Revisiting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s warnings to the West

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? While Solzhenitsyn insisted that his criticisms were meant to be constructive, coming “not from an adversary but a friend,” he alienated Americans across the political spectrum by condemning a “destructive and irresponsible freedom” that had, in America, been granted “boundless space.” President Ford, put out by Solzhenitsyn’s intransigent anti-Communism, had already declared the dissident a “horse’s ass.” Now others agreed.

Asinine or no, Solzhenitsyn’s speech must be read in the context of Russian conservatism, a tradition which differs in key respects from its American counterpart. Whereas the American conservative imagination is typically informed by the US Constitution and the Founding Fathers, the Russian conservative takes his bearings from iconography, liturgical music, and folk tales. For better or worse, Russian patriotism is bound up with Slavic heritage and the Orthodox Church, not the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Following writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and N.M. Karamzin, the Russian conservative tends to interpret modern history as a struggle between those who would preserve Russia’s spiritual integrity and those who would impose Western culture upon the motherland. It is no coincidence that the most frenzied and destructive characters in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov, and Demons are those most intoxicated with trendy European ideas. Nor is it a coincidence that in his Memoir On Ancient and Modern Russia Karamzin, fervent monarchist though he was, ventured to make a negative evaluation of the celebrated Peter the Great. “We became citizens of the world,” said Karamzin regarding Peter’s campaign to Westernize his empire, “but ceased in certain respects to be the citizens of Russia.” To Karamzin the Europhile sovereign’s heavy-handed attempt “to transform Russia into Holland” reflected more zeal than prudence.

Solzhenitsyn went further and openly detested the reformist tsar, for he doubted that Peter had really appreciated anything about Western culture aside from its most superficial trappings: wealth, glamor, gunpowder. The Petrine program had caused Russian elites to abandon their roots, and had even set the stage for Bolshevism. How could those incapable of relating to their own people hope to understand those of faraway lands?

Solzhenitsyn believed little good would ever come from the effort to remake every culture in the image of the West, and he broadcast this conviction loud and clear at Harvard. There, he denounced

the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick.

The preceding passage deserves especially close attention, as there has been a closing of the American mind vis-a-vis nuance and complexity: for many American conservatives, imposing “the American way” over the entire planet is deemed the only possible alternative to amoral relativism. The Solzhenitsyn position, in contrast, is that there is nothing per se relativist about respecting differences between civilizations and political orders. To admit that justice does not manifest itself in precisely the same forms in every country is not to doubt the universal quality of justice, anymore than recognizing Earth’s breathtaking diversity of ecosystems is to doubt the fundamental laws of chemistry and biology. Just because everyone should be healthy does not mean everyone should adopt precisely the same diet, habits, and lifestyle. Each particular people has its own unique character, along with its own specific strengths and weaknesses. The statesman will acknowledge this fact not only when dealing with other nations, suggested Solzhenitsyn, but also when governing his own.

Solzhenitsyn outlived the Soviet regime and in 1994 was finally able to return to his native land. He made a stop in Europe along the way to take part in a commemoration of the War of the Vendée—one of the most catastrophic episodes of the French Revolution. As the Vendée loyalists have been almost entirely forgotten in the West, even by their own co-religionists, it may seem odd to find a Russian Orthodox offering honor to their memory. For Solzhenitsyn, however, few stories could hit closer to home than that of the heroic peasants who paid the ultimate price for defying the decrees of the totalitarian, anti-clerical French revolutionaries. The parallels between France’s experience with the Jacobins and Russia’s experience with the Bolsheviks were for him much too obvious to ignore.

Far from being something to glorify, the legacy of revolution is usually unwholesome, Solzhenitsyn explained in remarks at the Vendée memorial:

That revolution brings out instincts of primordial barbarism, the sinister forces of envy, greed, and hatred—this even its contemporaries could see all too well. They paid a terrible enough price for the mass psychosis of the day, when merely moderate behavior, or even the perception of such, already appeared to be a crime. But the twentieth century has done especially much to tarnish the romantic luster of revolution which still prevailed in the eighteenth century.

As half-centuries and centuries have passed, people have learned from their own misfortunes that revolutions demolish the organic structures of society, disrupt the natural flow of life, destroy the best elements of the population and give free rein to the worst; that a revolution never brings prosperity to a nation, but benefits only a few shameless opportunists, while to the country as a whole it heralds countless deaths, widespread impoverishment, and, in the gravest cases, a long-lasting degeneration of the people.

Arriving home, Solzhenitsyn devoted his final years to helping Russia recover from the wounds inflicted by her own revolution. Like many Russians he was appalled by the Yeltsin era, which had allowed unscrupulous oligarchs and foreign financiers to loot the nation in the name of freedom. Regarding his earlier themes he became even more strident, especially when, in his words, the US “launched an absurd project to impose democracy all over the world.”

Yet however critical he remained with respect to the American government, press, and popular culture, Solzhenitsyn also remembered with affection and respect the people of Montpelier, among whom he had lived for so long, and hoped to see his countrymen manifest some of the neighborliness and civic-spiritness he had encountered in Vermont. With Americans finding themselves increasingly subject to a revolutionary-minded judiciary regime, perhaps they also have something to learn from their former guest.

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About Jerry Salyer 59 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.