Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Prophet to the World

August, 2008

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. (Jesus)

One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world. (Solzhenitsyn)

We are all, each in his own way, bound together by a common fate, by the same bands of iron. And all of us are standing on the brink of a great historical cataclysm, a flood that swallows up civilizations and changes whole epochs. (Solzhenitsyn, BBC Interview, March 1976)

On Sunday, August 3, after a day of working at his desk, Solzhenitsyn felt ill, gave some final instructions to his wife and son, and then was gone from this earth. With that one of the bravest and indomitable voices for truth and freedom of the soul was silenced.

But his life’s work of witness against the lies and depravity of the communist dictatorship lives on in his voluminous and soul-stirring writings. It is up to us, the living, to ensure that future generations will remember and honour this exceptional witness of the truth.

Hard Beginnings and Imprisonment

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, Russia, closely coinciding with the birth of a regime that would bring untold misery and death to the long-suffering Russian people. No one could then have had an inkling that this baby, born to an impoverished widow would, against unbelievable odds, not only outlive that murderous tyranny but also mightily contribute to its destruction.

Shortly before his birth his father died in a hunting accident, leaving his mother and an aunt to raise Alexander in harsh circumstances. They moved to Rostov on the Don where he attended school and early felt drawn toward a literary education. Lacking an opportunity to pursue that course, he studied mathematics, a turn of events, he writes, that twice saved his life - because his skills landed him assignments during his imprisonment that helped to ease his circumstances and enabled him to begin writing. (See The First Circle)

During World War II he served as captain of an artillery company on the frontlines until his arrest in early 1945 when he was sentenced to eight years in a detention camp for having insulted Stalin in a letter to a friend. After serving out this sentence, he was exiled for life to southern Kazakhstan, where he taught mathematics and physics in primary schools. In 1953 he developed cancer and nearly died. (See The Cancer Ward) During his recovery he became a Christian helped by his discussions with a Jewish doctor, who also was a Christian convert.

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Solzhenitsyn kept writing in secret, always fearing that his manuscripts would be found and confiscated. He wrote in his autobiography:

During all these years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known.

That changed when in 1962 Khrushchev’s began to relax some controls, and Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish what soon became a sensation, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This book was the first of its kind to be published in Russia, detailing the mind-sapping existence in the brutal camps. But above all, it was a testimony to the strength of the human spirit in dreadful surroundings. But soon the regime tightened the screws again and Solzhenitsyn became a non-person.

Meanwhile, he secretly worked away at composing his memoirs. Although the KGB managed to seize some of his manuscripts, he continued working on the massive three-volume Gulag Archipelago, which he managed to smuggle out of Russia and have it published in the West, beginning in 1974.

The Gulag books are a detailed look based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience, as well as on the testimony of 227 inmates of the camps, at the horrors of the Soviet system, where millions of voiceless Russians were worked, starved and beaten to death. The appearance of this first-hand testimony of the brutality at the core of the communist system exposed the bitter reality: the communist regime was built on a foundation of violence and falsehood. At the same time, Solzhenitsyn’s witness against this evil was suffused with his rock-like conviction that this regime could not withstand the power of truth and therefore would eventually disintegrate.

Finely, the lost and beaten millions perishing in the death camps had found a voice. To realize that someone had succeeded in telling their story to the whole world gave new hope to a broken and abandoned people. In contrast, to the Kremlin masters this first-person exposure of the reality they so much wanted to keep hidden was a disaster that they desperately tried to avert.

Solzhenitsyn’s survival and then the widespread distribution of his shocking revelations represented a mighty blast against what President Reagan called the “evil empire” and no doubt helped to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He did not attend the ceremony for fear that he would be barred from re-entering his beloved homeland. In his absence, Karl Ragnar Gierow of the Swedish Academy made the presentation speech in which he recognized Solzhenitsyn as one in the company of the great Russian authors.

Exile and Return

Four years later he was stripped of his citizenship and deported to West Germany. He lived for a time in Switzerland, then moved to the United States, and in 1976 settled in Cavendish, Vermont, where he continued writing and publishing a number of novels, a history of the Russian Revolutions (1905 and 1917), his memoirs on his stay in the West, a history of Russian-Jewish relations, and many other works. In 1994 he returned to Russia where until his death he continued his arduous work schedule, ably assisted by his wife, Natalia, and other family members.

As he had used his pen to fight the ideology and practice of communism, Solzhenitsyn was no less critical of the shallow and hedonistic notion of freedom now driving the Western democracies. It is exactly on that score that Solzhenitsyn lost many of his initial admirers and supporters in the West. For he never tailored his message to what they wanted to hear. The liberal elite looked on Christianity, which Solzhenitsyn had embraced, as a relic of the past and an obstacle to progress and true freedom.

