On June 8, 1978, Soviet dissident and literary giant Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) delivered a “thunderbolt of a commencement address” at Harvard University. The Harvard address is also known by the title, ‘A World Split Apart’. It follows up on Solzhenitsyn’s earlier speeches compiled in a volume called ‘Warning to the West’. The crowd at Harvard that afternoon numbered about 20,000. Solzhenitsyn was an anti-communist and survivor of the Soviet Union’s murderous gulag labour camps, but that wasn’t what he came to talk about. It shocked many at the time. Solzhenitsyn told his audience that the “West is spiritually sick” therefore, “it is ill-equipped to rescue the oppressed from their captivity, especially those held captive by the tyranny of communism.” He also warned, “Our excesses and materialism are doing us in.”
Solzhenitsyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature for his powerful writing on communist oppression and spiritual emptiness. His 1962 novel, ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, described life in a Stalinist labour camp. The tone of the 1968 novel ‘The First Circle’ was marvellously new, with no villains in it, which many people might think showed incredible tolerance, but it displayed something else, really—that when the world is reduced to guiltless criminals, freaks, nuts, narks, and placemen, a loud laugh is more crushing than a howl of agony. By 1973 Solzhenitsyn had published ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, which exposed the system of labour camps in far greater detail, resulting in his 1974 expulsion from the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn’s importance as the writer who stripped bare the Soviet regime to reveal its true essence cannot be underestimated. His writings inspired people throughout the Soviet Union and the world with their unflinching revelations. But his indepth look at the “West’s Shortcomings” was indeed a penetrating one: first, the decline in civic courage was the “most striking feature” of the West, to Solzhenitsyn’s eyes. He could see it happening in Western countries, political parties, and 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.” Along with this is a loss of will in the West: “there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being;”second, dependency– the welfare state and the ever increasing desire for material goods doesn’t bode well for anybody, Solzhenitsyn noted. He made an analogy with the biological reality that “a high degree of habitual well being is not advantageous to a living organism.” The declining self-reliance, consumerism, and material cravings have eroded the capacity to develop and grow; third, hyper-individualism–“Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives towards further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames 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 also less than worthy of man;”fourth–laws are passed without regard to virtue, “there will be hell to pay.” We end up in what Solzhenitsyn called “an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses;”fifth–excessive and unchecked freedom is leading to evil. When individual rights become extreme, taking precedence over human obligations, we end up in a situation in which certain individuals accrue so much power that society becomes defenceless against them. Solzhenitsyn’s most profound expression of this point comes from ‘The Gulag Archipelago’: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Critics knew too well that Solzhenitsyn disqualified the West from being a model to the rest of the world. It’s in a state of “spiritual exhaustion.” Its mass commercialism, technologies, and mass living habits have produced a stupor. He called out the carelessness and superficiality that he saw in the Western press. To him “Media is unelected arbiters”of the society and culture. Obviously, when journalism becomes propaganda, the society sinks in deep trouble. He stated: “the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, exceeding that of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Yet one would like to ask: According to what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?”He also challenged the way political correctness prevents true scholarship and independent thinking, warning us to shun it because it only creates “dangerous herd instincts.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Sovietism was heroic and influential, but his observation on the political short-sightedness in the West was intense. The death of the literary colossus and anti-Soviet dissident has, quite rightly, been greeted with an outpouring of praise for his principled and brave unmasking of the horrors of the Soviet regime. His literary achievements, closely connected with his dissident activities, have also justifiably received much attention. Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of Soviet Communism was based on the notion that the Bolsheviks imposed a totalitarian system on Russia that had no basis in Russian history or character. Russian culture, he argued, and particularly that of the Russian Orthodox sentiment, was suppressed in favour of atheist Soviet culture. Persona non grata in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn lived in exile in the West from 1974, but found western culture equally to his distaste.
Born in 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia, Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov University, while at the same time taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History. During World War II, he served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Soviet Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was thrice decorated for personal heroism. In 1945 he was arrested for criticising Stalin in private correspondence and sentenced to an eight-year term in a labour camp, to be followed by permanent internal exile. He was finally able to receive the Nobel Prize in December 1974. He returned to his native Russia in May 1994. In 2007 Solzhenitsyn was awarded Russia’s prestigious State Prize for his contribution to humanitarian causes.
It was Solzhenitsyn’s camera eye, his absolute sense of pitch, his Tolstoyan power of characterization, his deep humaneness, his almost military discipline which makes his works both classic and contemporary. Comparison with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev is not hyperbole. It is too difficult to ignore his words in any spot of time: “A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”
Avik Gangopadhyay, an author, critic & columnist, is based in Kolkata, India