Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a constant irritant to the communist leaders of the Soviet Union until he was expelled from the country. After a brief stay in Switzerland he moved his family to Vermont in 1974, where he avoided publicity and worked on The Red Wheel, a series of historical novels tracing the end of imperial Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union. In 1978 he emerged from his rural retreat to deliver a commencement address at Harvard University.
I remember reading press accounts of the speech and thinking that Solzhenitsyn was a man stuck in the past. Like his predecessor, Leo Tolstoy, he seemed mired in a Christianity that was largely irrelevant in the modern world. Re-reading the speech today, I find passages that support those earlier impressions. He bemoans, for example, the West’s moral decadence:
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
He also condemns, not just communism, but any form of socialism:
Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death.
And in remarks on the Vietnam War, which had finally drawn to a close in 1975 after thirty years, he expresses a view that would have been welcomed by the most right-wing generals in the Pentagon.
Your short-sighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing spell; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam was a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small, Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
Such views seemed retrograde and wrong-headed to me in 1978, and still seem so to me now, even though his condemnations of the moral decadence so obvious in American culture, and of the amoral materialism of capitalism, resonate undeniably. Other portions of the speech, however, read today almost like a guide to understanding the initially puzzling sympathy for Russia that Donald Trump’s supporters express.
Distrust of Journalists
Trump has consistently trashed the media, calling every news report that puts him in a bad light “fake news” and even calling the press “enemies” of America. Here is what Solzhenitsyn says about journalism in the West:
What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If he has misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it hardly ever happens, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance. . . .
The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists made heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan “everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information. . . .
Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?
There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.
It is easy to find these themes being echoed today by Trump and his followers.
It is easy, too, to see the appeal of Solzhenitsyn’s views for conservative Christians:
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.
Solzhenitsyn closes his speech by imagining a future that revives the best features of the Middle Ages without repeating the mistakes of that era:
It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: 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 important, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the modern era.
Instead of this utopian spiritual revival, however, current events suggest a good old-fashioned upsurge of authoritarianism, tribalism, and nationalism. And so far, at least, Christian conservatives have distinguished themselves only by their craven support of a blatantly immoral leader, not least at his most racist, white-supremacist moments. “Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism,” Solzhenitsyn said in 1978. Forty years later, his dream seems even more naive while his distrust of liberal democracy is echoed far and wide—even in the Oval Office itself.