Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a towering prophet of the twentieth century and, whether recognized or not, the world today owes him a great debt of gratitude for his (at times) almost-singlehanded work documenting and exposing the murderous tyranny of communism in the Soviet Union. Without his voice and pen, it's hard to imagine President Reagan giving the June 8, 1982 "Evil Empire" speech to the House of Commons.
From the time Solzhenitsyn set foot on American soil, the reception our nation granted him was somewhere between diffidence and hostility.
On June 8, 1978 Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University. Titled, A World Split Apart, Solzhenitsyn had the chutzpah to bite the hand that fed him.
Under the protection of these United States at last, he turned his prophetic gifts upon the Western world, providing us a clinically precise diagnosis and prognosis:
If I were today addressing an audience in my country, examining the overall pattern of the world's rifts I would have concentrated on the East's calamities. But since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one, I think it may be of greater interest to concentrate on certain aspects of the West in our days, such as I see them.
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life.
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Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
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But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. ...the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive....
A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West... If our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores. It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.
Solzhenitsyn brought his addresss to an end:
Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?
If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.
This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward.
The audience hissed.
Harvard law professor, Harold J. Berman, said, "Solzhenitsyn seemed like a man from Mars."
First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, took the National Press Club as her forum to huff, "the people of this country are not weak, not cowardly, and not spiritually exhausted."
Finally, in 1992, Solzhenitsyn was free to return to his homeland and, in the intervening ten years, The New Yorker has run occasional pieces following up on this titan. Here are excerpts from one such piece:
After a while, Solzhenitsyn seemed tired, and I turned the subject to perhaps the most painful one. I asked him if he thought that the new order of things in Russia had diminished his moral authority, and whether that might even be a good thing, as Lev Timofeyev had suggested.
Solzhenitsyn looked down at the table and thought this over awhile. Then he said,
"I know from the many personal letters I still get that for many people I am a source of trust and moral authority. But I cannot really say if I am a moral authority or not. I do feel that for humanity--not society but for humanity--moral authority is a necessity. The course of world history and world culture shows us that there are, and should be, moral authorities. They constitute a kind of spiritual hierarchy which is absolutely necessary for every individual. In the twentieth century, the universal tendency, not only in the West but everywhere, was to destroy any hierarchies so that everyone could act just as he or she wants without regarding any moral authority. This has already been reflected in, and has influenced, the whole of world culture, and the level of world culture has been lowered as a result."
Solzhenitsyn let me know that my visit was drawing to a close.
"I'm not working with the old speed," he said. "My workday is different, because once or twice a day I stop to take a rest. I never used to do that. And in the evening I feel tired and go to bed fairly early. In the morning, I feel strong, but this strength doesn't last as long as it used to. It's hard to walk, even to stand. I have to use that cane over there. I have some problems with my spine, so even sitting is a problem now." One of the prose poems he has written since his return to Moscow is called "Growing Old":
"How much easier it is then, how much more receptive we are to death, when advancing years guide us softly to our end. Aging thus is in no sense a punishment from on high, but brings its own blessings and a warmth of colors all its own... There is even warmth to be drawn from the waning of your own strength compared with the past--just to think how sturdy I once used to be! You can no longer get through a whole day's work at a stretch, but how good it is to slip into the brief oblivion of sleep, and what a gift to wake once more to the clarity of your second or third morning of the day. And your spirit can find delight in limiting your intake of food, in abandoning the pursuit of novel flavors. You are still of this life, yet you are rising above the material plane... Growing old serenely is not a downhill path but an ascent."
When he was a younger man, always under assault from the authorities, Solzhenitsyn used to take breaks and pace, like an infantryman, back and forth, in the woods. He viewed his writing life as a war waged against tyranny, and he viewed himself, he always said, as a soldier. And so I asked him now if he still saw himself that way, as a soldier in writer's clothing. Solzhenitsyn smiled, something he does not do very often or easily with visitors.
"No," he said. "it doesn't feel like that any longer." Then we said our good-byes, and he slowly got out of his chair, took up his cane, and went to another room to lie down.
David Remnick, "Letter From Moscow: Deep in the Woods," New Yorker, 6 August, 2001, 32-40.
Sadly, we leave it to Moscow talk show host Artyom Troitsky to sum up what may well be the prevailing sentiment toward Solzhenitsyn among his own countrymen today:
Why should anyone now care about The Gulag Archipelago? I'm afraid Solzhenitsyn is totally, totally passe.
To which we append two statements, the first by Solzhenitsyn:
(We) Russians are... sitting forlornly on a heap of spiritual cinders... and unless we recover the gift of repentance, our country will perish and will drag down the world with it. Only through the repentance of the multitude of people can the air and the soil of Russia be cleansed so that a new, healthy national life can grow up. We cannot raise a clean crop on a false, unsound, obdurate soil.
And the second, by our Lord:
And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, "A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house." And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:57,58)
[Michael Scammell has written the definitive biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, (New York: Norton & Co.; 1984) which I have read and recommend.]