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By Colin Graham

WARSAW, 4 NOVEMBER 2010 — The two news items came out almost simultaneously and couldn’t have been more at odds with one another. In one, former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, laid into Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin for taking Russia down the path of authoritarianism — not exactly an unheard of claim about the country’s leadership. In the other, Vladimir Putin voiced his approval that an abridged version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s landmark anti-Soviet work, The Gulag Archipelago, was being published for Russian schools.

Perhaps it is because journalism operates in such a 24-hour frenzy these days that it is often illiterate in matters of history.

The first of these stories was wholeheartedly embraced by the Western press, with some saying that Gorbachev’s opinions simply confirmed what we already "knew" about the current set up in the Kremlin: that it is anti-democratic to the core and should be treated with the utmost suspicion. But it was the second that had many chroniclers in a spin, expressing amazement that the likes of hard man Putin should want to fraternize with anything that smacked of dissent against repressive governance. Some said the prime minister’s words were "unusual" for the likes of someone with his background as a former KGB man.

Perhaps it is because journalism operates in such a 24-hour frenzy these days that it is often illiterate in matters of history. Maybe it has genuinely suffered from the endemic culture of dumbing-down. But the fact of Putin’s rapport with Solzhenitsyn when he was alive really shouldn’t be that hard on the memory, as it was a reality as recently as three years ago.

Vladimir Putin (right) visited Alexander Solzhenitsyn (center) in 2007 in the outskirts of Moscow. (AP file)

This smugness concerning Gorbachev’s remarks on one hand and incredulity, on the other, at Putin’s apparently uncharacteristic sanctioning of one of the major opponents of totalitarianism during the 20th century also reveals another source of profound ignorance among many Western ideologues. It is that only one of the two was ever elected to his position by a popular vote. There is much to be suspicious about concerning both Putin’s route to office and Medvedev’s advance to the summit of power but it can hardly be argued that Putin wasn’t in his first term, at least, genuinely bequeathed the presidency by the Russian electorate.

Gorbachev is also, in many ways justifiably, credited with starting the process that led to the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe of which he was de facto leader of. But hidden behind the uncritical press he gets beyond Russia’s borders are some highly undemocratic positions he took at the same time as sweeping in the celebrated perestroika and glasnost changes.

One of these was his clearly bullying stance towards the independence claims of the tiny Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia in January 1991, whose rebellion against Moscow led to Soviet forces killing around 20 civilians, according to some estimates.

In the end Gorbachev’s vacillations, symptomatic of him being both trapped in and supportive of a decaying, monolithic party, rendered him deeply unpopular among his own people, despite being hailed a hero in parts of the world that hadn’t had to bear the brunt of his policies.

And yet his words continue to be treated as gospel, nearly 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Then there are those Solzhenitsyn sentiments and the eyebrow-raising at the "news" that he and Putin have somehow become ideological brethren, in spite of the latter’s evidently casual attitude to democratic mores.

Yet, the undoubtedly great Russian writer was certainly no libertarian and regarded the West into which he was exiled for twenty years as hopelessly decadent. A fervent monarchist, he also held views on the "Jewish question" that would go down pretty badly in parts of liberal New York and elsewhere, for instance.

For many Western commentators this week, the feted former Communist Gorbachev and deeply-admired autocrat-sympathiser Solzhenitsyn stand side by side looking down in horror at the brutal figure of Vladimir Putin. The spectacle is of course deeply absurd. It simply represents a disturbing tendency to see contemporary Russian affairs in simplistic, black and white terms: Dissident versus Stalin reincarnate, Glasnost architect up against the killer of freedoms Putin, once arch-liberal Anatoly Sobchak’s right hand man when he was mayor of Saint Petersburg in the 1990s. And also an ally of both Solzhenitsyn and Gorbachev as well, at one time

Russian politics is fraught with paradox more than most. Democrats become autocrats, revolutionaries despots, seemingly at the drop of a hat. But the fact that such conundrums surprise us in a country so vast that it spans more time zones and continents than anywhere else in the world is a massive indictment of the lack of imagination that plagues much of modern thinking. The next time anyone reaches for their pen to express their consternation about Russia, perhaps they should give Winston Churchill’s insight into the place just a moment’s consideration. "A riddle," he said, "wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Call that a cop-out if you wish but right now I’d choose it over much of the irrational nonsense that’s been written this week.

A British  journalist based in Warsaw, Colin Graham writes on culture and politics in Eastern Europe.  He has written on Real Estate Investment in the Montenegro Coastline, The European Union,  the Polish satirical cartoonist Marek Raczkowski, the Stanislaw Wieglus scandal as well as Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan for Culturekiosque.

BOOK TIP: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

FASHIONEAST: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism
By Djurdja Bartlett
Hardcover: 300 pages
70 colour illustrations
96 black & white illustrations
The MIT Press (October 2010)
ISBN-10: 0262026503
ISBN-13: 978-0262026505
$34.95 / £25.95

A Research Fellow at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, Djurdja Bartlett traces the progress of socialist fashion in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Yugoslavia, drawing on state-sponsored socialist women’s magazines, etiquette books, socialist manuals on dress, private archives, and her own interviews with designers, fashion editors, and other key figures.

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