Russia’s Missing Culture Counterweight

It is difficult to find much material out there today that isn’t about the war in Georgia, but for those who are feeling a little overwhelmed by this material, check out the interesting New York Times piece by Anne Barnard about the intellectual vacuum left in Russia following the death of Solzhenitsyn, and how contemporary Russia really has no public figure to counterbalance the towering presence of Vladimir Putin in the national psyche.

From Tolstoy to the poet Anna Akhmatova and the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, the most respected Russian intellectuals have traditionally functioned not just as cultural figures but as national symbols, moral beacons and speakers of truth. Mr. Solzhenitsyn was one of several titanic figures who staked their lives on that mission — to “defeat the lie,” as he put it — undeterred by exile and imprisonment. But today, in an atmosphere of far greater freedom in private life than existed in the Soviet period, there are no towering cultural figures who command the respect that Mr. Solzhenitsyn did in his prime. Instead of moral clarion calls, literary novelists write profanity-laced satires of consumerism. Most opposition politicians have faded from the scene rather than push to the limits against growing authoritarianism. There is no cultural counterweight to the larger-than-life figure who dominates political life, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin. That is partly because a new generation of Russians is now awash in the global tide of infinite consumer choice. It is also because Mr. Solzhenitsyn himself helped discredit the image of the public intellectual by hectoring the nation after his return from exile in 1994. But it is above all because the political landscape is more complex: today’s authoritarianism is less monumental than Soviet repression, and so are its opponents.