Bill Muehlenberg

The Passing of a Prophet: Vale Solzhenitsyn

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 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:

Sozhinitsyn 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 Prise 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.

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