Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died August 3 at the age of 89. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian author, political dissident, social critic, and one of the great thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Time magazine called his Gulag Archepleago, “the most important book of the 20th century.” In 1970 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich. Personally, I regard his commencement address at Harvard University on June 8, 1978 as one of the most prophetic events of the 20th century. In his address, A World Split Apart, Solzhenitsyn argues that the only hope for the future of western civilization is a spiritual awakening. Here is a portion of the Harvard address. I urge you to read it thoughtfully and perceive how prophetic it was then and remains today.

But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. 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? [That’s the kind of thing prophets say. -BZ]

How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing steadily in accordance with its proclaimed social intentions, hand in hand with a dazzling progress in technology. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times.
I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the pro-claimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all. It started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshiping man and his material needs. [Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool / And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled / Oh, man is opposed to fair play / He wants it all and he wants it his way. -Bob Dylan]

Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtle and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. Thus gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today. Mere freedom per se does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and even adds a number of new ones.

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.

I am not examining the case of a disaster brought on by a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. But as long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we must lead an everyday life. Yet there is a disaster which is already very much with us. I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.

It has made man the measure of all things on earth — imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West. This is the essence of the crisis: the split in the world is less terrifying than the similarity of the disease afflicting its main sections.

It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance should be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or to the availability of gasoline. [How little things have changed in 30 years! -BZ] Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism.

Today it would be retrogressive to hold on to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Such social dogmatism leaves us helpless before the trials of our times. Even if we are spared destruction by war, life will have to change in order not to perish on its own. We cannot avoid reassessing the fundamental definitions of human life and society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?

If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era. The ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.

WOW! Honestly, I regard this address as one of them most prophetic events of the 20th century. And I can tell you the majority of the faculty at Harvard were none too happy with Solzhenitsyn’s address. But such are prophets. They don’t show up to please people and collect their speaking fee. No, it was more like, Jeremiah addresses the Western world!

(You can read the entire address HERE.)

Solzhenitsyn was converted from atheism to faith in Christ through the witness of a Jewish believer while serving an eight year sentence in a labor camp for referring to Stalin in a private letter as, “the man in the mustache.” He recounts these events in part IV of Gulag Archipelago, “The Soul and Barbed Wire.” The chapter entitled “The Ascent” has had a huge impact on me. Let me share of portion of it with you.

(Solzhenitsyn is reflecting upon how his suffering in prison has transformed him. His suffering was part of his journey to salvation. But then Solzhenitsyn ponders the cruelty of the guards and their seeming prosperity and what it means.)

You are ascending…

Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. Now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness — and you can therefore understand the weakness of others.

The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending…

Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering.

And what would one then have to say about our so evident torturers: Why does not fate punish them? Why do they prosper? And the only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity… And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

This is a truly profound and spiritual view on what it means to be human and the redemptive possibilities found in suffering.

Later in the same chapter Solzhenitsyn says this…

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how a human being becomes good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties — but right through every human heart and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

The opposite extreme of the humanistic secularism which Solzhenitsyn critiqued in his Harvard address is reactionary fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the wrongheaded religious reaction to secularism. Fundamentalism is many things, but it is characterized by a sense of personal infallibility in matters moral and theological, a hyper-literal (and thus inaccurate) reading of Scripture, and a tendency to draw the line separating good and evil between easily identifiable groups of people. All of these phenomena are fear based reactions to a secularized society. Fundamentalism is not rooted in faith, but in fear. The problem is, fundamentalist fear is all too easily confused for authentic faith. When this happens it is a spiritual disaster.

Regarding the fundamentalist tendency to draw a line separating good and evil between easily identifiable groups of people (Us vs. Them), Solzhenitsyn’s sentence — The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through every human heart — has helped me immeasurably. We don’t have to naively believe that Christians are the “good people” and non-Christians are the “bad people.” The argument doesn’t work. We all know non-Christians who are moral, generous and humane. We also know Christians who are petty, self-centered and judgmental. But we don’t evaluate Christianity on the basis of groups of people, but on an individual basis. What would the “bad” Christian be without Christ? Perhaps a dangerous criminal. What could the “good” non-Christian be with Christ? Perhaps an apostle. Solzhenitsyn taught me to see the line separating good and evil running through the hearts of individuals and not easily identifiable groups.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not a perfect man. I disagree with many of his views. But he was a prophet who was an important voice during the tumultuous 20th century. I know I am the richer for having read some of his works and I can only hope that in the 21st century there will be those who have ears to hear his prophetic words.