It was always difficult to understand the Russian mind. Here Solzhenitsyn unravels it for us:
SPIEGEL: Alexander Isayevich, when we came in we found you at work. It seems that even at the age of 88 you still feel this need to work, even though your health doesnt allow you to walk around your home. What do you derive your strength from?
Solzhenitsyn: I have always had that inner drive, since my birth. And I have always devoted myself gladly to work -- to work and to the struggle.
SPIEGEL: There are four tables in this space alone. In your new book "My American Years," which will be published in Germany this fall, you recollect that you used to write even while walking in the forest.
Solzhenitsyn: When I was in the gulag I would sometimes even write on stone walls. I used to write on scraps of paper, then I memorized the contents and destroyed the scraps.
SPIEGEL: And your strength did not leave you even in moments of enormous desperation?
Solzhenitsyn: Yes. I would often think: Whatever the outcome is going to be, let it be. And then things would turn out all right. It looks like some good came out of it.
SPIEGEL: I am not sure you were of the same opinion when in February 1945 the military secret service arrested Captain Solzhenitsyn in Eastern Prussia. Because, in his letters from the front, Solzhenitsyn was unflattering about Josef Stalin, and the sentence for that was eight years in the prison camps.
Solzhenitsyn: It was south of Wormditt. We had just broken out of a German encirclement and were marching to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) when I was arrested. I was always optimistic. And I held to and was guided by my views.
SPIEGEL: What views?
Solzhenitsyn: Of course, my views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against my conscience.
SPIEGEL: Thirteen years ago when you returned from exile, you were disappointed to see the new Russia. You turned down a prize proposed by Gorbachev, and you also refused to accept an award Yeltsin wanted to give you. Yet now you have accepted the State Prize which was awarded to you by Putin, the former head of the FSB intelligence agency, whose predecessor the KGB persecuted and denounced you so cruelly. How does this all fit together?
Solzhenitsyn: The prize in 1990 was proposed not by Gorbachev, but by the Council of Ministers of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, then a part of the USSR. The prize was to be for "The Gulag Archipelago." I declined the proposal, since I could not accept an award for a book written in the blood of millions.
In 1998, it was the countys low point, with people in misery; this was the year when I published the book "Russia in Collapse." Yeltsin decreed I be honored the highest state order. I replied that I was unable to receive an award from a government that had led Russia into such dire straits.
The current State Prize is awarded not by the president personally, but by a community of top experts. The Council on Science that nominated me for the award and the Council on Culture that supported the idea include some of the most highly respected people of the country, all of them authorities in their respective disciplines. The president, as head of state, awards the laureates on the national holiday. In accepting the award I expressed the hope that the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.
Vladimir Putin -- yes, he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag. As for service in foreign intelligence, that is not a negative in any country -- sometimes it even draws praise. George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA, for example.
SPIEGEL: All your life you have called on the authorities to repent for the millions of victims of the gulag and communist terror. Was this call really heard?
Solzhenitsyn: I have grown used to the fact that, throughout the world, public repentance is the most unacceptable option for the modern politician.
SPIEGEL: The current Russian president says the collapse of the Soviet Union was the largest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He says it is high time to stop this masochistic brooding over the past, especially since there are attempts "from outside," as he puts it, to provoke an unjustified remorse among Russians. Does this not just help those who want people to forget everything that took place during the countys Soviet past?
Solzhenitsyn: Well, there is growing concern all over the world as to how the United States will handle its new role as the worlds only superpower, which it became as a result of geopolitical changes. As for brooding over the past," alas, that conflation of "Soviet" and "Russian," against which I spoke so often in the 1970s, has not passed away either in the West, or in the ex-socialist countries, or in the former Soviet republics. The elder political generation in communist countries was not ready for repentance, while the new generation is only too happy to voice grievances and level accusations, with present-day Moscow a convenient target. They behave as if they heroically liberated themselves and lead a new life now, while Moscow has remained communist. Nevertheless, I dare hope that this unhealthy phase will soon be over, that all the peoples who have lived through communism will understand that communism is to blame for the bitter pages of their history.