Revisiting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's warnings to the West
by Jerry Salyer
The Russian author thought it was no coincidence that Soviet Russia shared certain common problems with the West, for he saw socialism and liberalism as kindred ideologies
With tensions between America and Russia running high, it is worth reconsidering a figure who once cast a long shadow across both lands: Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As a writer, Solzhenitsyn acquired renown through works such as One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch and Gulag Archipelago, whereby he not only exposed the follies, pretensions, and crimes of Marxist-Leninism but also testified to the power infused into the human spirit by its Maker. As a dissident, Solzhenitsyn proved such a nuisance to Soviet authorities that they deported him in 1974, leading him to take up residence in Montpelier, Vermont. At first regarded as a hero by Americans, he eventually found his popularity waning, thanks in part to his controversial 1978 commencement address at Harvard University.
Instead of heaping upon America the praise which might have been expected at the time from a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communist, Solzhenitsyn used his Harvard platform to warn that he had observed phenomena in the United States disturbingly reminiscent of Soviet life:
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.
“The press has become the greatest power within the Western countries,” he also insisted, “more powerful than the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: by what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?”
According to Solzhenitsyn it was no coincidence that Soviet Russia shared certain common problems with the West, for he saw socialism and liberalism as kindred ideologies. Both were rooted in a common utopian project that began during the Enlightenment, he claimed, and thus both were marked by anthropocentricity—the belief that man is the measure of all things. Each ideology began by rejecting tradition and transcendent authority in favor of theories of liberation, and each was destined to afflict mankind with moral chaos. Although more economically efficient than socialism, liberalism will in the end prove just as unsatisfying, he concluded, for “the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer” than “commercial advertising, TV stupor, and intolerable music.”
Unsurprisingly, the Harvard address shocked Americans, particularly journalists, and even struck some of them as ungrateful. How could a man who had escaped the jaws of a despotic regime have the nerve to criticize the country which had taken him in?
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