Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Tribute

When the enemies of Christian social order attack one of its champions, they are never satisfied simply to say he is wrong. They also invariably seek to discredit the man as a man by casting doubt on his integrity or otherwise disparaging him. They do this by exposing, or appearing to expose, a personal weakness or character flaw or even his mental state. They will say, for instance, So-and-So in wrong and he is a drunk, or a womanizer, or is secretly gay.

With Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the question of his mental state was raised. Anyone around in the 60’s and early 70’s and who is possessed of a memory that extends past the latest news cycle will recall that as long as the great writer was still inside the Soviet Union and it was useful to Western media to be able to report on the activities of a “dissident” other than a liberal like Andrei Sakharov or someone Jewish like Natan Sharansky, Solzhenitsyn could do no wrong. “Heroic” was an adjective often attached to his name in those days. However, within a week of his expulsion from his homeland and arrival in West Germany in 1974, our newspapers were telling us that there were those (somehow no one was named) who wondered about his “emotional stability”. Why, it was said he hated automobiles and high-rise buildings!

Solzhenitsyn’s real trouble was that his moral stance and the politics he derived from it were not liberal or Zionist but counter-revolutionary, maybe even monarchist, and certainly Christian. He did not write about religion, but nobody but a Christian would have his point of view.. The man was a believer. Of course this was obvious to anyone who bothered actually to read much of him, but even his best-known work, the monumental three-volume The Gulag Archipelago, was one of those massive books everybody wanted on his shelves for visitors to see but of which no more than a relative few pages got read. Thus the news that perhaps the author was not so “heroic” after all came as a shock to many.

For numerous such persons the shock turned to positive rejection of the man when they still had not read him but could hear for themselves his views expressed in his own voice. This was when he delivered his famous commencement address at Harvard University thirty years ago this past June. (It is interesting that former Nixon aide and Evangelical leader Charles Colson recalls the speech in a column he must have written earlier this summer for the August issue of Christianity Today. I am going to cite, though to a somewhat different end, some of the same passages of the speech cited by him.)

Never in the history of graduation ceremonies has the world been more primed to listen to a speech delivered on one of these occasions. There was live television and radio coverage. The students and faculty gathered in Harvard Yard sat rapt in expectation of what their distinguished speaker might say. I remember that at first some of it was met with smatterings of applause, but as the simultaneous translation of Solzhenitsyn’s talk made what he was saying start to sink in, looks of anticipation on many faces turned to expressions of dismay and even outrage. The point was soon reached when audible boos could be heard and members of the audience were seen walking out. It was as if an Old Testament prophet had been invited by mistake to be guest of honor at the banquet of a profligate prince, and instead of thanking his host and flattering the assembled party-goers rose up and told them they were going to Hell. Except that thirty years ago they still had at Harvard some sense of their peculiar Yankee notion of good manners, as Solzhenitsyn blessedly had not, power to the speaker’s microphone would probably have been cut off.

That would certainly have been when Solzhenitsyn denounced the formerly Christian West for having embraced “rationalistic humanism” in place of “our concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility” so that where there were once men there is now abstract Man who imagines himself “the master of this world…who bears no evil within himself” with the result that “all the defects of life” are really owed to nothing but “wrong social systems.”

The speech grew harsher and the boos louder when Solzhenitsyn turned to the subject of the liberal conception of freedom that fails to distinguish between “freedoms for good” and “freedoms for evil.” What, he demanded to know, was “all this freedom with no purpose” except the “satisfaction of one’s whims”?

Where the Nobel laureate (he was awarded the prize for literature in 1970) really drew blood was when he thundered against the West’s loss of “civic courage…particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites.” Imagine saying that to a Harvard University audience. Talk about speaking truth to power!

After he was exiled to the West (he and his family would live nearly twenty years in the little town of Cavendish, Vermont), another occasion when Solzhenitsyn showed his mettle was during a visit to France. Eschewing the company of the Paris political figures and intellectuals who would have loved a photo op with him, he traveled out to the Vendee. There he laid flowers at the very unofficial monument to the Catholic and royalist peasants of the region who rose up against the Revolution in 1793 and were killed in the fighting, or because they supported the rising, to the number of 250,000.

One way or another, the man never stopped using his position, earned by the sacrifices he made and sufferings he endured, in order to bear such witness. Now he is gone. In real time, these lines are being written on August 4, within hours of the announcement of his death. It is wonderful to hear that on the last day of his long life he was still at his desk, still writing, and that he then died so quickly and in little pain. It must have been a reward for his devotion to his duty right to the end. Of course the tributes are pouring in on his widow Natalya, tributes from the likes of Nicholas Sarkozy and George W. Bush, who could have no more understanding than a badly educated teenager of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was about. The words of condolence she has received from Prime Minister Putin will mean something. Her husband, after all, gave him whole-hearted support. And why not? We’ve seen from last year’s widely published photographs of Putin with his shirt off that he wears a cross around his neck. Of which incumbent leader in the formerly Christian West can that be imagined? The thrice-married Sarkozy? “Bring-‘em-on” Bush?

To be sure, news of the tributes is already tinctured with words of another kind. The BBC in America cable channel this morning had a segment purporting to honor the fallen giant, but with a voice-over commentary that characterized him as an “old-fashioned moralist who saw the world in black and white” and was “too uncompromising”.

Too uncompromising? Is that something like too truthful, too honest, too courageous? As for “black and white,” they are vivid and even dramatic in their contrast as compared to the dismal gray pall liberalism’s sway has spread across ex-Christendom and beyond.

Worse will probably come in days ahead. “Authoritarian” and “anti-Semitic” are two nasty words likely to be heard. It does not matter. A man, any man, who dares even to aspire to begin to emulate him, morally speaking, will not disguise it that he feels privileged simply to have been alive at the same time as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.