During the 1970s I read most of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novels (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; First Circle; Cancer Ward) as well as The Gulag Archipelago, a massive (three volume) documentation of Soviet brutality under Lenin and Stalin, and The Oak and the Calf, an account of his struggles with censorship in the USSR. By the decade’s end, thanks to Solzhenitsyn, I was delivered from some of the academy’s gilded portraits of the USSR and a bit better prepared to discern the Marxist rhetoric so glibly infusing many analyses of American history. And I was also prompted to re-examine, during the next decade, America’s role in the world vis-à-vis both Communism and similarly aggressive ideologies such as Islam.
Recently, assessing Spanish elections, wherein a docile public wilted in the face of terrorism, I find myself thinking about, and re-reading, some of Solzhenitsyn’s addresses. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, and his Nobel Lecture (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c. 1972) focused on art and the role of the artist. “One kind of artist,” markedly evident in the avante garde individualists of the West, “imagines himself the creator of an independent spiritual world and shoulders the act of creating that world and the people in it, assuming total responsibility for it” (p. 4). Such self-serving rebels against convention enjoy moments of fame but do little good. The other kind, endorsed by Solzhenitsyn, rightly understands his sacred vocation and “acknowledges a higher power above him and joyfully works as a common apprentice under God’s heaven” (p. 4).
To work wisely and well as an artist is a truly noble calling, for as Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.” Great art, truthful art, weathers the winds of time and gives wings to our souls. Indeed, Plato’s “old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” (p. 7) retains its ancient grandeur, and nothing rivals the importance of investing one’s life in illuminating and defending such transcendent realities, the “permanent things.” Speaking personally, Solzhenitsyn noted that he miraculously survived his years in the Gulag, while thousands perished. So he had a sacred mission: to record, to explain, to imbed their story in the nation’s literature. “Our twentieth century has turned out to be more cruel than those preceding it, and all that is terrible in it did not come to an end with the first half” (p. 22). Millions died because too few believed in “fixed universal human concepts called good and justice” while the oppressors disdained them as “fluid, changing, and that there for one must always do what will benefit one’s party” (p. 220. Sadly enough, might-makes-right philosophies forever enlist devotees, and hijackers and terrorists ever wreck their carnage. But despite the fact that (as Dostoevsky lamented) there is much “slavery to half-cocked progressive ideas” (p. 24), one must courageously seek to refute them.
This means refuting the “spirit of Munich” that has spread cancerously throughout the West. That spirit, Solzhenitsyn says, “is dominant in the twentieth century. The intimidated civilized world has found nothing to oppose the onslaught of a sudden resurgent fang baring barbarism, except concessions and smiles. The spirit of Munich is a disease of the will of prosperous people; it is the daily state of those who have given themselves over to a craving for prosperity in every way, to material well-being as the chief goal of life on earth” (p. 24). He referred, of course, to the agreement Neville Chamberlain made with Adolf Hitler in 1938, declaring: “How horrible, how fantastic, how incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing!” Returning to the cheering masses in England, he proclaimed the arrival of “Peace in Our Time.”
Replying to Chamberlain, Winston Churchill said: “I do not grudge our loyal, brave people . . . the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. They should know that . . . we have sustained a defeat without war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along with our road.” The next year, of course, Germany invaded Poland. Even then, however, many Europeans sought to remain “neutral,” numbly paralyzed in their pacifism. This, Churchill said, was “lamentable; and it will become much worse. They bow humbly and in fear of German threats. Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear–I fear greatly–the storm will not pass. It will rage and it will roar, ever more loudly, ever more widely.”
The ghastly carnage of WWII, of course, might have been avoided had Churchill’s warnings been heeded. But Chamberlain’s appeasement postponed the conflict until it could only be waged against desperate odds. Neither the League of Nations nor Europe’s politicians had the courage to resist. So it’s up to writers such as himself, Solzhenitsyn said, to speak the truth to the world. While struggling against the autocracy of the USSR, he’d found an international fraternity of writers who rallied to his side when Communist hardliners sought to suppress him. His weapon, naturally, was the writer’s pen enlisted to proclaim the truth. Tyranny thrives by lying. Truth tellers expose and ultimately defeat the tyrants. Writers “can VANQUISH LIES! In the struggle against lies, art has always won and always will” (p. 33). And so, he memorably declared in closing: “ONE WORD OF TRUTH OUGHTWEIGHS THE WORLD” (p. 34).
