He was probably closer to Dostoyevsky in his great themes, although I'd say, contrary to a certain legend that developed in the West, Solzhenitsyn was much friendlier to the West and the cause of political liberty than Dostoyevsky.
Can you elaborate on that misconception? When he came to the United States after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, many Americans and others were taken aback by what they thought were harsh criticisms of the West—and these coming from a man who had been such a brilliant exposer of the Soviet system and the communist lie.
You know, I've always been struck when people characterize something like the Harvard address, delivered at the Harvard University commencement on June 8, 1978, as anti-western jeremiad. Solzhenitsyn began that speech by saying that he spoke as a friend but not as a flatterer of the West. He had great admiration for its people and its institutions, but he also worried about its capacity to defend itself. He worried about a diminution of civic courage. He worried about the indulgence of some intellectuals toward communist totalitarianism. He worried about hasty, superficial judgments made by journalists—and that really rankled some of the commentators. But the speech was fundamentally a call for the strengthening of the moral and intellectual resources of the West. For example, he said that the American Founders understood that liberty could never be severed from what he called the great reserves of mercy and sacrifice in the western religious and philosophical traditions. He criticized what he called "anthropocentricity," the worship of man, the forgetting of the older spiritual, political roots of the West. So I think a lot of the reaction to the Harvard address was knee-jerk. He received tens of thousands of appreciative letter from Americans for whom the speech resonated, but I think it's fair to say that he was criticized roundly by intellectuals, particularly on the left. In a piece he wrote in Foreign Affairs around that time, Solzhenitsyn said, "I thought Americans welcomed criticism, and now I realize American intellectuals only welcome criticism from the Left."
When he went back to Russia in the 1990s, many observers in the West thought he might be encouraging some of the worst Russian tendencies toward autocracy, a typical Russian Orthodox intolerance of other religions, even anti-Semitism. Some charged that he was pushing Russia in the direction of what it became under [former president] Vladimir Putin, a Russia in which liberty and democracy were endangered and imperial tendencies were reawakened.
Almost none of that is true. The fact is Solzhenitsyn's fundamental message to Russia upon his return was the importance of repentance and self-limitation. One of his great essays from the 1970s was called "Repentance and Self-Limitations in the Life of Nations." Solzhenitsyn was a patriot, but for him patriotism meant turning inward and renouncing all mad designs of conquest and expansion. Repentance meant repenting for people's personal participation in the "Lie," for the collaboration with and support of the lies and crimes of the communist regime. He was the first one in Russia to denounce the oligarchy, the pseudo-democracy that arose after 1991. Nothing in his texts and speeches from that time gives support to the caricature. His principal political point, beginning in a series of books from 1991 on, was the importance of local self-government and building such government from below. In his very last speech to the people of Cavendish, Vt., where he lived for 18 years in American exile, he spoke about the American example of local self-government as a model for Russia. He concluded that talk in 1994 by saying, "Unfortunately, we do not have this in Russia, and that is still our greatest shortcoming."
It is true that he was troubled by a corrupt, oligarchic, kleptocratic pseudo-democracy, and it is true that he welcomed a certain social restoration after 2000 and 2001. But he always made clear, most recently in an interview with German television, that what Russia has today is no democracy and that the task of building political self-government is yet to come.