Monday, August 4, 2008

In Memory of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

You've probably heard by now that Aleksander (Alexander) Solzhenitsyn passed away this weekend. A couple of western journalists noted his passing this way:

Widely viewed as Russia's greatest contemporary writer,
he will be best remembered for works that depicted the harsh underbelly of
Soviet society under dictator Joseph Stalin. But his books, including several
works of nonfiction, suggest the far more ambitious goals of seeking to
reappraise Russian history.

The author may have been speaking for himself when
he had a character in his novel, "The First Circle," say: "For a country to have
a great writer is like having another government. That's why no regime has ever
loved great writers, only minor ones."

On Monday, national leaders expressed admiration for
Mr. Solzhenitsyn, but there did not seem the kind of outpouring that arises when
a beloved figure dies. The relatively subdued response raised the question of
whether Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s life and work still resonate in a Russia that is far
different from the Soviet Union it replaced.

Russians who grew up in Soviet times continued to
speak passionately about the achievements of Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who was 89 and
had faded from public view in recent years since returning from exile after the
Soviet Union’s fall. They compared him to writers like Leo Tolstoy and said he
had forced the nation to confront the horrors wrought in the name of Communism.
. .

The [funeral] service is to receive widespread
coverage in the state-controlled media, but in interviews, young people said
they would not pay much attention to it. Approached at a park in Moscow, Taisiya
Gunicheva, 17, a college student, said she had heard of Mr. Solzhenitsyn, but
could not name any of his books.

She said his work was largely absent from her school
curriculum. “Can you imagine, there is nothing about it at all,” she said. “It
is sad, but unfortunately, it’s true.”

When I heard the news of his death, I was inspired to pull out a copy of the one and only speech I have by Solzhenitsyn and re-read it. These paragraphs are even more needed today than when he first spoke the words back in 1978.

I would say that the general principles extend far beyond Solzhenitsyn's comments about politics and communism; the same can be said of any form of evil that we encounter today.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises
(Commencement Speech),
Thursday, June 8, 1978

Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world. On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West against communism's well planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the size and meaning of events. . .

We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

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Let me know if you'd like the text of the entire speech. I'll be glad to share it.

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