Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to speak to the media after his meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko., on August 27, 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to speak to the media after his meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko., on August 27, 2014. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

How a Famous Soviet Dissident Foreshadowed Putin's Plan—in 1990

If the Kremlin is taking its cues from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Eastern Ukraine is only a first step to 'rebuilding Russia.' By Robert Coalson

During an informal question-and-answer session at the pro-Kremlin Seliger youth camp on August 29, a young woman expressed concern about the "growth of nationalism" in Kazakhstan. The woman wondered if a "Ukraine scenario" was possible there if longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev left office—and asked what the Kremlin's strategy was for dealing with this eventuality.

"What are the chances of Eurasian integration?" she asked.

Putin stressed Kazakhstan's importance as an ally and lavishly praised Nazarbaev as a wise leader dedicated to the welfare of his country. He said Nazarbaev was perhaps the most capable of all the leaders of post-Soviet countries. However, part of his answer raised alarm in the Central Asian country.

Nazarbaev "accomplished a completely unique thing," Putin said. "He created a state on a territory where no state had ever been. The Kazakhs never had their own state. He created it. In this sense he is, in the post-Soviet space, a unique person." Putin went on to praise the philosophy of the "Eurasian idea" and to assert that Kazakhs endorse it and see benefits to "remaining in the space of the larger Russian world." 

It was a particularly sensitive moment because Kazakhstan is a key Russian ally and a member of the Russia-led customs union. More than 20 percent of the country's population is ethnic Russian, and ethnic Russians make up a majority or significant plurality in many of the country's northern regions. 

Russia-watcher Miriam Elder noted in a piece on BuzzFeed that Putin's response and other statements he has made about Ukraine in the past reflect some of the arguments put forward by Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a 1990 essay titled "Rebuilding Russia." 

Solzhenitsyn's Greater Russian, Orthodox-driven nationalism, Elder notes, "once made him appear sorely out of touch, but today has become increasingly fashionable." Although he is best known for his exposure of the Soviet Gulag system and his staunch anti-communism, Solzhenitsyn welcomed Putin's rise to power in 1999 and praised him for restoring Russia's national pride. In 2007, Putin visited the ailing Solzhenitsyn at home to award him a state prize for his humanitarian work. 

In "Rebuilding Russia," published in the dying days of the U.S.S.R., Solzhenitsyn criticized the Soviet government's haphazard border policies that he said carved up traditional "Rus." He advocated a "Russian Union" encompassing Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the ethnic Russian parts of Kazakhstan.

Solzhenitsyn was confident of the fundamental unity of the Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian peoples, three branches that were historically separated by "the Mongol invasion and Polish colonization."

"We all together emerged from the treasured Kiev, 'from which the Russian land began,' according to the chronicle of Nestor," Solzhenitsyn wrote, referring to a 12th-century history of the early Slavs. He argued that, in Lithuania and Poland, "White Russians [Belarusians] and Little Russians [Ukrainians] acknowledged that they were Russians and fought against Polonization and Catholicism." 

"The return of these lands to Russia was at the time viewed by everyone as 'reunification,'" he said.

Solzhenitsyn acknowledged the suffering of Ukrainians under the Soviets, but said that was no reason to "hack off Ukraine" and, especially, "those parts that weren't part of old Ukraine ... Novorossia or Crimea or Donbas and areas practically to the Caspian Sea." Foreshadowing today's Russian rhetoric, Solzhenitsyn wrote that, if Ukraine was to be independent, then those regions should be allowed "self-determination." But he clearly advocated union between Russia and Ukraine.

"Separating Ukraine today would mean cutting through millions of families and people," Solzhenitsyn wrote. "Such a mix of populations; whole regions with Russian majorities; how many people unable to choose between the two nationalities; how many people of mixed ethnicity; how many mixed marriages that until now were never considered mixed. Among most of the population, there isn't even a hint of intolerance between Ukrainians and Russians."

And all this, he wrote, "applies completely to White Russia [Belarus] as well."

At the same time, Solzhenitsyn criticized the Soviet ambition to impose Russian domination over non-Russian nations, saying it "would destroy the Russian national essence." He urged immediately severing ties with the three Baltic countries, Moldova, the three countries of the South Caucasus, and all the Central Asian countries except Kazakhstan. Russia did not have enough strength to control an empire, he wrote, and trying to do so would only "hasten our destruction."

Likewise, he wished the former Soviet-bloc countries of Central Europe well, although he said Russia could not afford to subsidize them with natural resources. "We rejoice for the countries of Eastern Europe—let them live and prosper in freedom," he wrote. "And let them pay for everything according to global prices."