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BUSINESS MIR, Business mir #20 - 2011-10 MAIL PRINT 
Georges Nivat, Professor Emeritus at the University of Geneva and co–author of a monumental work entitled History of Russian Literature, is a renowned Slavist, literary historian and translator who describes himself as someone who, “lives life through the Russian language”. The scholar is sometimes musingly referred to as ‘The French Pillar of Russian Culture’ and his resarch covers a extremely broad range of topics – from Andrei Bely and Mark Kharitonov to his work on Soviet dissidents or the Russian landscape as myth.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s close friend and the foremost authority on the writer’s oeuvre, George Nivat organised an unprecedented exhibition called “Soljenitsyne, le courage d’écrire” at Geneva’s Bodmer Foundation from May 14–October 15, 2011. The exhibition was considered to be exceptional due to its vast scale – more than 2,000 pages of the writer’s manuscripts, letters and personal belongings were accessible for public viewing... We visited Georges Nivat at his home near Annemasse, just 13 kilometres from Geneva, and discussed Solzhenitsyn, Khodorkovsky and contemporary Russia’s political landscape.
Mr. Nivat, you were the principal organiser of the Bodmer Foundation’s Solzhenitsyn exhibition in Geneva. Could you please tell us how long you’ve been nurturing this idea?
As a matter of fact, I have been studying Solzhenitsyn’s work since it first came out on the literary scene. It was 1962 and I was serving in the French army when Novy Mir magazine’s famous 11th issue containing Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published. I immediately began to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work and published the first selection of texts in 1970. It was an attempt to understand Solzhenitsyn’s world, not only in terms of his work’s political approach as the first literary work about the Gulag as well as from the position of artistic mastery perspective. For example, Solzhenitsyn followed the three basic principles of Classicism – unity of place, time and action – in his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
In other words, Solzhenitsyn primarily interested you as a writer?
I would rather say that he interested me in general. It's impossible to separate the writer from the fighter with Solzhenitsyn. A lot of people only see him as an ideologue and discuss his political convictions. They tend to forget all about his talent as an artist.
But why did you decide to organise a Solzhenitsyn exhibition in 2011 and what made you choose to do so in Geneva?
I have been working with the Fondation Bodmer Geneva Museum for a long time now. This is my fourth exhibition at the Fondation Bodmer – I have organised others there including the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov’s manuscripts, Alexander Alekseev’s illustrations for The Brothers Karamazov and I also worked in conjunction with the Pushkin House on the “Treasures of Russia’s Golden Age” exhibition... When Solzhenitsyn was alive I wouldn’t have dreamed of organising an exhibition of this kind as the author would have never consented to it. Solzhenitsyn would have simply said, “First I must be read”. But Solzhenitsyn is currently in a type of intermediate phase between his earthly demise and his entrance to a state of eternal glory. The Fondation Bodmer was a particularly judicious choice as a venue and led to the exhibition’s great success. This is largely due to the fact that the Fondation Bodmer is a museum specialised in manuscripts and Solzhenitsyn was capable of producing titanic amounts of writing; he worked up to 16 hours a day, to the point of giving himself hallucinations. He was also perhaps the last great writer to write his books by hand – Solzhenitsyn never wrote directly on a typewriter or computer keyboard. I wouldn’t have been able to organise the exhibition without Natalia Solzhenitsyn’s assistance as it was she who provided us with unique items from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s archives.
What message were you sending Westerners by reminding them about Solzhenitsyn’s activities and his destiny?
The message wasn’t only meant to appeal to the West, but to the world at large. It was time for everybody to remember that it was Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago which eventually brought about the fall of the USSR. The principal reason why Solzhenitsyn had such a great impact lies in the fact that he was first and foremost a writer. As I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to separate Solzhenitsyn the writer from Solzhenitsyn the fighter. I wanted to remind those who have not read – or have read just a little Solzhenitsyn – of the writer and his work. It is interesting to note that Solzhenitsyn always felt that he had a prophetic gift and he truly was a prophet. He was convinced that inspiring every single Soviet citizen to live a life without lies would inevitably lead to change. His absolute conviction that he would return to a new Russia after he had been expelled from the USSR is particularly striking as at that point in time only fools could have believed in the fall of the Soviet regime. But it simply happened. Solzhenitsyn had prophetic faith in himself, God and justice.
Russia hasn’t succeeded in living without lies. Do you think that contemporary Russian society needs a new Solzhenitsyn? Someone who would call a spade a spade?