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Exiled from the USSR soon after receiving the Nobel Prize, Solzhenitsyn found refuge in the mountains of Vermont, where he continued to write and declare the truth. Initially lionized by the American intelligentsia, he was invited to deliver the 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, published as A World Split Apart (New York: Harper & Row, c. 1978). He began his speech abrasively, noting that though Harvard’s motto is Veritas graduates would find that “truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter” (p. 1). But he would speak truly anyway! And his words proved “bitter” to many who heard him!
After assessing various developments around the world, he questioned the resolve of the West to deal with them. Alarmingly, he said, “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political part, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society” (pp. 9-11). This decline, “at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood,” portended a cataclysmic cultural collapse.
Solzhenitsyn also lamented the West’s materialism, litigiousness, licentiousness, and irresponsible individualism. Personal freedom is, of course, a great good, but irresponsible freedom erupts in evil acts and “evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man–the master of this world–does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected” (p. 23). If so, it would seem that affluence would eliminate crime! Strangely enough, however, crime was more rampant in the wealthy West than in the impoverished USSR!
Then he upbraided the media. Granted virtually complete “freedom,” journalists in the West used it as a license for irresponsibility. Rather than working hard work to discover the truth, they slip into the slothful role of circulating rumors and personal opinions. Though no state censors restrict what’s written, “fashionable” ideas get aired and the public is denied free access to the truth. Fads and fantasies, not the illumination of reality, enlist the mainstream media. “Hastiness and superficiality–these are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press” (p. 27). Consequently, “we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters pertaining to the nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion into the privacy of well-known people according to the slogan ‘Everyone is entitled to know everything'” (p. 25).
Solzhenitsyn was further disturbed by the widespread pessimism and discontent Westerners displayed regarding economic development. Amazingly, elite intellectuals celebrated the very socialism that had destroyed his homeland. (Remember that Harvard’s superstar economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, still trumpeted the virtues of socialism in the 1980s!) This, Solzhenitsyn warned, “is a false and dangerous current” (p. 33). In the East, “communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. And yet Western intellectuals still look at it with considerable interest and empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East” (p. 55). But the capitalist system in the West is no panacea either. Both East and West, he said, need “spiritual” rather than “economic” development, and the spirit has been “trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West” (p. 57).
American politicians who appeased Communism especially elicited Solzhenitsyn’s scorn. In fact, looking at the nation’s recent withdrawal from Vietnam, he said: “the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam War. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that the way should be left open for national, or Communist, self-determination in Vietnam (or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity). But in fact, members of the U.S. antiwar movement became accomplices in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in the genocide and the suffering today imposed on thirty million people there. Do these convinced pacifists now hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American intelligentsia lost its nerve and as a consequence the danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your short-sighted politician who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however a hundredfold Vietnams now looms over you” (p. 41). The future he envisioned would be shaped by a “fight of cosmic proportions,” a battle between the forces of either Goodness or Evil. Those who are morally neutral, those who exalt in their moral relativism, are the true enemies of mankind. Thus, two years before Ronald Reagan was elected President, Solzhenitsyn insisted that only a moral offensive could turn back the evil empire.
Cowardice had led to retreat in Southeast Asia. Democracies themselves, Solzhenitsyn feared, lack the soul strength for sustained combat. Wealthy democracies, especially, seem flaccid. “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. Nothing is left, in this case, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal” (p. 45). More deeply, the “humanism” that has increasingly dominated the West since the Renaissance explains its weakness. When one believes ultimately only in himself, when human reason becomes the final arbiter, when human sinfulness is denied, the strength that comes only from God will dissipate. Ironically, the secular humanism of the West is almost identical with the humanism of Karl Marx, who said: “communism is naturalized humanism” (p. 53).
Consequently, he said, “If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; 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” (pp. 60-61). This speech ended Solzhenitsyn’s speaking career in the United States. The nation’s elite newspapers–the New York Times and Washington Post–thenceforth ignore him. Prestigious universities, such as Harvard, closed their doors. He became something of a persona non grata and spent the last 15 years of his life in America living as a recluse, working industriously on manuscripts devoted to Russia’s history.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the years immediately prior to Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech, he spoke to several American and British audiences, setting forth themes summarized at Harvard. His speeches were published in Warning to the West (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c. 1976). He particularly assailed the appeasement proposals of Bertrand Russell, summed up in the slogan “Better Red than dead.” To Russell and his fifth-column ilk, Solzhenitsyn replied: “Better to be dead than a soundrel. In this horrible expression of Bertrand Russell’s there is an absence of all moral criteria” (p. 119).