Solzhenitsyn wrote of his conversion to the Christian faith when he lay on his bed near death, utterly alone, bereft of any external source of comfort. It was then that he felt overcome by an amazing sense of God’s presence that flooded his soul with a super human peace. But at the same time he came to the realization that evil is not just out there, in the enemy, but as he put it:

It was on rotting prison straw that I felt the first stirrings of good in myself. Gradually it became clear to me that the line separating good from evil runs not between states, not between classes, and not between parties - it runs through the heart of each and every one of us, and through all human hearts.

A Hard Message

Thirty years ago, Solzhenitsyn addressed a crowd at Harvard on “A World Split Apart.” The title referred to the split between two world powers, but he meant much more than the conflict between Communism and the democratic West.

He began by reflecting on Harvard’s motto “Veritas” (Ttruth), which easily eludes us, and that in any case often is unpleasant and even bitter.

The thrust of his message to the elite Harvard audience was that the seeds of the disaster that has befallen the Russian people are also present in the free West. Solzhenitsyn said that he discerned a kind of spiritual, moral sickness in the West that has ominous implications for its future. Here is a summary of the warning signs listed in his Harvard speech.

A decline in Courage. This may be the “most striking feature” of the West, which has lost its civil courage. Such loss is most noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite. Although there are still many courageous individuals, they have no real influence on public life. History has shown that decline in courage is often the beginning of the end.

Well-Being. The modern Western states were created to cater to the popular desire for happiness, which has resulted in the welfare state. Every citizen is given maximum freedom and material goods. What has been overlooked is that the desire for ever more goods and a still better life gives rise to worry and frustration. Furthermore, when generations are accustomed to seeing their happiness in the good life understood in materialistic terms, why should they risk their life in the defence of common values? (“Better Red than dead.”) An extreme emphasis on safety and well being in today’s welfare state “has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.”

Legalistic Life. Western society is organized around the letter of the law. But this has given rise to applying the law in a manipulative way so that the moral rule is trumped by the desire to win at any cost without any self-restraint. A regime, such as communism, without any legal rules is a terrible one, but a society with no other standard than a legal one is also unworthy of man. It will be impossible to stand through the trials of our threatening age with only the support of a legalistic structure, for it will give rise to “an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”

The Direction of Freedom. Freedom is now seen and experienced as freedom for good as well as for evil deeds. Statesmen who want to accomplish something important will be confronted with many traps. The emphasis on individual rights has undermined administrative power, but what now needs to be emphasized is not human rights but human obligations.

Destructive freedom has made society defenceless against human decadence and criminality. While this speech was given in 1978, Solzhenitsyn showed real foresight in saying that when a government starts to fight terrorism in earnest, it is accused of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. This tilt of freedom in the direction of evil results from the humanistic belief that there is no evil inherent to human nature. Instead, evil is seen to arise from wrong social systems, which must be corrected.

The Direction of the Press. Here too the emphasis is on the letter of the law, but there is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. Every day the public is exposed to hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments. Thus we see terrorists treated as heroes, secret matters pertaining to a nation’s security publicized, or the privacy of well-known people intruded with the false slogan: veryone is entitled to know everything.”

“Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspapers mostly give enough stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.”

A Fashion of Thinking. Without formal censorship in the West, there has nevertheless developed a trend in which certain fashionable ideas always predominate in the media and literature. “This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era.” This self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world becomes a petrified armor around people’s minds.” (Although Solzhenitsyn did not use the term, here he is obviously referring to what is now called “political correctness.”)

Socialism. Although the West has experienced unprecedented economic development and prosperity, many living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. Some of them have turned to socialism, but it is a false and dangerous current. The Soviet mathematician Shafarevich has written a brilliant book, The Socialist Phenomenon, showing that socialism in any type and shade “leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.”

Shortsightedness. Many in the West believe that we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. But such a position implies that we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and that we pave the way for the triumph of absolute Evil in the world. The truth is that only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well-planned strategy. Without such criteria, confusion will remain, and we will not even recognize the enemy for what it is.

This explains the ignorance about the real meaning of the Vietnam War and the betrayal of Far Eastern nations that caused untold suffering and death to millions. American pacifists thought that they had won, but their contribution was to immobilize the nation’s courage. It was the same ignorance that thought the Soviet Union was an ally against Nazi Germany. In fact, Western democracies helped to nurture the Soviet Union with a large number of admirers in the West as a “fifth column.”

Los of Willpower. The current state of the West is one of psychological weakness marked by a refusal to defend itself. Hence the possibility that the next war will bury Western civilization. How has such a sad sate come about?

