Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, the most famous Russian writer and historian of our age, has died at eighty-nine years of age. Solzhenitsyn was the earliest to bring first-hand knowledge of the Gulag, the Soviet system of prison colonies and labour camps, to wider Western attention. For this noble task, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and expelled from the Soviet Union four years later, returning in 1994. After the fall of the Soviet regime, he despised Boris Yeltsin’s incompetence, identifying 1998 as the low point of Russia’s recent history. “Yeltsin decreed I be honored the highest state order,” Solzhenitsyn explained. “I replied that I was unable to receive an award from a government that had led Russia into such dire straits.”
He gave cautious support to the presidency of Vladimir Putin, and was pleased that while, in his words, “Moscow is still communist”, there was a growing readiness under Putin to admit (and even broadcast on state television) the crimes and outrages of the Soviet regime.
“Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible — a slow and gradual restoration. These efforts were not noticed, nor appreciated, immediately. In any case, one is hard pressed to find examples in history when steps by one country to restore its strength were met favorably by other governments.”
Influenced by his experience in exile in both Switzerland and New England, Solzhenitsyn insisted on the need for local self-government in Russia. “Today I continue to be extremely worried by the slow and inefficient development of local self-government. But it has finally started to take place. In Yeltsin’s time, local self-government was actually barred on the regulatory level, whereas the state’s ‘vertical of power’ (i.e. Putin’s centralized and top-down administration) is delegating more and more decisions to the local population. Unfortunately, this process is still not systematic in character.”
Solzhenitsyn expressed further disappointment with the new Western imperialism being waged against Russia, embodied in the 1999 War against Serbia which turned so many Russian minds against the Western powers they had previously been quite friendly to.
In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Solzhenitsyn was asked whether he was afraid of death:
“No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me — he died at the age of 27 — and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.”
When the interviewer from Der Spiegel wished him many more years of “creative life”, Solzhenitsyn calmly responded “No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.”
Born in the Caucasian spa town of Kislovodsk in 1918 just a year-and-a-month after the Bolshevik revolution, Solzhenitsyn’s father was a wealthy self-made man who died in a hunting accident shortly before his birth. He was raised in humble circumstances in a Russia mired by civil war that did not end until the last tsarist general, his back to the Pacific Ocean, surrendered in 1923. All land was confiscated by the Soviet government and the Solzhenitsyns’ holdings were turned into a collective farm.
His well-educated mother had encouraged Alexander’s academic disposition and raised him in the Russian Orthodox Church. Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University while simultaneously taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History. He had not questioned the Soviet apparatus until his service in the Red Army during the Second World War, for which he was twice decorated. In February 1945, he wrote a letter home from Soviet-occupied East Prussia in which he included a passing comment that questioned Stalin’s handling of the war. The letter, like all letters sent home by soldiers, was opened and read by the security apparatus. Solzhenitsyn was arrested, beaten, interrogated, and four months later given the standard sentence of eight years in a labour camp followed by permanent internal exile.
It was during his imprisonment and internal exile, when he spent every night writing in secret, that Solzhenitsyn rejected Marxism and developed the religious philosophy for which he became known. In 1962, with the approval of Nikita Khrushchev, his book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published. It was the first book ever printed in the Soviet Union to deal openly with the system of forced labour in prison camps and caused a sensation both in the USSR and the West. In 1964, Khrushchev was ousted by the Soviet politburo, and Solzhenitsyn’s moment in the sun came to a swift conclusion as he was denied permission to publish and had some of his papers seized by the KGB.
Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, but refused to receive the award for fear that he would not be allowed to return to the Soviet Union and so be separated from his family. In 1974, the government of the USSR deported him to West Germany and stripped him of his Soviet citizenship. Feted in the West, he spent some time in Switzerland before accepting an invitation to reside at Stanford University in California. In 1976 he moved to the woodland town of Cavendish in the state of Vermont, which remained his home for the next eighteen years of his life. Two years later, Harvard University awarded him an honorary degree, and the incident took place which ended the West’s love affair with the exiled Soviet dissident.
Giving the 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard University, Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered a sharp and stunning rebuke to the modern West, repudiating its liberalism, materialism, and supremacism.
“There is this belief,” Solzhenitsyn said, “that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development is quite different.”
He went on to describe the mentality which led the Western elites to adopt multiculturalism and pluralism, while they simultaneously lacked the courage to defend their Western culture or to challenge Communist governments which did not have the support of the peoples they governed. Solzhenitsyn described this lack of courage as “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. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists. Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”
Solzhenitsyn went on to condemn the materialism of Western culture, fostered by the welfare state. He argued that the extreme safety and prosperity of the Western world caused Western people to be unwilling and reluctant to defend the most essential and important values that their culture and tradition were based upon, for fear of relinquishing the “physical splendour” they enjoy “to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about”.
“Even biology knows that habitual extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.”
The wide freedom allowed by the rule of law in the West is admirable, Solzhenitsyn argued, but in these circumstances it led to a system in which morality and legality were confused, whereby what is legal is automatically also considered acceptable:
“One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it. I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.”
The hyperindividualism of the West, Solzhenitsyn argued, hampered the necessary civil good from being enacted:
“A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that every single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.”
“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.”
“And what shall we say about the dark realm of criminality as such? Legal frames (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are many such cases.”
“Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.”
“The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media). But what sort of use does it make of this freedom? Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.”
Again referring to the legalism of Western society, Solzhenitsyn criticized the attitude which purported to refuse morality a place in political decisionmaking:
“Very well known representatives of your society say: we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world. On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well planned world strategy. There are no other criteria.”
“… no weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.”
But what, Solzhenitsyn asks, is the cause of these unfortunate circumstances in which the West finds itself? “How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about?”
“How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.”
“This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.”
“This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.”
“However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the Twentieth century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the Nineteenth Century.”
“As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.”
“We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the [Communist] East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.”
“It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. … 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.”
Harvard was not amused. It had identified a genius, it had awarded him laurels, it had graced him with earthly dignities, but he had seen through all its pretensions and glanced the rotten core of its very soul. Harvard is one of the highest temples to Man in our realm. It was founded as a Protestant seminary, and Man’s usurpation of God’s role is inherent (if only implicitly) in Protestantism. In Catholic Christianity, not even the Pope can change the Truth; in Protestant Christianity, every single individual person is the arbiter of every single aspect of doctrine, belief, and morality. Catholicism is authority, Protestantism is the absence of authority, and the liberal Enlightenment thinking which easily superseded Protestantism at Harvard is the negation of authority.
Communism has ceased to play a part on the world stage, but if Solzhenitsyn is remembered centuries from now I do not think it will be for his criticism of Communism but for his repudiation of the West’s rejection of Christianity and it’s embrace of the Enlightenment. His experience of the prison camps of the East, in which humanity was despised, allowed Solzhenitsyn to see through the vain pomp and glory of the West, in which humanity is worshipped. Solzhenitsyn understood, to the incomprehension of the self-satisfied elites of our time and place, that it was neither communism nor capitalism, neither money nor equality, neither economics nor politics that should be worshipped, but only God.
May God in His mercy grant eternal rest to the soul of
Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn