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The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn finds the world, not for the first time, faced with a need to understand him, and to understand Russia. His life since his release from jail was devoted to powerful writing about the horrors of Stalinism – and also about its stupidities and its nastiness.

One forgets how little was really known about the Soviet Union until 1956 and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, and that dealt mainly with the fate of Stalin’s political opponents. In Russia, the truth had been suppressed. In the West, it had been doubted. The publication, in 1963, of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich broke the dam. From then on Solzhenitsyn continued his fight, throwing down the challenge in his other well-known works. Luckily his new world fame prevented the USSR from using its earlier method of coping with such rebels: death or slavery.

It is sometimes more or less forgotten that different countries, with very different experiences, have different potentialities. As Orwell wrote: “Anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another.” This is true even of fairly similar countries – any Briton who has real experience of France, say, takes it for granted.

Russian history, which provides the unconscious background of Russian thought and feeling, has been hugely different from that of Western countries. As Russians tell us, their country has long nourished three views of itself. There is the old traditional sense of nationhood, based on a super-­patriotism which has often been likened to a religious faith – as in Fyodor Tyuchev’s famous dictum: “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick. Russia’s status is special: no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

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