It isn’t only in Russia that people live with lies – it’s happening everywhere and one shouldn’t consider Russia any differently than they do the rest of the world. I believe that the key to Solzhenitsyn’s identity and destiny lies in the example that he set for us all. He proved that a single, strongwilled individual can overcome enormous obstacles and that human beings are more than just ants. This despite the fact that Solzhenitsyn sometimes happened to be wrong and one of his biggest mistakes lay in his conviction that the Western political system was weaker than communism. He believed that communism has a conscious goal which is to conquer the world, whereas the West is hesitant and Western democracy is weak. Solzhenitsyn was wrong on that point because the weakness he cited is in fact a sign of strength. It allows the West to make reforms which communism is incapable of making as internal dialogue is alien to the communist system.
But internal dialogue is still alien to modern Russia. How do you judge conditions in Russian society at this point in time?
I disagree with you. Societal dialogue does exist in modern Russia, although it is admittedly watered down. However, this dialogue is absolutely free at the individual level. It’s just that people are either unable or unwilling to bring this dialogue up to a national level. Yet there is a kind of civil society emerging in Russia; numerous books concerning political issues are being published, there are some signs of political pluralism – such as Echo of Moscow radio, and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. The internet is freely accessible to all, a factor which also has an influence on societal dialogue.
But nevertheless – does Russia need a hero who is hardened by the pressure of a totalitarian regime? You have shown great interest in Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s correspondence with some authors – particularly with Lyudmila Ulitskaya – which he writes from his prison cell. Do you think it’s possible to contemplate a revival of the Letters from a Dead House genre in Russian literature?
Fayard Editions are publishing French translations of epistles by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Lyudmila Ulitskaya among other texts in September, 2011. But I do not think that we can make references to “totalitarian pressure” in Russia today What is happening to Khodorkovsky is an isolated tyrannical act. I noticed an interesting paradox while I was researching their correspondence; Ulitskaya is more of a leftist than Khodorkovsky, who writes like a statesman. Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself naturally deserves respect, if only for the fact that he has been able to remain the same man he has always been despite being imprisoned to this day. I attended his case hearing in October and found Khodorkovsky himself to be the most interesting part of the experience – he was so elated. I was also surprised that I got into the hall where the hearing was held quite easily, simply by showing my foreign passport. Under ideal conditions, Khodorkovsky would have taken a certain number of votes had he run for president. However, I believe that to go so far as to imagine that everybody would follow Khodorkovsky’s lead just because he is a kind of Dostoyevskian sufferer is unrealistic. He doesn’t really represent the people. I think change will originate in those Russian cities which have both high unemployment rates and low standards of living.
Perhaps Russia’s principal issue lies in its absence of political rivalry?
The fact that presidents are appointed rather than elected is insulting. And Putin recently announced that he will be running for president in 2012 yet again... It’s true that Putin put forward Medvedev but he was subsequently elected, as was Putin. I’m not one of those people who automatically considers Putin to be a tyrant or despot who wants to usher his country back to an era of totalitarianism. He could have quite easily and legally modified the constitution in order to stay in office for a third term, but he refused that option. One cannot say that Putin is absolutely out of the democratic format. I would rather say that the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens do not think in those terms either. If you consider Russia to be a part of Europe, why doesn’t it follow Europe’s lead in terms of development? Eastern Europe quickly reverted to normal democratic political practices.
Can we say that Russia is part of Europe on a political level?
Firstly, one must consider that conditions are not all that transparent in some of the European Union nations, such as Romania among others, and ordinary people’s lives are not changing all that rapidly for the better... Secondly, we should not believe that Europe has always been the Europe we know today. What about fascism? And the two world wars? I don’t advocate an approach to progress based on the principle that someone is lagging behind and someone is leading far ahead of the rest. Russia may arrive at the banquet a bit late, but it’ll help itself to more than any of the others. Russia is European from a cultural point of view. Naturally, Russia is handicapped by corruption at all levels. Solzhenitsyn believed that the solution to this problem lies in the zemstvos system (Ed: a system of local self-government in elective district and provincial assemblies instituted by Tsar Alexander II), which he idealised to a certain extent. I once asked Alexander Solzhenitsyn to, “Explain how there can be no corruption in your zemstvos when it’s already a noticeable presence in local elections? People won’t change.” Solzhenitsyn burst out laughing and replied, “Yes, you’re right. Why should my zemtsvos be so irreproachable?” In my opinion, change in Russia will not stem from political reform.
Would you be willing to make any prognoses on Russia’s future?
