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Solzhenitsyn’s Warning

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While clearing out a storage room filled with books, I came across a slim volume, A World Split Apart, the text of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address. I remember listening to the speech at the time and being disconcerted by the petulant commentary it elicited. Solzhenitsyn had been in the United States only three years, having been expelled by the Soviet government and living as a recluse in Vermont. The consensus—certainly among the great and the good of Cambridge, Massachusetts—was that he was an ultranationalist, a reactionary, and, above all, an ingrate. At the time, I thought the reaction peevish and beside the point. Rereading the speech, it seems even more urgent that we pay heed to his excoriating critique of Western liberalism.

Solzhenitsyn did misunderstand some of the key elements of Western, and specifically American, liberal democracy. He was no democrat, although he unreservedly opposed cruel and arbitrary government. It is true, too, that his deep religious faith and mystical belief in Russia’s destiny were and remain alien to most non-Russians. And it is true, as well, that he had cordial if cautious relations in the early 2000s with Vladimir Putin, although he was staunchly in favor of letting the Soviet Union’s subject nations, including even Ukraine, go their own way.

But what matters now as it did then is his critique of us. We have just seen a feckless House of Representatives pass a ludicrous impeachment of a Cabinet secretary by one vote—and then skip town while avoiding a vote on aid to Ukraine. We have seen the West’s inability to prevent the murder, by direct or indirect means, of a heroic dissident, Alexei Navalny, and the gleeful insouciance of the Russian dictator hours after it was reported. We have seen a foreign war used as an excuse to hound Jews on campuses and in the streets, and we have the horrifying spectacle of a possible return to the presidency of one of the most corrupt and dangerous politicians in American history. Which makes it worthwhile to return to Solzhenitsyn’s speech, a dark reflection for a different dark time.

The speech begins with a slap to our face: “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.” That is as true now as it was then, possibly truer. At home, a great political party collapses in craven subservience to a demagogue. Abroad, we fear to arm Ukraine adequately to defeat a monstrous aggressor; we fear to punish an Iranian regime that has repeatedly sought to kill our people and occasionally succeeds; we fear to face the fact that all of us in the liberal-democratic world are spending way less than what we need to defend ourselves.

Domestically, we fear to dissent from the orthodoxies of our respective subcultures. Nowhere is this more true than among those who should prize intellectual courage, as Solzhenitsyn did. “Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.” When the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression consistently rates America’s oldest and most prestigious university one of the very worst for freedom of speech, something is deeply amiss. And that is, of course, Harvard, the very university at which Solzhenitsyn spoke, whose motto is Veritas—“Truth.”

One is hard-pressed today to name more than a handful of truly courageous professors, deans, and university presidents willing to jeopardize their careers and their social standing by taking unpopular stands—unyielding opposition to DEI rules and bureaucracies, for example. The very notions that reasonable people can disagree on important matters, that one’s point of view reflects individual thought rather than identity or tribe, and that physical intimidation has no place in civilized politics are all at risk.

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Solzhenitsyn talked about intellectuals because, as a Russian of that ilk, he believed that writers were the conscience of their countries. For politicians he had little use, but surely courage is sorely lacking there as well. When Donald Trump sneered at John McCain, a heroic figure if ever there was one, who had suffered terribly for his country and loved it unreservedly, Trump paid no political price. Which means that the problem was not so much Trump as it is us. It has been a very long time since a rising young American politician, badly injured in his own war service, published Profiles in Courage and was acclaimed for it.

At the root of the West’s troubles, Solzhenitsyn believed, was the view that man is the measure of all things, that social problems of all kinds can be managed away, that evil is not embedded in human nature, and that the ultimate purpose of life is happiness. In large measure, we in the West still believe these things. Above all we talk endlessly about happiness, as measured by psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists. To which Solzhenitsyn observed, if “man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die.” And as he pointed out, if such a credo holds, “for the sake of what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of the common good?” Which may explain the struggles of many armies, including the American, to fill their ranks.

Of course, Solzhenitsyn’s imprecations were too harsh—that is the nature of prophets and seers, who of necessity scorn popularity. And of course, there are exceptions, although today they are found at the margins of the West more than at its core. The dogged persistence of Ukraine in its unequal war, the return of some Israeli citizens to their devastated settlements on the Gaza border, the example of not only Navalny but many other Russian writers and dissidents including Anna Politkovskaya and Vladimir Kara-Murza tell us that the wellsprings of courage are not yet dry. Perhaps they never can be. There is consolation as well in the thought that, in the end, the evil empire that Solzhenitsyn fought against collapsed of its own weight, that its persecution of him, like its successor’s murder of Navalny, bore testimony to its weakness, not its strength.

But the moment is an undeniably bleak one. Solzhenitsyn concluded: “The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?” True enough.

I am just old enough to remember the shock of Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume Gulag Archipelago, which brought home to Western audiences the full nature of Soviet terror, and not just of the Stalinist variety. In many countries (France most notably, but others as well) it broke through the tendency to think of the Soviet Union as being as much sinned against as sinning, or its actions as those of a superpower with only somewhat worse manners than our own. Yet versions of such cynical beliefs thrive today, as in Tucker Carlson’s flippant assertion that all leaders kill people, so what’s the big deal?

A few heroes are out there, but too few. There are some minor prophets, but they lack the furious eloquence of their predecessors. So perhaps it is the time to recall the old heroes and reread the old prophets, and ask what they would make of the crisis of the West, and how they would have met it. Then we should let their words and their example inspire us to meet this challenge, as we have others in the past. As Solzhenitsyn concluded, the way forward is upward.

Source: The Atlantic

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