Eagles Nests: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and “The Last Empire in The World”

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Rich Broderick, August 10, 2008 • My family and I left for a friend’s cabin outside Grand Rapids the day after Alexander Solzhenitsyn died.

As we passed through an Iron Range landscape not unlike the sub-boreal regions of Siberia where Solzhenitsyn and millions of other “anti-Soviet elements” were sent to toil, I found myself noting the universally recognizable scars heedless resource extraction leave behind – tailings and open pits from mining, second-growth scrubland from clear-cut timber operations, hard-scrabble towns struggling to hang on.

If ever there were a writer whose literary star was a product of the Cold War firmament, it was Solzhenitsyn. Today, not quite 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, he seems remoter in time and political-social-cultural context than Chekhov or Dostoevsky, a voice from a world in some ways as alien as Al-Andalus.

Not that the Cold War mentality is completely dead – just ask Dick Cheney! A whiff of that mentality was on display in the extraordinarily stupid quote from David Remnick, editor of _The New Yorker_, which appeared in Solzhenitsyn’s obituary. According to Remnick, the author of _Lenin’s Tomb_, a first-hand account of the Brezhnev years (Remnick was an exchange student in Moscow during the 1970s), Solzhenitsyn deserves credit for having helped bring down “the last empire in the world.”

For the life of me, I don’t understand what makes an intelligent and worldly individual say something so asinine. One must assume that Remnick has read the reporting in _The New Yorker_ by Seymour Hersch and George Packer concerning our current and past misadventures in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Has he failed to notice the existence of the American empire? Or for that matter, the Russian empire that has succeeded the Soviet Union, although in slightly truncated form (the Tsar, you will remember, was called “The Tsar of _All_ the Russias” – now what do you suppose that signified?) What, pray tell, does he think the wars in Chechnya and Georgia are, if not imperial ventures?

At this juncture, let us return to those similarities between the Iron Range and the temperate regions of Siberia, because they point to historical and developmental affinities between the Russian and American empires that should give caution to glib hopes that either country is going to settle down into a pan-European polity of peace and multilateral cooperation any time soon.

Whites arrived in North and South America at the same moment that the first truly global market was coming into existence – indeed, the European conquest of the Americas was driven by the emergence of that market. Russia, which lagged behind the rest of Europe, was a late comer to the imperial game, but its conquest of Siberia was driven by the same mercantile impulses that drove whites to subdue the indigenous nations of the Americas.

With few exceptions, the first several waves of European interlopers into North and South America were driven by one objective and one objective only – to plunder the lands brought under their sway as quickly and thoroughly as possible. A similar quest for riches was also the principal motive behind Russia’s takeover of Siberia. While over the centuries mainland Europe has witnessed its share of marauders – from the Vikings to the Nazis – the motives driving the Franks and Burgundians, the Wendts and the Lombards and countless other Dark Age tribes who wandered across Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire was to find fertile lands where they could settle down – i.e., to make their homes, not simply to strip of resources. Their motivation, in other words, was fundamentally different from those of the first white overlords of the Americas and Siberia.

This initial vision of America finds an echo today in the trope “land of opportunity.” Opportunity to do what? Settle down and plant roots? Submit to the harmony of nature? No. This shibboleth is a domesticated version of “land where you can get rich quick.”

Even in Minnesota – mild-mannered, unpretentious Minnesota – the scars of this nakedly exploitative mentality have not been entirely erased. The French came first, trapping and trading with the Native Americans until the beaver was all but driven to extinction in the watershed of the Upper Mississippi. Then came the timber barons; on the drive up 35W to Grand Rapids, motorists pass museums memorializing both the Hinckley and Moose Lake fires – two hecatombs directly caused by unchecked clear-cutting, a practice that littered the landscape with tinder-dry slash just waiting for a lightning strike to ignite hell on earth. In a sad act of historic irony, Elizabeth Congden ended up a lonely murder victim in Duluth’s Glensheen Mansion, which was financed by her grandfather’s slaughter of Northern Minnesota’s white pines. Then came the mining companies, stripping the surface off the Iron Range in search of taconite.

Meanwhile, a similar plunder was taking place on the other side of the world. In this regard, it is not far-fetched to conceive of the Gulag Archipelago as the penultimate culmination of Russia’s efforts to exploit as heedlessly and ruthlessly as possible the riches of Siberia. A quest that continues to this day.

(A fascinating side-note: Lenin was a big fan of Taylorism, or Scientific Time Management, the system perfected by American Frederick Winslow Taylor for Henry Ford, who used it to create the world’s first industrial assembly line. Lenin was so taken with Scientific Time Management that he invited Taylor over to the fledgling Soviet Union to discuss how to employ the system to transform all of Soviet society – including the labor camps.)

As we move into the 21st century, the mental construct that drove the development of the American and Russian empires still holds sway. Both remain bent on establishing hemispheric and ultimately global hegemonies. Not coincidentally, both have also hatched versions of what Vladimir Putin christened “managed democracy” – i.e., political systems run by a ruling class that merges political and corporate elites but which, for public consumption, maintain the window-dressing of democratic forms, like elections and legislative bodies. Which is as good a description of George Bush’s America as it is of Putin’s Russia.

“Managed democracy” is a variation of the system fashioned by Caesar Augustus after he finally put the Roman Republic out of its misery. History buffs will recall that Rome’s imperial insignia was the eagle – the same as for the United States and, since Putin revived the double-headed eagle of the Romanov’s in 2001, the “new” Russia.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn? The downfall of “the last empire in the world?”

If only it were true.