Archive for the ‘Alexander Solzhenitsyn’ Tag

The Timeliness of Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Speech   4 comments

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

This is from the blog words not made with lungs:

For months, I have inwardly debated writing something about the times we are living in and have— until now— come out on the side of keeping my thoughts to myself. But I just read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address to Harvard in 1978, and the prescience and relevance to our own era are too uncanny not to comment on. He could give the same speech today, and we would have no idea it was written over thirty years ago.

Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago from his experience in the prison camps under Communist Russia. It is a scathing critique of Communism, and Solzhenitsyn pulls no punches. Even in his speech at Harvard, he states unequivocally, 

“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.” [emphasis mine]

However, this Harvard speech is targeted at the West rather than the East (his book does plenty of the latter). He is disgusted by the West’s materialism and reliance on freedom without any sense of responsibility or accountability. His main argument is that, by embracing the humanism put forth during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment (“…the pro-claimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.”), the West has neglected the spiritual self for the purely physical, and this has had dire consequences for us. 

“Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtle and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. Thus gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today. Mere freedom per se does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and even adds a number of new ones.”

Because we have emphasized freedom, we have become confused about what that word means. It is not uncommon to hear demands for free things– like education and healthcare– out of the same mouths that are demanding lesser or no penalties for crimes. Freedom does not guarantee that we will be given anything; we are responsible for acting morally when given freedom. But that concept has been bulldozed for one demanding more more more while demanding that even less be asked of us.

“And yet in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that 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 one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims.

[. . .]

It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

On the other hand, destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”

Evil has been given free rein for the very reason we have refused to acknowledge it. If we were to bring it up in everyday conversation, it would be dismissed as superstitious residue from an obsolete religion, one with no relevance to our modern-day lives. The truth is much more serious, and we ignore our spiritual selves at our peril: “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, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?”

It is easy to avoid the spiritual side of existence. We have plenty of distractions, plenty of other people’s lives to obsess over. But though we may feel entitled to these distractions and even to the details of other people’s lives, Solzhenitsyn believes that we would do far better to exercise our self-restraint and our right not to look, “not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information.” [Marxist mainstream media, social media]

The sad thing is, I can think of very few who have no need for the “excessive and burdening flow of information.” It is incessant, and it is very often wrong. Yet this is what we base our opinions and sensibilities on– this misleading, unreliable, factually-confused barrage of information that we have insufficient filters for and an inability to entirely contain. Then policies are made in alignment with these unverified ideas, and the domino effect has begun.

“Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad. There is no open violence, as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to accommodate mass standards frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block dangerous herd development.”

We cling even tighter to these ideas because we believe they are legitimized by society’s acting on them. But we are just part of the herd, being pushed along with no idea of where we are going. We believe there is safety in numbers, and we don’t want to know what it’s like to be alone by ourselves.

Therein lies the danger. We need to stop eating the lies we are fed; we need to start fighting for something deeper than material happiness and more eternal than this finite life. There is a lot wrong with the world right now, but it is not what we are being told is wrong. Solzhenitsyn saw clearly what our weaknesses are. If we haven’t gotten better in the thirty years since he showed them to us, what will it take for us to finally understand?

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich   1 comment

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Excerpt from page 154:

He lay with his head near the window, but Alyosha, who slept next to him on the same level, across a low wooden railing, lay the opposite way, to catch the light.  He was reading his Bible again.

The electric light was quite near.  You could read and even sew by it.

Alyosha heard Shukhov’s whispered prayer, and, turning to him:  “There you are, Ivan Denisovich, your soul is begging to pray.  Why don’t you give it it’s freedom?”

Shukhov stole a look at him.  Alyosha’s eyes glowed like two candles.

“Well, Alyosha,” he said with a sigh, “it’s this way.  Prayers are like those appeals of ours.  Either they don’t get through or they’re returned with ‘rejected’ scrawled across ’em.”

Outside the staff quarters were four sealed boxes–they were cleared by a security officer once a month.  Many were the appeals that were dropped into them.  The writers waited, counting the weeks:  there’ll be a reply in two months, in one month. . . .

But the reply doesn’t come.  Or if it does it’s only “rejected.”

“But, Ivan Denisovich, it’s because you pray too rarely, and badly at that.  Without really trying.  That’s why your prayers stay unanswered.  One must never stop praying.  If you have real faith you tell a mountain to move and it will move. . . .”

Shukhov grinned and rolled another cigarette.  He took a light from the Estonian.

