When exactly did I read it? It was some time in the 1970’s, probably shortly after its publication in the West in 1973. Why did I read it? I had seen my father read other books by the author, The First Circle and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In addition, considerable news media publicity surrounded Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Like the reporters who covered him, I too thought of Solzhenitsyn as an interesting and important man. This man had exposed The Gulag Archipelago. So it was that I began to read his book.
Although it is now decades since I read The Gulag Archipelago, there are things I still remember about it. Most of all I remember the difficulty of starting the book. Never before had I seen a man grieve on paper, but that is how the book began. For about fifty pages Solzhenitsyn mourned. Repelled by Solzhenitsyn’s anguish, I nearly put the book down, but stubborn curiosity drove me to continue. Thus, I learned about horrors of the gulag, and I learned what that experience had meant personally to Solzhenitsyn.
Who was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Solzhenitsyn was an enthusiastic communist who learned the hard way that Communism is wrong. From the inside of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn learned a bit of wisdom, and he passed that wisdom on to millions of readers.
After I finished reading The Gulag Archipelago, I gave little thought to Solzhenitsyn for decades. Why? Consider what happened when Solzhenitsyn died in 2008. Consider how some in the news media chose to speak of the man.
In later years, Solzhenitsyn lost some of his stature, thanks partly to Soviet propaganda that successfully portrayed him as a crank and an extremist, but thanks also to his own failure to embrace liberal democracy. He never really liked the West, never really took to free markets or pop culture. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, he went back to Russia, where he was first welcomed and then forgotten. In a Russia that is no longer interested in examining its history, he came to seem outdated, a spokesman from an irrelevant past. Even his Russian nationalism, now a popular cause, had something crusty and old-fashioned about it. His vision of a more spiritual society, of Russia as an alternative to the consumerist West, doesn’t hold much appeal for the supercharged, superwealthy, oil-fueled Russian elite of today. His apparent endorsement of ex-President Vladimir Putin seemed more like an old man’s foible than a serious change of heart. (from here)
Why didn’t Solzhenitsyn embrace the West and liberal democracy? That our liberal news media never explains. What we learned about Solzhenitsyn is what our news media wanted us to know. Solzhenitsyn rejected us. But did he?
Imagine the experience of being punished severely by your own government. Imagine years of hard labor. Imagine the state trying to destroy your reputation. Imagine exile from your homeland. By 1978 Solzhenitsyn had experienced four years of exile. He longed to return home. Nonetheless, he took up his pen and wrote a speech appropriate for the students and faculty at Harvard University (Here is Harvard’s Wikipedia page).
How did I learn about this old speech? When I was listening to Ravi Zacharias preach on the spirit of the age, Zacharias said that Solzhenitsyn gave a powerful speech, but the folks who heard his speech booed. Solzhenitsyn probably expected that some would not receive his words well. Nonetheless, the boos hurt him.
Why had the folks at Harvard booed Solzhenitsyn? Harvard is at the prideful, secular apex of our society (see Celebrate 375). At a relative few universities such as Harvard, we grow our nation’s aristocratic leadership. Solzhenitsyn challenged the core beliefs of the aristocrats at Harvard. With words such as these, he stung their pride.
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.
Therefore, America’s intellectual elites either turn their backs on Solzhenitsyn or they heaped scorn upon him.
Time passed and Solzhenitsyn grew old. Several years before he died, an interviewer asked Solzhenitsyn how he would like to be remembered.
Pearce: How would you like to be remembered to posterity?
Solzhenitsyn: That’s a complex question. I would hope that all that has been said about me, slandered about me, in the course of decades, would, like mud, dry up and fall off. It is amazing how much gibberish has been talked about me, more so in the west than in the USSR. In the USSR it was all one-directional propaganda, and (laughs) everyone knew that it was just Communist propaganda.
Perhaps Solzhenitsyn will get his wish. Solzhenitsyn titled his speech “A World Split Apart”, and he gave it at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises on June 8, 1978. Decades latter in 2011, Harvard Magazine published the speech and introduced it with these words.
In 1974, the Soviet Union deported dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Litt.D. ’78, author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. After living in Cologne, Germany; Zurich, Switzerland; and at Stanford University, he settled in Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976. Two years later, Harvard awarded the 59-year-old Solzhenitsyn an honorary doctor of letters degree and chose him as its Commencement speaker. His address on June 8, 1978, was Solzhenitsyn’s first public statement since his arrival in the United States. Given the suffering he had endured in the Soviet Union, many in the audience expected that the writer’s address would be a stern rebuke to Communist totalitarianism, combined with a paean to Western liberty and democracy. The Tercentenary Theatre audience was in for a rude surprise. “The Exhausted West,” delivered in Russian with English translation under overcast skies, chastised the arrogance and smugness of Western materialist culture and exposed the adverse effects of some of those achievements that Western democracies had long prided themselves upon. “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals,” the author declared, for example. “It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant, iconoclastic speech ranks among the most thoughtful, articulate, and challenging addresses ever delivered at a Harvard Commencement.
Read more in this PDF from the July-August 1978 issue.
If you want to read Solzhenitsyn’s speech, you may find this version (here) a little more readable.
Additional Information and Commentary
- Understanding the Spirit of the Age, Part 1 of 2 and Understanding the Spirit of the Age, Part 2 of 2 by Ravi Zacharias. Zacharias mentions Solzhenitsyn’s speech in the latter half of the second segment of his sermon.
- Solzhenitsyn’s Commencement Speech at Christianity.com
THE ENDURING ACHIEVEMENT OF ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN by Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
- An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN at The Catholic Education Resource Center
- Speaking truth to power: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s example—and the heirs who failed him (obituary) at The Economist
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn (obituary) at The Telegraph
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn dies at 89 (obituary) at BBC News
- Death of a Writer (obituary) at Slate.com
- For a discourse on legalism, check out An Aristocracy of Lawyers: Legalism versus Religion at Citizen Tom