Solzhenitsyn: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world”
Solzhenitsyn’s great themes are the survival of good in an evil world, human dignity, the redeeming value of truth, and the importance of a spiritual dimension to life. But he was astonished to find that when he moved to the United States in 1976 that these were no more welcome there than in the Soviet Union. In his eyes, America had become weakened and corrupted by its material success. He expanded upon this in a blistering address at Harvard in 1978 – only a little while after it had granted him an honorary doctorate. But Aleksandr Isayevich was not one to be bribed with the gewgaw of academic honours. Beginning with an invocation of the Harvard motto, Veritas, truth, he hammered an establishment which had strayed from the pursuit of truth and had liberated itself from God:
But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive…
Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being… It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.
The resentment which greeted this caustic analysis of capitalist materialism and Enlightenment thinking may explain why Solzhenitsyn’s reputation declined quickly thereafter. His later novels, part of a gigantic historical cycle about the Russian Revolution, were largely ignored. Perhaps his powers were declining and perhaps his focus on Russia’s destiny was puzzling for Western readers. But ultimately Solzhenitsyn was sidelined because his unwavering belief that life was a battle between good and evil, between transcendent spirituality and degrading materialism, was regarded as too simplistic, even too threatening, in a society which spurned firm convictions.