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Solzhenitsyn’s Kick Against The Pricks

As global soccer fans tune in to the sport’s World Cup in Moscow, Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza salutes the 40th anniversary of the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s earth-shaking commencement speech at Harvard University.

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Solzhenitsyn’s Kick Against The Pricks June 14, 2018  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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The World Cup begins in Moscow today, and the eyes of the vast majority of the world’s sports fans will be turned to Russia for the next month. Somewhat immune from the attraction of a nil-nil thriller settled on penalty kicks, I offer in honour of Russia’s World Cup one of Russia’s greatest sons. Not Vladimir Putin.

I have written thousands of columns, but never one that asked readers to stop reading it – so that they might read something else. But on the fortieth anniversary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement address at Harvard, it would seem a bit pretentious to ask readers to read me instead of him

You can find the text as printed in the Harvard Magazine in 1978, or in a more reader-friendly form at Orthodoxy Today.

Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist whose mastery of the art had him spoken of as another Dostoevsky, certainly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but did not go to collect the prize, as he feared he would not be allowed back into the Soviet Union. 

In 1974, as The Gulag Archipelago appeared, he was exiled from the Soviet Union and instantly became one of the most famous anti-communist voices the world over. 

He moved about from Germany to Switzerland, and then to Stanford University before settling in relative obscurity in Cavendish, Vermont in 1976. 

In 1978, Harvard scored a major coup. Solzhenitsyn agreed to accept an honorary doctorate of letters, and to be the commencement speaker. His speech on 8th June 1978 were his first public remarks since coming to live in the United States.

It was a moment of major historical drama, the great dissident novelist at the great American university during the Cold War. He then delivered the most memorable commencement address in history, what Christian philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft – who was present for the address – would call “one of the most important speeches in the history of our civilization.”

More than 30 years after it was delivered, it was still remembered at Harvard in 2011:

Given the suffering he had endured in the Soviet Union, many in the audience expected that the writer’s address would be a stern rebuke to Communist totalitarianism, combined with a paean to Western liberty and democracy. The Tercentenary Theatre audience was in for a rude surprise. The Exhausted West delivered in Russian with English translation under overcast skies, chastised the arrogance and smugness of Western materialist culture and exposed the adverse effects of some of those achievements that Western democracies had long prided themselves upon. “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals,” the author declared, for example. “It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” 

Solzhenitsyn's brilliant, iconoclastic speech ranks among the most thoughtful, articulate, and challenging addresses ever delivered at a Harvard Commencement. 

“Iconoclastic” is an odd word to describe a champion of Russia’s millennium-0ld spiritual patrimony, in which sacred icons hold a central place. But Solzhenitsyn did smash icons that day; the icons worshipped then – and now – at Harvard and other places of elite opinion. 

And after June 8 1978, Solzhenitsyn was no longer celebrated at Harvard or other such places. The glamorous left him alone in Cavendish, where he remained until 1994, when he returned to Russia – the empire of the Soviet Union having been consigned to history.

Quoting the 1978 Solzhenitsyn address is a fool’s errand. Once one begins, where to stop? But one can begin at the beginning, where the great Slavic realism about history makes itself evident in contrast to the optimism of the new world:

Harvard's motto is VERITAS. Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

Yes, the truth will set you free. But it is the freedom that one finds on the road to the Cross.

Solzhenitsyn made no apology at all for communism, but thought that while addressing a Western audience, he might offer a critique more relevant to them. He began with a rhetorical blow that no doubt made the Harvard faculty wonder why they had invited him:

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 party, 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. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

Ouch. And that was at the beginning of a nearly 6000-word speech. Solzhenitsyn would survey the democratic scene and conclude that rights uprooted from their religious roots would lead to man’s diminishment:

And yet in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God's creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims.

Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming ever more materialistic. The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even excess, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer. 

In the past decades, the legalistic selfishness of the Western approach to the world has reached its peak and the world has found itself in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the celebrated technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century's moral poverty, which no one could have imagined even as late as the nineteenth century.

There of course is much more. It is most worthwhile to read it all, and most relevant to our project here at Convivium. And even at great length, you can still finish it before the penalty kicks settle that nil-nil draw at the World Cup.


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