Humanism* and its Consequences. Solzhenitsyn asks: “How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness?” His answer is bound to alienate most if not all of the Western elite, because he traces the problem back to the prevailing view of the Western world as it developed in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This is the view that humans are supreme, self-sufficient, and therefore are not subject to any authority above themselves. Solzhenitsyn refers to this as “rationalistic humanism” or “humanistic autonomy,” which can also be called “anthropocentricity.”

While the Middle Ages had exhausted itself in repressing man’s physical nature in favour of the spiritual, the Enlightenment took the opposite turn. Then the worship of man and his happiness became the goal by means of unlimited freedom in the use and control of the physical world. As a result man’s sense of responsibility to God has grown dimmer and dimmer, allowing evil to have free reign.

Karl Marx could say, ommunism is naturalized humanism.” He was right, and that is why the communist regime in the East “could stand and grow due to the enthusiastic support of an enormous number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship and refused to see communism’s crimes.”

By placing our hope in political and social reforms, we deprived ourselves of our most precious possession, our spiritual life. Both the communist East and the democratic West are facing a crisis that can only be resolved by turning away form the current, dominant materialistic ideology.

Solzhenitsyn concluded his speech by saying that we have reached a turn in the road that is similar {in impact) 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.

Mixed Reponses

The liberal establishment, well represented in the audience, never forgave Solzhenitsyn for what it perceived to be a tongue-lashing by an anti-modern and anti- Western Russophile. The New York Times preferred the men of the Enlightenment to the “religious enthusiasts sure of their interpretation of the divine will.” James Reston wondered whether Solzhenitsyn’s exaltation of Russian spirituality did not reflect “a mind split apart.” The Washington Post found Solzhenitsyn’s very Russian” and resented his promotion of a “boundless cold war.” (Michael Scammel, Solzhenitsyn, p.969l) And so it went.

On the other hand, many others were overwhelmingly in favour, and Solzhenitsyn is said to have received thousands of letters filled with admiration and enthusiastic support.

Controversy, not surprisingly, has accompanied Solzhenitsyn, especially in his later years when his influence in his homeland began to wane. But he never lagged in his zeal to warn the West. In all his speeches, interviews and books directly addressed to the West he elaborated on the theme set out in his Harvard speech. He did so in his 1983 Templeton Prize address, “Men Have Forgotten God,” in which he stated:

All attempts to find a way out of the plight of todays world are fruitless unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all; without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain.

He expanded on this theme in more detail in his Warning to the Western World,” consisting of two interviews given on the BBC in March 1976. Here he gave numerous examples of Western cowardice and shortsightedness at the cost of millions of lives. He pleaded:

We, the oppressed peoples of Russia, the oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe, watch with anguish the tragic enfeeblement of Europe. We offer you the experience of our suffering; we would like you to accept it without having to pay the monstrous price of death and slavery that we have paid. But your society refuses to heed our warning voices. I suppose we must admit, sad though it is, that experience cannot be transmitted; everyone must experience everything for himself.

A Compelling Question

Solzhenitsyn was a mere human with all his faults and failings. He was often wrong, as when he compared NATO with Hitler’s Nazis, and he grossly misjudged the character of Vladimir Putin. But he was right about the most momentous issue now facing the world. He forced us to face this question, as phrased by his biographer Michael Scammel: “Is this [the disaster of the Soviet regime] a temporary aberration of European culture…or the beginning of the end, the start of a general collapse of our civilization into barbarism.”

Solzhenitsyn’s answer was clear and unequivocal. What gave his message its unassailable force is that he spoke to us from the hellish crucible of the Soviet death camps. His message to us in the West was: ”Look what happened when a godless regime takes over. Let our experience teach you not to continue on your current path of trying to live without God.”

Some want to turn a blind eye to the threats facing our world. Others deny that there is a problem. Then there are the pessimists who think it is hopeless anyway, so let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. All of them dismiss Solzhenitsyn as a nuisance who can safely be ignored.

May I suggest that the right way to assess the life and work of Solzhenitsyn is to recognize it as a sign that God has not given up on this world. This powerful voice appearing from under the rubble of a ruined civilization is a living proof that Evil cannot ultimately destroy the Good. This is so because God so loved the world that he sent his Son into the world not to condemn it but to save it.

That this former atheist was used by God to confront the whole world with this truth must be one of the great wonders of this tumultuous age. The big question is: Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?

* Not to be confused with humanitarianism, that is, seeking the welfare of all others. Here it refers to a philosophy of life based on the belief that humans are not bound by the divine law (secularism).

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