power?

Solzhenitsyn wasn't a man of power. Maybe he wanted to be for a while, especially after his return to Russia in 1994. Maybe he wanted to be a kind of prophet or social leader. At the time, he strongly criticized Boris Yeltsin for pauperization of the people of Russia. He even refused to take Order of St. Andrew the First-Called from the Kremlin. When Vladimir Putin became president, he met with Solzhenitsyn in September, 2000. The writer said that his dialogue with the president had been ‘lively and very useful’. In 2007 Solzhenitsyn was awarded by the State Prize o Russia, and Putin visited him to congratulate with the award.

Solzhenitsyn's ideas formed the basis for Putin's philosophy about the new Greater Russia and Ukraine?

First, he criticized the idea that the Holodomor was a genocide, arguing that people died in Russian villages as well, but stressed in "The Gulag Archipelago" that 6,000,000 Ukrainians died during the Holodomor. His relations with Ukrainians were complex. At first, he strongly believed that during the period of Kievan Rus in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, the Ukrainian people were the same as the Russian people and later they were like brothers with the Russians. This view had changed during his imprisonment. He got to know the other Ukrainian prisoners, former partisans from Western Galicia and Volhynia, and found that they were quite different people from the Russian people and wanted to be independent. Solzhenitsyn was sure that Ukraine should be independent. In his article "How Shall We Rebuild Russia' Solzhenitsyn supposed that the new Russia could be a union of three nations - Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians. But he thought that such union must be only voluntary.

All mergers with Russia were voluntary, even the inclusion of parts of eastern Poland after 1939.

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I understand the metaphor. Of course, September 17, 1939 was the aggression of the Red Army troops. Anyway, Ukrainians didn't want this ‘voluntary incorporation’, as the Soviet propaganda said, and until the beginning of the 1950s The Western Ukrainians was still fighting against the authorities of USSR.

Was Solzhenitsyn the "prophet of Putin"? Would he support today's "special military operation"?

He wasn't a prophet of Putin! He met with him twice in 2000 and in 2007, but we still don't know what the topic of the conversation was. We have to understand that the world has different views about Putin in these times. These meetings were before the Russian invasion into Georgia in August, 2008, and Solzhenitsyn died a few days before the operation began. We don't know how he would rate Putin's policy now. But I'm sure that today Solzhenitsyn would be against this aggression against Ukraine.

Are not you afraid to use the term aggression? Is not it forbidden in Russia?

It's difficult to call it something else, because I still do not understand what the term "special military operation" means, because the Russian troops are invading the other country, without any distinct reason. The Ukrainian government did not ask them to do it, so it is a war.

Do you know anyone who has been mobilized? Here in Europe we are convinced that the majority of soldiers in the Russian troops are not ethnic Russians, but people from the East.

Most of the mobilized are Russians, but, of course, many of them are from the east of the country. Putin is afraid of the protests in Moscow or Petersburg, and there are only a small number of people from the big cities mobilized. None of my familiar persons was mobilized. But almost all of them are too old. And I know that some familiar persons of my son were mobilized.
Kharkiv in January 2023. In a month it will be a year since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The final will be like in Afghanistan?

I hope that this war will be over by the end of the year, and I am convinced that it is completely impossible for Ukraine to be defeated. In Afghanistan we had a guerrilla war, here we have a regular war. I do not see any similarity or any connection between the events in Ukraine and those in Afghanistan. This war seems to be similar to World War I, which was positional warfare, without decisive movements. In Afghanistan The Soviet Army had about 30,000 dead, and we cannot estimate today how many soldiers have already died in Ukraine. But there are some signs that more casualties are on the Russian side.

These events definitely mean a division between nations.

I think this division has happened before, shortly after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. I think that after the war we will be seen by the Ukrainians just as the Germans were seen in Russia after World War II.

You have written many articles and some books with bitter historical truths, but today you are a kind of dissident, like the protagonist in your book?

Practically it's true, but of course I am not as famous as Solzhenitsyn (laughs) and I am not a politician. The fact is that I lost my academic position a few years ago, and today it is practically impossible for me to work at a Russian University or research institution. Who dares to hire a professor who criticizes the Russian official history of the Great Patriotic war or current state policy and says about the real Soviet losses in 1941-1945, which are between 40 and 41 million people, including 26.9 million soldiers killed and died? I concentrate on writing books and articles.

What was the main offense that earned you a red card from the system? Did it have anything to do with politics or history?

I think both, but in 2008 I published an article on Russian aggression in Georgia in which I criticized the actions of the Russian troops. After that publication, I was expelled from Moscow College just a few weeks later.

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You are criticized not only for your historical views or your interpretation of Putin's decisions, but also for... "Master and Margaret”.

My habilitated doctoral thesis was about this Bulgakov great novel, which was the first such thesis in Russia, and I am the only author of the Bulgakov Encyclopedia, which was translated. I was heavily criticized for interpreting the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was one of the prototypes of Voland. My critics also stated that I considered that other Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin was a prototype of bribery Bosoy. But I’ve never said that Bukharin was a prototype of Bosoy. It’s a very strange mistake of my opponents. And my statement that Lenin was one of the prototypes of Voland is not a hypothesis, but the proved fact. I found an article from the newspaper “Pravda” at Bulgakov’s archives. Here Lenin’s bodyguard Alexander Shotman remembered how he guarded Lenin in the summer and autumn of 1917 when the Bolshevik leader was hiding from the Interim government, which claimed that he is a German spy. Shotman wrote that the famous police dog Tref (Club) was used to search for lenin. In Bulgakov’s novel at the same manner the famous police dog Tuzbuben (Ace of diamonds) tried to find Voland after Variety show session. Bulgakov brought a lot of hidden meanings in his novel, and some of them are very difficult for some Russian literary scholars to accept.

– interviewed by Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Boris Sokolov's book was published by the Prószyński i S-ka publishing house
Prof. Boris Sokolov - Russian historian and a literature researcher, former Professor of social anthropology at Russian State Social University, author of the Bulgakov Encyclopedia, Marshal K.K. Rokossovsky: The Red Army's Gentleman Commander, Myths and Legends of the Eastern Front, Solzhenitsyn-biography.
Main photo: Russian recruits at a training camp in Rostov in October 2022. Photo Arkady Budnitsky/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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