“Don’t talk nonsense, Alyosha.  I’ve never seen a mountain move.  Well, to tell the truth, I’ve never seen a mountain at all.  But you, now, you prayed in the Caucasus with all that Baptist society of yours–did you make a single mountain move?”

They were an unlucky group too.  What harm did they do anyone by praying to God?  Every damn one of them had been given twenty-five years.  Nowadays they cut all cloth to the same measure–twenty-five years.

“Oh, we didn’t pray for that, Ivan Denisovich,” Alyosha said earnestly.  Bible in hand, he drew nearer to Shukhov till they lay face to face.  “Of all earthly and mortal things Our Lord commanded us to pray only for our daily bread.  ‘Give us this day our daily bread.'”

“Our ration, you mean?” asked Shukhov.

But Alyosha didn’t give up.  Arguing more with his eyes than his tongue, he plucked at Shukhov’s sleeve, stroked his arm, and said:  “Ivan Denisovich, you shouldn’t pray to get parcels or for extra stew, not for that.  Things that man puts a high price on are vile in the eyes of Our Lord.  We must pray about things of the spirit–that the Lord Jesus should remove the scum of anger from out hearts. . . .”

Page 156:

“Alyosha,” he said, withdrawing his arm and blowing smoke into his face.  “I’m not against God, understand that.  I do believe in God.  But I don’t believe in paradise or in hell.  Why do you take us for fools and stuff us with your paradise and hell stories?  That’s what I don’t like.”

He lay back, dropping his cigarette ash with care between the bunk frame and the window, so as to singe nothing of the captain’s below.  He sank into his own thoughts.  He didn’t hear Alyosha’s mumbling.

“Well,” he said conclusively, “however much you pray it doesn’t shorten your stretch.  You’ll sit it out from beginning to end anyhow.”

“Oh, you mustn’t pray for that either,” said Alyosha, horrified.  “Why do you want freedom?  In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds.  You should rejoice that you’re in prison.  Here you have time to think about your soul.  As the Apostle Paul wrote:  ‘Why all these tears?  Why are you trying to weaken my resolution?  For my part I am ready not merely to be bound but even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.'”

_____

“The thoughts of a prisoner—they’re not free either. They kept returning to the same things. A single idea keeps stirring. Would they feel that piece of bread in the mattress? Would he have any luck in the dispensary that evening? Would they out Buinovsky in the cells? And how did Tsezar get his hands on that warm vest?”

― Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

Dover Beach
The Alexandr Solzhenitsyn Center
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970)
Always a Choice

Belonging to a Nation   Leave a comment

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This is from the blog Phronesis

Nationhood versus Nationalism
How Solzhenitsyn defeated the USSR
One Man’s Education is Another Man’s Marxist Brainwash

How Solzhenitsyn defeated the USSR   5 comments

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

What do you do when murderous psychopaths who wield the power of life and death begin to threaten you with a permanent vacation to Siberia where you will enjoy making clay bricks with your bare hands while feasting on a starvation-diet? Do you shut up, keep your head down, and burn all your manuscripts? If you’re Solzhenitsyn, you actually create a plan of action that is quite the opposite. Here, in a few easy (frighteningly death-defying) steps, is how to take down a repressive authoritarian government with the power of your art.

  1. Samizdat

So, corrupt Neanderthalish government officials want to censor your work? No problem, just distribute full copies of the manuscript via samizdat! This time-honored, entirely illegal form of publication under repressive regimes that prefer to control the written word never fails to gather a reading public. Soon enough you will have enough notoriety that publishers in the “Capitalist Pig” areas of the world will begin printing your work for you. Solzhenitsyn eventually began using this form of publication preemptively to ensure that if his novels ever were published, the editors would not be able to selectively remove what they perceived to be offensive passages.

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  1. Public letters of complaint to literati and journalists

On May 16, Solzhenitsyn wrote to a gathering of fellow Russian writers to complain about, “The no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, which our literature has endured for decades.” He went on, “Works…are proscribed or distorted by censorship on the basis of considerations that are petty, egotistical, and…shortsighted.” The response of the powers-that-be? They basically did that thing where a petulant child sticks his fingers in his ears and pretends not to hear when you tell him to brush his teeth. Solzhenitsyn wouldn’t let them off the hook, though, and penned another letter: “Does the Secretariat believe that my novel will disappear as a result of these endless delays, that I will cease to exist…?” After being told that the answer was essentially, Yes, yes we do hope that you cease to exist, he reminded them that the novel was actually already being read in samizdat form (because, preemption). He went on to note that his work was not so much a political work as it was a look at “universal and eternal questions.” Of course, this very concept of universal truth is precisely what Marxists refuse to admit exists since everything falls under the rubric of class struggle. So to them the mere fact of an artist talking about universal truth is very much a political attack.

