CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Passing of a Prophet: Vale Solzhenitsyn

Aug 4, 2008

A mighty prophet has just left us. One of the great figures of the past century has passed away. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, born in Russia in 1918, was one of the great voices for freedom, morality and faith in a century of tyranny, immorality and secularism.

He was certainly a crowning figure in recent history. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. By then he had already penned some valuable works, including three important novels: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962); The First Circle (1968); and Cancer Ward (1968).

But he is of course best known for his chronicle of Soviet totalitarianism and the gulag system, which he spent so many years in. His three-volume The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1978) was his masterwork. In some 1500 pages he carefully and meticulously described the horrors of the Soviet prison camps, the barbarities and cruelties of the bankrupt Communist system, and the flickers of hope contained within the human spirit.

It was a book which would lead many lefties and communist sympathisers to reconsider their position, and cause them to think afresh of the realities of Communist dictatorships. As Daniel Mahoney wrote in 1995, The Gulag Archipelago is “one of the indispensable books of the last fifty years not least because it undermined the moral and political legitimacy of the entire Communist enterprise. . . . It allowed readers on both sides of the Iron Curtain to encounter totalitarian oppression as though for the first time,”

“At their root was mankind’s and Solzhenitsyn’s nemesis: ideology. Unlike the conventional analyses of academic historians and political scientists, Solzhenitsyn’s understanding never treated the Soviet Union as merely one tyranny among others. Rather, it was an ideological regime built upon the twin pillars of violence and lies. It was ‘thanks to ideology’ that the 20th century experienced ‘evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.’ Ideology allowed tyrants and intellectuals alike to justify the unjustifiable and to amplify violence to nearly unimaginable levels.”

After his release from the gulag he spent some years in exile in the West. He returned to Russia in 1994, where he lived and wrote until his death this past weekend. He will always be remembered as a champion of freedom and faith, and a steadfast opponent of tyranny and oppression.

Perhaps one fitting way to remember the man is to look at just one episode of his life while he resided in the US. On June 8, 1978 he delivered the commencement address to Harvard University. In his stirring speech he argued that a demoralised and post-Christian West is no match for, and not much better than, Soviet totalitarianism. He called for a moral and spiritual renewal in America to enable it to withstand atheistic, humanistic communism. Yet his prophetic call was greeted with boos and derision by the educated elites at Harvard.

Despite the poor reception his words received, they are important and vital words nonetheless. Indeed, they were reprinted that year by Harper and Row as A World Split Apart. It is worth recalling some of those prophetic words. One section of his speech was on “Humanism and Its Consequences”. I reprint that section here:

“How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. 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 basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.”

“The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically. The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.”

“However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because 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 thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the Twentieth century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the Nineteenth Century.”

His whole speech is worth reading in its entirety. Indeed, it can be found in various places on the Net, for example: www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html

Solzhenitsyn knew that secular humanism was not the answer to our problems. Indeed, it was the cause. It gave rise to atheistic Soviet tyranny. Only the Judeo-Christian worldview can provide the hope needed to resist such darkness. Indeed, in his 1983 Templeton Prize speech he put it this way:

“Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘We have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read numbers of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by the upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened’.”

Absolutely. Would that more such prophets were on the scene to proclaim such needed truths.

[1328 words]

9 Responses to The Passing of a Prophet: Vale Solzhenitsyn

  • Bill,

    So few understand and appreciate his contribution to Mankind. People such as he should be our celebrities not “rock stars”, “movie stars, “porn stars” etc.

    Today on Channel Ten immediately following the 11am News a mainstrean media documentary, albeit brief, on the actual criminal and sinful legacy of Mao in Communist China was aired. Hope eternally flickers.

    John FG McMahon

  • I am glad you have given attention to this man on your website. I have only recently read his speech at Harvard and I would definitely put it right up there with C.S. Lewis’ ‘Abolition of Man’.

    We should pray for a prophet of the new generation to answer the call.

    Mendel Ottow

  • Bill,
    I am afraid that the same call as Solzhenitsyn made at Harvard would be greeted with even more hisses, boos, and derision in our present leftist-controlled world. What will the MSM do with his passing? Will it be mere footnote, ushering away an irritation they would prefer to forget, and which they now – thankfully – can?

    I remember well when Solzhenitsyn first hit the West: it was not long after Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, defected to the West. Both were appalled at what they found, especially among the so-called intelligentsia: an intellectually bankrupt West, which had no resistance at all to the prevailing atheism, which they saw as at the root of the Communist poison and tyranny. In this respect they echoed Dostoyevsky in the C19th, who saw the growing atheism in Russia as a potential time-bomb. All three had a clear eye to the real issue of the last 150 years, but the “Western intelligentsia” (read Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Singer, and all their ilk), hell-bound with their militant atheism, rejects their analysis with scorn. Meanwhile, it will be Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, and Alliluyeva who will be remembered.
    Prov.10:7

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Yes indeed, Vale Alexander! I recall Gulag Achipeligo 1 being promoted and circulated by Voice of the Martyrs, founded by another forgotten hero Richard Wurmbrand.

