Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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.

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. 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 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.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times.

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.
— Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University, 1978

Russian author, historian and political philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died at the age of 89. As the full text of the Harvard address above demonstrates, he despised Russian communism, and despised the glib commercialized freedom of Western Europe and America no less. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he believed above all in human salvation through religious transcendence, though at times (as in this ill-received Harvard address) he seemed to relish the notion of an agonizing worldwide transformation more than any possibility of self-realization and peace that might follow such a change.

In this sense, he also resembles Dostoevsky (whose greatest work, like Solzhenitsyn’s, followed a long period of painful imprisonment for crimes against the Russian state). Solzhenitsyn was best known for two works — the simple and spare A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the more ambitious Gulag Archipelago, which introduced a tone of bitter satire (the Soviet prison bureaucracy is described mechanically as a “human sewage system”) into the dissident’s voice. Both books were so widely celebrated by anti-Soviet political thinkers that it’s hard now to evaluate the author on strictly artistic grounds. He does not seem to measure up to Dostoevsky’s psychological brilliance, nor to Chekhov’s poignant sense of humanity. But his courageous devotion to truth and his confident authority as a political gadfly give him some standing alongside Russia’s earlier literary greats.

It’s interesting to look back at a 1974 New York Times review of the just-published Gulag Archipelago by Stephen F. Cohen:

“The Gulag Archipelago” is a non-fictional account from and about the other great holocaust of our century — the imprisonment, brutalization and very often murder of tens of millions of innocent Soviet citizens by their own Government, mostly during Stalin’s rule from 1929 to 1953.

How quaint! There was a time in 1974 — with our new friend Chairman Mao’s genocidal crimes still largely unrecognized, with the citizens of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina still innocent of their futures — when we thought the 20th Century would only rack up two holocausts.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn may or may not have had all the answers, but the celebrated former prisoner did seem to know the most important questions.

11 Responses

  1. I read the above excerpt from
    I read the above excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address, all the time thinking how imprtant it is for someone to say these things, thinking it was a much more recent speech. I was amazed to learn that he wrote it in 1978!

  2. This quote is fascinating. I
    This quote is fascinating. I think he hit the nail on the head! Who cares whether or not a bunch of stuffy intellectuals from Harvard agreed with it or not. They probably didn’t agree because it hit them where it counts – right in the heart. I beleive there’s not a person on earth who can’t honestly deny some truth to what he said.
    I, too, was amazed that it was 1978. I thought it was much more recent.

  3. As a psychology graduate, I
    As a psychology graduate, I have found Solzhenitzyn to be a master of human psychology. Cancer Ward in particular is amazing in its portrayal of human nature. I do not think direct and easy to understand should be a mark against Solzhenitzyn if measuring him against F.D. They are completely different writers.

  4. Thanks for comment, Ben — I
    Thanks for comment, Ben — I haven’t read Cancer Ward. Mainly, the reason I compared him to Dostoevsky as an artist is that I had remarked on his similarity to Dostoevsky in being a former prisoner of a Russian state who then strongly embraced traditional Russian values.

  5. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn
    When Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke at Harvard in 1978, he brought to the podium a stranger’s vantage point that allowed him to glaringly see the House of America’s flaws in a way that the householders, spoon-fed on effortless comfort, could not. Those trust-fund kids who booed him were unworthy to unlace his Russian felt boots.
    Solzhenitsyn was right. In its lust for superficial trivia, our culture has lost not only courage and willpower but also its awe of true heroism.
    Eighteen months ago, Anna Nichole Smith died. She was a minor actress who would be alive today if she hadn’t taken prescription drugs in dangerous combinations. For weeks thereafter, she was in the news every day.
    Two months ago, Tim Russert died. He was the narrator for the NBC program Meet the Press. Anyone who chose not to watch Meet the Press might not have known who he was. Yet for a week after his death, on all the TV channels it was all Tim all the time.
    Two days ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn died. He survived eight years in the Gulag and a bout with cancer, and he came forth shining like refined gold. He was unafraid to lay truth before power, and his words helped change the course of history. Yesterday I listened to an hour and a half of my local Christian radio station’s morning talk show. Not one word was mentioned of this great man’s life or passing.
    This generation desperately needs people like Solzhenitsyn to live their lives before us and exemplify true heroism. Good luck finding such people in this country.

  6. I admired Solzhenitzyn’s
    I admired Solzhenitzyn’s writings and have read many of his “Gulag” books as well as “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”. I also read the text of his Harvard speech.

    He lived in Vermont, USA, for more than a decade
    and quietly returned to Russia in 1974 when his Russian citizenship was “rehabilitated” by Gorbachev. Solzhenitzyn was not an avid admirer
    of our western political systems. However, he was the classic communist “refusenik” who valued
    some authoritarianism in his government. I think
    that he had an idea of some kind of “hybrid” system for Russia which could overcome the economic problems of socialism–but not as authoritarian as the Chinese system. Both of these countries need a “mixed economy” as we do.
    Pure socialism and pure capitalism is not feasible. All economies, in my view, should be
    a mixture of the two. It is too bad that the press would not warm back up to Solzhenitzyn in that respect when it came to some of his unpopular views. Russia, unlike China, has been
    under the yoke of communism for more than seventy years, before the fall of the communist government in 1989.

    China had its revolution in 1949 instead of 1917. These extra years of communism made it harder, in some ways, for the Russians to go back to a parliamentary system like they once had. Russia only had pure democracy for 100 days during the Kerensky goverment in the first part of around 1917 in the early 20th century. There was a violent overthrow of the czar and this also was hard to overcome. But, the Russians eventually recovered most of the bodies of the royal family and buried them with honors.

    Being of mixed heritage, I appreciate the struggles of the Russian people. I also appreciate the attributes of folks like Solzhenitzyn. We need more courageous folks like him in Russia and the world.

  7. Correction: The date of
    Correction: The date of Solzhenitzyn’s return to Russia should read 1994, not “1974”. See previous comment.

  8. Another correction, sorry:
    Another correction, sorry: The breakup of the Soviet Union was finally in December 1991 when
    Gorbachev resigned after the creation of the “Commonwealth of Independent States”. (I think I am correct this time. It was a confusing time for that part of the world. Think of how it was for the Russians… All those new independent nations.)

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