I do not have an accurate prognosis, but discontent always erupts when people are dissatisfied with their lives. This could appear in the form of riots and strikes. Or even ethnic clashes although that particular issue is not as serious in Russia as it is in the West. However, it’s difficult to predict what might happen in either Russia or the West. What should Russia do about the Caucasus region? Let’s go back to Solzhenitsyn, who claimed that it all began with Catherine the Great’s imperialist approach and territorial expansionism. For over a century, Russia conquered areas comprised of populations that could never become Russians. Neither Poles nor Caucasians ever became Russians. This is clearly exemplified in Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat – but nothing has changed since then. In order to understand today’s conflicts in the Caucasus region, one must read up on previous wars in the area. The problems are essentially the same as in the past – the same hostage-taking and sometimes even the same places. For example, the headquarters where federal forces are now deployed once housed General Alexsey Petrovich Yermolov’s headquarters.
What will this war lead to and how should Russia handle its other colonies, many of which are based on a different societal model?
Colonies isn’t a suitable word. Chechnya has calmed down now, because its people are tired and war-torn Grozny has been rebuilt. I know a lot about Chechnya from my daughter, who is a journalist and has been there about 20 times. She wrote a number of books on the subject. I think Russia needs a massive dose of real federal principles. In my opinion, creating a so-called ‘vertical of power’ will have a negative impact on the country’s prospects. Putin feared that Russia would collapse if the regions were given too much freedom – and, by the way, Solzhenitsyn shared Putin’s view on the issue.
In other words, Solzhenitsyn supported an imperialist ideology as well?
Absolutely not, the imperialist ideal was completely alien to him. He didn’t profess an imperialist ideal, but rather a national concept by calling for the “preservation of the spirit and health of our nation and our people”. Solzhenitsyn often stated, “I have nothing against other people, I respect them, but I am pained by my people’s despicable situation”. But to Solzhenitsyn, a return to the empire would be a return to catastrophe.
Support for dissidents in the West was inspired by the concept of freedom of speech but no one expected that it would result in victory for the reckless consumerism that has engulfed contemporary Russia. Do Western intellectuals like you – who probably did not fight for the right to a consumer culture – feel disappointed?
I’ll quote the Gospel to answer this one by citing, “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone”. Only an ascetic who lives without car, nor telephone, nor Internet has the right to claim disappointment. How can I deny someone the right to be happy? And besides, can you think of another city that’s as hedonistic as Geneva? Why should what is possible in Geneva not be available in Moscow?
There is a theory claiming that the best literature – at least in terms of Russian literature – emerges under political totalitarianism. Do you share this view? Indeed, despite media conformity and the fact that all types of media are strictly controlled, Russia’s book publishers have never enjoyed the freedom from censorship they do now. However, no outstanding writers have emerged in the past decade.
Of course the need to circumvent censorship generates great writers. But the fact that Russians now enjoy freedom of speech, the right to travel where and when they please, the Internet, etc. is fine. However, it should be noted that this has happened in Russia before as from 1905 to 1914, censorship was virtually non-existant. There was freedom of religion and, for example, Church censorship existed only within Orthodoxy but the traditionalist Old Believers obtained the freedom to practice their beliefs. These freedoms resulted in an era of cultural tolerance, a flowering of the arts and the sense of Russia establishing real interaction with the world. Take Kandinsky in Munich or Matisse in Moscow – one cannot say who is giving and who is receiving in their cases. It is true that I do not see any literary giants emerging in Russia at this point but as I always say, it is always more difficult for a contemporary reader to perceive literary genius in his own era. I really like writers like Mark Kharitonov, Alexei Ivanov, the literary style of Mikhail Shishkin... Unfortunately, none of the books by Russian writers that I published at Fayard became bestsellers. Despite the praise they received from well-meaning critics, the public just doesn’t go crazy for it. The problem is that nothing in contemporary Russian literature makes it stand out from the crowd.
So Russian literature did stand out in the past?
Yes, it’s ethical superiority distinguished it from the rest. When Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and many others captivated the people’s spirits and when Solzhenitsyn enraptured minds with his one-man struggle against an omnipotent regime, that’s when Russian literature was different from other literature. But Russian literature is now available on the global book market, alongside literature from other countries. Russia suffers from the fact that it consistently only asks questions about itself, and when Russians complain that, “The West doesn’t know Russian literature” I reply by asking “And which contemporary French writers are you familiar with?”
What are you working on now?
After the exhibition – which demanded an enormous amount of energy on my part – I went back to my unfinished projects. I am writing the seventh volume on the history of Russian literature and it’s almost finished. I am also working on the second and third volumes of Les sites de la mémoire russe. There are two books in progress on my desk as well so there is plenty more to do.
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