Harvard, Solzhenitsyn and Truth

Forty years ago a very significant commencement address was given to the graduating class of Harvard University. It was delivered by one of the most important figures of last century, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). The Soviet dissident, author and historian did much to help bring about the end of Soviet Communism and the Cold War.

I wrote about him often, including when he passed away: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/08/04/the-passing-of-a-prophet-vale-solzhenitsyn/

But here I want to look again at his incisive and prophetic address he gave exactly 40 years ago. The background is this: He was a political prisoner from 1945 to 1953. In 1962 his important work exposing the Soviet labour camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published.

In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He was deported from the USSR in 1974 for publishing The Gulag Archipelago. He lived in Europe for several years and then settled in Vermont in 1976. Harvard University conferred on him an honorary doctor of letters degree, and invited him to be its commencement speaker.

The speech, delivered on June 8, 1978, was his first major public statement since his arrival in America. The same year Harper & Row published it as a paperback entitled A World Split Apart. In it he argued that a demoralised and post-Christian West was no match for, and not much better than, atheistic communism.

Let me offer some parts of it here. He begins by speaking about the importance of truth:

Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

He looks at the two main competing political and ideological systems:

It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world the way to successful economic development, even though in past years it has been sharply offset by chaotic inflation. However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of no longer being up to the level of maturity by mankind. And this causes many to sway toward socialism, which is a false and dangerous current.

I hope that no one present will suspect me of expressing my partial criticism of the Western system in order to suggest socialism as an alternative. No; with the experience of a country where socialism has been realized, I shall not speak for such an alternative. The mathematician Igor Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliantly argued book entitled Socialism; this is a penetrating historical analysis demonstrating that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death. Shafarevich’s book was published in France almost two years ago and so far no one has been found to refute it. It will shortly be published in English in the U.S.

But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.

A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being. Therefore if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores.

It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music. All this is visible to observers from all the worlds of our planet. The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.

There are meaningful warnings that history gives a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, the decadence of art, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.

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, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

He concludes with these words:

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.

Absolutely. Yet incredibly this powerful, passionate and prophetic call was greeted with boos and derision by the ‘educated’ elites at Harvard. The spoiled, secular and amoral Harvard grads despised what he had to say. Yet it was exactly what they needed to hear.

And even more so do we need to hear such truths today. Our world is even more split apart than it was when he gave his speech. And truth is even more absent than it was then. We need more prophets like Solzhenitsyn. While all real prophets are rejected by the masses, we nonetheless need them more than ever.

The speech is online, and can be viewed here: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/SolzhenitsynHarvard.php

[1320 words]

12 Replies to “Harvard, Solzhenitsyn and Truth”

  1. Thanks again Bill. You and fellow visitors to your site might find in it interesting to read Igor’s book, available online:


    Regarding copyright, I can’t address that in detail apart from the fact that the person provided it online as it is now out of print.

  2. I have just read the full text of the speech, and let me encourage everyone to take the time and make the effort to do the same.

    The speech could easily be read today and be almost 100% in tune. We in the West need to understand the issues Alexander Solzhenitsyn (A.S.) raises. There is so much value in it and one wonders if those same Harvard graduates would still boo and laugh.

    Some of the points that jumped out at me are;
    -There is a profound loss of moral courage in our society and A.S. said that loss of courage is one of the first indicators of social decline.

    -He uses the phrase “democratic restraints” as the guide to our society, and shows how that has fallen further and further from the hoped human utopian glory because man is not good but greedy, proud, self… etc. I am reminded of Churchill’s comment “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

    -A.S. bemoans the fact that “voluntary self restraint” sourced from the respect of the “Superior Spirit” above man, has failed. The “democratic restraint” has now degenerated into a society that relies on the letter of the law for moral judgements. Especially seen is the attitude of seeing how far we can go before we break the law. The moral chant then is “we didn’t break the law”. Without the “Superior Spirit” we have no moral guide except to please ourselves.

    -What is this but humanism, or “anthropocentricity”.

    -A telling point is that he sees the problem with the Western culture as “the mistake at the root”. The root of Western culture is the Renaissance. As Christians we can focus on the Reformation, and understand and enjoy the good that comes from that. The Reformation of course has links to the Renaissance, and could possibly be argued as one of the results of it. In the early days of the Renaissance there was, a least in parts, a huge influence from a fear of God that “Supreme Complete Entity”. The profound mistake in the Renaissance, that we are suffering from today, is that the Renaissance was a humanistic movement, and not nearly as religious as it sometimes may appear on the surface.

    The only thing in the speech that could be “out of date” is the opinion that humanism is not really religious. Well I think that we can now recognize that Atheistic Communism was really a religion, and now, so is the Cultural Marxism of our own day. It is certainly with religious fervour that the new im-moral causes are being championed. We have to agree or we get excommunicated from society.

