Of of all the Russian writers in the last fifty years, few can have been as well read in Britain as Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His critiques of the Soviet system, which brought the Nobel Prize in 1970, must surely mean hardly anyone in Britain's political elite will not have read him.
And yet for all those copies of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, few seem to have grasped how Solzhenistyn viewed post-Soviet Russia. Perhaps the primary source for this is his 1990 'Rebuilding Russia'. Whilst there is much to say about that book, I pick below some of the sections on Ukraine and Crimea.
Solzhenitsyn appears to have been happy to allow nearly all of the Soviet republics to pursue independence, but considered there to be special ties between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Of the Ukraine, he declares:
"To separate off the Ukraine today would mean to cut across the lives of millions of individuals and families: the two populations are thoroughly intermingled; there are entire regions where Russians predominate; many individuals would be hard put to choose between the two nationalities; many others are of mixed origin, and there are plenty of mixed marriages (marriages which have indeed never been viewed as "mixed"). There is not even a hint of intolerance between Russians and Ukrainians on the level of the ordinary people" (p.20).
The point is also made that historically Donbass and Crimea had always been part of Russia (p.19).
And yet less than twenty five years later the British government seems to have been surprised when Putin refused to accept the overthrow of Ukraine's democratically elected (and pro-Russian) leader, Viktor Yanukovych, and the Ukraine's attempted turn towards the EU and NATO. This provoked the secession of Crimea. Indeed Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was still complaining about the Crimean referendum a year later.
Perhaps British politicians need to read more. There is also a more general failing among western hawks on Russia - Edward Lucas and Anne Applebaum are perhaps the two most prominent - to take a rounded approach. They are quite happy to take the bits that they like from Solzhenitsyn - the anti-Soviet elements in his writing - but turn up their nose at the sections which advocate Russian as opposed to 'western' interests. Such cheery-picking does them little credit, and does little to inform others on events in eastern Europe.