  1. Public attacks on the KGB

Is your public feud with the entirety of your professional class not dangerous enough? Why not up the stakes and make a run at the secret police too? Solzhenitsyn, after having already been in the Gulag for 8 years and actually seeing it effect him spiritually for the better, wasn’t afraid of returning if need be*. After having half a dozen of his speaking engagements cancelled due to, as he discovered upon his arrival to speak, “Author’s Indisposition,” he finally managed to overcome his imaginary illnesses and arrive at a speaking engagement at which the audience hadn’t been warned away. He took his chance. To a crowd of five-hundred, he proclaimed, “There is a certain organization that has no obvious claim to tutelage over the arts, that you may think has no business at all supervising literature–but that does these things. This organization took away my novel and my archive…Even so, I said nothing, but went on working quietly…What can I do about it? Only defend myself! So here I am!”

 In fact, he could do much more than he imagined, because as the KGB understood well enough, his literature was powerful beyond words, communicating a depth of despair and truth that had sunk into the hearts of the Russian people and would never be extracted by any amount of force or propaganda. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch had become a day in the life of all Russians. They’d all been touched by the pain of the Gulag in some form or another. Up until this moment, the secret had been kept, a sort of conspiracy between abuser and abused. But Solzhenitsyn, in speaking so boldly, finally broke the spell. At grave risk to himself (the KGB attempted to assassinate him in a ricin attack), he created one of the first chinks in the armor of the Communist Party.

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The Gulag photo

  1. Soak up the Slander

If you can’t censor a writer, you can at least slander him mercilessly. According to Joseph Pearce’s biography A Soul In Exile, the editor of Pravda gave a speech in which he called Solzhenitsyn, “A psychologically unbalanced person, a schizophrenic.” He goes on to declare, “Of course we cannot publish his works.” This was but one of many slanderous accusations that he was a traitor and a capitalist pig. A few years later at a meeting of the Writer’s Union, he was systematically attacked, labeled “anti-social,” and finally kicked out of the Union. It was this final act of anti-free speech behavior that finally caused international sympathizers with the Soviet experiment to finally break ranks. Soon enough, criticism from intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre, Arthur Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut were made public. Now, as Pearce writes, Solzhenitsyn was, “a living symbol of the struggle for human rights in the face of state censorship.” This point was driven home triumphantly when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Solzhenitsyn was unable to retrieve his Nobel for fear of never being let back into Russia, so he sent a printed speech. In it, he reveals the reason that a mere writer could cause so much discomfort among the political powers.

The task of an artist is to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and the outrage of what man has done to it, and poignantly to let people know…By means of art we are sometimes sent—dimly, briefly—revelations unattainable by reason. Like that little mirror in the fairy tales—look into it, and you will see not yourself but, for a moment, that which passeth understanding, a realm to which no man can ride or fly. And for which the soul begins to ache…

Truly, an artist who reveals truth through beauty is stronger than any government and any artificially constructed set of beliefs that would lay claim upon us. Art reveals to us who we are, and such a truth cannot be silenced. Cheers to Alexander Solzhenitsyn for his bravery, his wit, his perseverance, and most of all for his poignant, honest, heartbreaking art.

*This reminds me of the legend of St. John Chrysostom, who had become such a thorn in the side of the Emperor that government leaders wanted to throw him in jail. Upon being advised that he would actually like that because it would allow him more uninterrupted time to pray, they decided to make him Patriarch of Constantinople instead.

All the credit for sourcing this essay goes to Joseph Pearce and his excellent biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul In Exile.

Soviet Censorship of Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Solzhenitsyn’s 10 Ways Ideological Regimes Destroy You
Man Has Forgotten God, Again
One Man’s Education is Another Man’s Marxist Brainwash
The Black Book of Communism
Solzhenitsyn, 9 Years after His Death
Terrorism and The Exhausted West
Solzhenitsyn’s Warning to America
Book Review:  The Gulag Archipelago
Stalin’s Enslavement of Rural Russia
Putin embarrasses Megyn Kelly
Pie in the Sky
Attacks on the police is an old communist tactic

“It’s an universal law–intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future.”

— Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago