Preparing for the Next Election? Read Solzhenitsyn's Address to Harvard

A day in the life of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and its lessons for us today

On the morning of June 8, 1978, rain threatened to fall upon Southern New England. Nevertheless, a celebrity, a hero, came to town to speak to the graduating class of Harvard University — Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

Soon this exile from behind the enemies lines of the Cold War would share his wisdom for all to hear. He came to our shores after suffering the pain of the GULAGs and the persecution as a dissident to what soon-to-be president Reagan would call the Evil Empire. Now, he was living in exile in the esteemed state of Vermont in Northwest New England. He came to America’s most prestigious university to address the class of 1978.

Expectations and realities

Many waited expectantly for the powerful inspiration he would give to Harvard graduates and the surrounding western world. He could speak words borne out of communist oppression, persecution and suffering like no one they ever encountered. However, like a prophet who angers his audience after speaking the truth to power so too did he infuriate the American intelligentsia. He did not stroke their egos but accused them of spiritual bankruptcy and lacking in moral courage.

He railed against a western culture crumbling not because it was too top-heavy over a good foundation but the foundation itself was bad and now the whole structure was about to come down. He taught the privileged students and faculty the roots of the enlightenment were not the exaltation of reason but the anthropocentrism at its core that fooled humans to believe we are the center of the universe.

The political world, he explained, rose to cast out morality for a borderless freedom. Tyranny came in its wake not of government such as he left in the Soviet Union but of culture. The KGB did not enforce this dictatorship but rather it was media in all its forms which demanded conformity to fashion over embracing the truth.

The new tyrants, he lamented, were not elected or appointed, they were invited into our living rooms. People had the freedom to speak provided they expressed welcome words and those whose thoughts not in fashion were relegated to a place in the barely visited margins of the literary world.

He clearly disagreed with what he labeled the American capitulation at the time to the Communist government in Hanoi and castigated the Americans for giving up the fight.

The Fourth Estate is offended

Needless to say, the leaders of the Fourth Estate were not pleased. They railed against him in the press over the next weeks embodying the truths he just spoke. Mike Barnicle, then a columnist for the Boston Globe, called him a con man who could not write his way out of a paper bag. Rodney Dangerfield, who spoke at Harvard the day prior, made more sense, he added. 

Poet Archibald MacLeish who was then the Assistant Secretary of State for the Carter Administration said that America was founded on liberty which Solzhenitsyn apparently rejected.

Mary McGrory wrote that his speech demonstrated he missed those other dissidents who likewise were in a battle against the “monster-state” which does not exist to the same level in the Western World.

George Will on the contrary celebrated his words and called them broadly congruent with the words of “Cicero . . . Augustine, Aquinas, Richard Hooker, Pascal, Thomas More, Burke, Hegel and others.” He contrasted Solzhenitsyn’s speech with the dismissive critique of the New York Times and the Washington Post, which he found wanting. 

Solzhenitsyn’s main point was the United States and the West are the product of enlightenment philosophy which believed that humanity is by nature good. We could create greatness as long as we saw human reason as superior. This was a great flaw for it rejected the spiritual element of our being. The social structure built upon it turned us into materialistic creatures seeking comfort while rejecting any aspirations to anything above us in the whole scheme of human existence.

Solzhenitsyn complained we reduced our whole existence to a legalism that made the law the standard of existence. Right and wrong were determined not by any spiritual or moral principles but by the law and the law alone. The press, he explained was the unelected tyrant which forces people to accept its deas or suffer obscurity in a virtual Siberia.

The other colonies agree

He described the growth of western culture through seizing colonies “and despising any possible values in the conquered people’s approach to life.” 

Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea certainly agrees with his words. He reflected on the speech as prophetic in his latest book The Day Is Now Far Spent (Ignatius 2020). He sees that we are now living the temptation in the Garden of Eden. We seek to be like the gods we believe we are. This is the culmination of the foundation formed in the Enlightenment. ‘There is no god but you!’ may be the words both men warned we embraced as a culture as the weakest part of our foundation. 

Sarah too rails with Solzhenitsyn against the Western world’s continued attempt to undermine their African cultural values through financial aid with strings attached. 

Solzhenitsyn spoke those words to the students preparing to enter into a career path from which they are now ready to retire. However, he wrote them to us. We must look them over again and ask ourselves what he is saying to us. He gave us ominous warnings of a society waning because it lost its spirituality, courage and drive. He warned about a media and now an unforeseen social media that tyrannically enforces conformity to political uniformity.

The results of our next election cycle, the midterms, will begin in 2023 forty-five years after the Russian exile spoke. This is a good time to read, listen and discuss in virtual and eventual real coffee shops and classrooms. We can speak about it in church halls and community meetings. We can even look at the fallout to what Solzhenitsyn had to say long after the expected hero shocked his audience by not praising them as they expected him to do. We can also continue to ignore his words and comfort ourselves with videos of Rodney Dangerfield. 

Photo: By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5292974

Sources: 

Letters to the Editor, Boston Evening Globe, June 19, 1978

Hamilton, William B. Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, Laments West’s Darker Side; Boston Globe June 9, 1978

McGrory, Mary, The Homesick Russian, Washington Star, The Billings Gazette 14 June 1978 Washington Star Syndication

Barnicle, Mike, A Fancy Con Job by Mr. Solzhenitsyn, The Boston Globe, June 10, 1978

Will, George, Solzhenitsyn Address Reveals Complacency of Society, June 19, 1978, Washington Post Syndication

Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr, My Harvard Speech in Retrospect, National Review, June 25, 2018

Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr, Harvard Commencement Address (A World Split Apart)American Rhetoric

Sarah, Cardinal Robert, The Day Is Now Far Spent, Ignatius Press, 2020