    However I also personally concious of some rascism in so seldom thinking of the even greater numbers left unrecorded in the Chinese Gulag. Is there no Chinese Solzhenitsyn to give the lie to the face of Mao we see staring down from the wall of the Forbidden City and on Chinese bank notes? Would German’s post a picture of Adolf on their bank notes or on the Brandenburg Gate?

    Stephen White

  • Bill
    Great Comment. I have a friend, both of her parents were Chinese generals. The father was a much higher ranking general than the mother. The mother was on the long march. The father was popular with his troops. He fell foul of Mao. The whole family was sent to concentration camps. I interred the ashes of the father and I knew the mother. This has moved the horror of secular humanism from an intellectual level to a personal one for me.
    May I recommend John Carroll’s “Humanism and the Wreck of Western Civilization”. Also worth a read is, “Clergy in the Classroom: The Religion of Secular Humanism” by David Noebel.
    Stan Fishley

  • “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” —Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (11 Dec 1918 – 3 August 2008)
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Jonathan, thanks for those wonderful words by Solzhenitsyn. He really cut to the bone marrow of the underlying spiritual component that needs to be decided by each individual heart.The ruthlessness of communists remains unchanged and increasingly unchallenged. Dangerous times indeed. My husband’s paternal grandfather who was mayor of a Riga district was taken out into a courtyard, lined up against a wall and shot after he refused to supply a list of doctors lawyers teachers etc., (intelligencia) for execution to the ‘victorious’ Russians who were ‘given’ the Baltic country of Latvia (along with half of Europe) as their ’spoils’ of WW2. Churchill was so opposed to this disgraceful outcome and maintained his initial and correct assessment of Stalin as an evil and dangerous man. General Patton wanted to start a third world war at the end of WW2 against the Stalinist Russian aggressive monolith and push them back to their own country. He like Winston had the measure of the man. How history has vindicated these perceptive men. They were not fooled by Stalin and todays Putin is just a rebadged KGB political thug and neo Czar. It’s weird to think Stalin was born a Georgian and this is where the latest dissention and rebellion against the Soviets and its’ so called Federation is centred.

    http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/08/death_of_a_giant.html
    Death of a Giant by Bruce Walker:

    “In the camps of the Gulag, the brilliant Russian atheist found God. He also kept meticulous notes. He chronicled the inhabitants, the processes, and the regions of Hades. When Solzhenitsyn was released from the Gulag, under the thaw after Stalin, he wrote a short story for Novy Mir, the Literary Gazette, entitled ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.’ We tame moderns cannot imagine the courage that it took simply to submit that short story. The author, after all, was a Zek, a political prisoner, who had been released. It would have been less than nothing for the KGB to simply re-arrest him and send him to spend the rest of his life in the very monstrous system from which he had been released. No one else, as far as we know, did what Solzhenitsyn did – although others would follow in his footsteps.”

    Jennifer Parfenovics

  • Great article here at American Thinker: http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/08/solzhenitsyn_reagan_and_the_de.html

    Solzhenitsyn, Reagan, and the Death of Détente by Paul Kengor

    “When even Jimmy Carter figures out totalitarianism, you know that the totalitarians are in trouble. This was détente’s death knell. But it was not yet the death knell for the USSR. That had to await Carter’s exit from the presidency and Reagan’s entrance. Beginning in 1981, Ronald Reagan would go on the offensive, pursuing nothing short of the dissolution of the USSR. All along, he could count on Solzhenitsyn as a friendly voice of support. In fact, both Solzhenitsyn and Reagan came to admire one another, with Solzhenitsyn telling Reagan after the assassination attempt: ‘I rejoice that the United States at last has a president such as you and I unceasingly thank God that you were not killed by that villainous bullet.’ Reagan, in turn, thanked God for Solzhenitsyn. The great dissident did far more than simply write a great book or two. Solzehnitsyn played a significant role in the American effort to place a stake in the heart of militant, atheistic Soviet communism. And for that and much more, Alexander Solzhenitsyn can now rest in peace, receiving some long overdue rewards, eternally free from the Siberian hell run by his tormentors.”

    Jennifer Parfenovics

  • See also The Prophet At Harvard by Dinesh D’Souza for Solzhenitsyn’s devastating criticism of Western lefties for:

    * lack of courage in facing a totalitarian enemy
    * becoming soft because of materialism
    * litigious culture that has wrenched law away from right and wrong
    * more concern with the rights of criminals and terrorists than their victims
    * abusing freedom with pornography and horror
    * press misusing freedom to act as judge and jury, making heroes out of terrorists, and intruding into private lives to titillate the gossip-hungry
    * disappearing spiritual life

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

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