Delivering an address over BBC in 1976, Solzhenitsyn noted that “until I came to the West myself and spent two years looking around, I could never have imagined the extreme degree to which the West actually desired to blind itself to the world situation, the extreme degree to which the West has already become a world without a will, a world gradually petrifying in the face of the danger confronting it, a world oppressed above all by the need to defend its freedom” (p. 126). “There is a German proverb,” he continued, “which runs Mut verloren–alles verloren: When courage is lost, all is lost. There is another Latin one, according to which loss of reason is the true harbinger of destruction. But what happens to a society in which both these losses–the loss of courage and the loss of reason–intersect? This is the picture which I found the West presents today” (pp. 126-127). This predicament, he thought, proceeds from centuries of philosophical and theological development and colonial expansion.
The First World War, culminating this process, virtually destroyed Europe, and in its wake the evils of socialism inundated Russia, annihilating 100 million or more of its people. Europeans, eschewing moral criteria to follow narrowly pragmatic policies, stood by silently. England’s prime minister, “Lloyd George actually said: ‘Forget about Russia. It is our job to ensure the welfare of our own society” (p. 131). So Russia’s erstwhile “allies,” ignoring her wartime sacrifices, did nothing to stop the Bolshevik’s triumph, tyranny, and terror. Even as millions were executed or sent into the Gulag Archipelago, when six million peasants died in the Ukraine in the 1930s, Westerners ignored it. Sadly, Solzhenitsyn said: “Not a single Western newspaper printed photographs or reports of the famine; indeed, your great wit George Bernard Shaw even denied its existence. ‘Famine in Russia?’ he said. ‘I’ve never dined so well or so sumptuously as when I crossed the Soviet border.'” (p. 133).
Similarly, during WWII England and the Allies benefited from Russia’s assistance. But following the war Stalin continued, with little criticism in the West, to oppress his people. “Twice we helped save the freedom of Western Europe,” he said. “And twice you repaid us by abandoning us to our slavery” (p. 136). Frankly, he believed that Westerners preferred peace and security, pleasure and comfort, to demanding justice for Russia’s oppressed. So they ignored the mass deportations of “whole nations to Siberia” and the occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania! Having stopped Hitler, they seared their consciences and remained untroubled with Stalin.
Indeed, rather than seriously evaluating and learning from Russia’s disaster, Western intellectuals seemed (in the 1970s) willing to replicate it! “And what we see is always the same as it was then: adults deferring to the opinion of their children; the younger generation carried away by shallow, worthless ideas; professors scared of being unfashionable; journalists refusing to take responsibility for the words they squander so easily; universal sympathy for revolutionary extremists; people with serious objections unable or unwilling to voice them; the majority passively obsessed by a feeling of doom; feeble governments; societies whose defensive reactions have become paralyzed; spiritual confusion leading to political upheaval” (p. 130).
Solzhenitsyn was particularly incensed by the “misty phantom of socialism” so prevalent in places like England. “Socialism has created the illusion of quenching people’s thirst for justice: Socialism has lulled their conscience into thinking that a steamroller which is about to flatten them is a blessing in disguise, a salvation. And socialism, more than anything else, has caused public hypocrisy to thrive,” enabling Europeans to ignore Soviet atrocities (p. 141). There’s actually no logic to socialism, for “it is an emotional impulse, a kind of worldly religion,” embraced and followed with blind faith (p. 142). As an ideology, it is spread and embraced by immature, sophistic believers.
The British, of course, had drifted toward socialism under the post-WWII Labor leaders. Consequently, “Great Britain, the kernel of the Western world, has experienced this sapping of its strength and will to an even greater degree, perhaps, than any other country. For some twenty years Britain’s voice has not been heard in our planet; its character has gone, its freshness has faded” (p. 144). The land of Churchill had vanished! “Contemporary society in Britain is living on self-deception and illusions, both in the world of politics and in the world of ideas” (p. 144). What was true about Great Britain, he insisted, was equally true about much of the West.
As one would anticipate, Solzhenitsyn’s BBC career ended abruptly! Neither British nor American politicians, labor leaders, professors or journalists wanted to be rebuked for their failures! In the 1970s, neither the United Nations nor the Europeans, neither Richard Nixon nor George McGovern, neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter, neither William J. Fullbright nor John F. Kerry had the courage to oppose Communism in Southeast Asia. Nor do numbers of their successors today seem ready to deal with the violence and injustices in the Middle East. Let us, however, never say that no one warned us about appeasement’s desserts!