    The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
    In whom (Jesus) are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

  3. I have read about Alexander Solzhenitsyn he said when he asked the people of the USSR what went Wrong they responded with “We had forgotten God”. The west is suffering from “We had forgotten God.” History was supposed to stop those words from being repeated again. My Dad told me, we all make mistakes, Sarah the secret is to learn from them. It seems some adults just want to repeat the mistakes over and over again, for instance, socialism is the must-have road to ruin again even though Venezuelia is the last attempt at socialism to fail spectacularly.

    Another guy you could tell us about Mr Muehlenberg is Iven Moissyev. He was a good Russian man too.

  4. Absolutely brilliant speech. So interesting how someone who has not been subject to the slow-boiling frog of Western decadence can see things with such a clear perspective. Veritas indeed. We now, of course, have been subject to laws that are very obviously based on the lies that homosexual relationships are equal to kin-binding relationships that respect the rights and privileges of blood ties that have been part of civilization for all time and the lies that those yet to be born have no feelings and are not even human and don’t even have the rights of animals. The fact is a spiritual view is not some nebulous thing that has no gravitas. The spiritual realm is actually the solid, not corrupted realm and we are just made in the image of it. The spiritual is a higher level of knowledge, understanding and awareness of truth and morality and this world is only temporarily here to determine who is interested in supporting and seeking that truth and who is not.

    A simple example was when I was discussing how people are losing their right to a Sabbath once a week, with a unionists. I asked him how he was going to justify the claim that people have a right to a day off once a week and the question went straight over his head. He had no concept of justifying anything. His answer was all about how they fight for, and essentially extort, what they want with absolutely no consideration as to how the concept of a Sabbath is part of a fundamental truth. It is the same with human equality. How do you justify the concept without a knowledge of God? The fact is you don’t – this concept came from Christianity. Prior to Christianity those who had power and oppressed others were seen as having virtue and despite the claims of atheists the evidence is clear that this same concept is fundamental to socialism. You do not have to look far into Russian, Chinese and other socialist systems and history to see that what emerged were a very few super rich and very many disenfranchised poor.

    When Solzhenitsyn said: “In America, I have received letters from highly intelligent persons — maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but the country cannot hear him because the media will not provide him with a forum. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to a blindness which is perilous in our dynamic era. An example is the self-deluding interpretation of the state of affairs in the contemporary world that functions as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds, to such a degree that human voices from seventeen countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will be broken only by the inexorable crowbar of events.”
    Nothing could be truer. The fact is this what was prophesied regarding those who worship the image of the Beast. People think this is just something that is future without realizing that the scriptures tell us the anti-Christ has been here since Jesus’ times and the lying image of the Beast is what many are already worshiping. This is what prevents them from coming to the knowledge of the truth. This is precisely why we see inane and stupid people being made into celebrities and why organizations like the Australian public broadcaster (ABC) have to justify the fools they promote by calling them “comedians” or “respected journalists” while at the same time preventing anyone who effectively goes against their socialist perspective from having a say, in complete contravention of all secularist principles I might add. Satan is the master of propaganda – he invented it. We have to work out how to overcome him otherwise faith will not be found when Jesus returns but one way or another, he will be overcome.

  5. God bless you Bill, and thank you!
    Suzanna Balfour & family

  6. What a telling and magnificent speech from a great human being who suffered so much but still held his faith and humanity. Things are far worse now than when Solzhenitsyn gave that speech and I wonder what he would have made of our situation as it is today. To think that even back then the so-called elites of Harvard booed him is seriously indicative of the mind set we now face.

  7. The reading of The Gulag Archipelago instigated the shedding of my first tears for someone else nearly 40 years ago. The memory of that reading haunts me still … and, I have since spent a lifetime shedding tears for others.
    It is up to me and each one of us to show the world how to “un-forget” our supreme God.
    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

  8. I was wondering why in that speech, Solzehenitsyn, simply referred to the solution being ‘above,’ and ‘the superior Spirit.’ Was he, like us in his footsteps, too afraid of the enemy, to be up front about naming our Almighty God and fully trusting in Him for our guidance?
    Michael Weeks, I think, has hit the nail on the head by emphasizing that the Devil or the Anti-Christ has always been active, and especially since the days when Jesus was on earth. He is active now, still with the ability to seduce us to NOT put our trust in God, and to foolishly seek our own selfish alternatives.

  9. Thanks Brian. Perhaps he was just being prudent, aware of the secular and hostile nature of his audience. But he generally was not shy about speaking of God. For example, in his 1983 Templeton Prize speech he said this:

    “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’.”

  10. I use Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address for discussion in my U3A class on Russian History and Literature. There is much meat in it. You used only a very few parts. I like particularly his references to the corrosion of evil that is enabled by the values-free but powerful legalism in our culture.

    Solzhenitsyn is a kindred spirit to Dostoyevsky, my great favourite. Both profoundly Christian writers.

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