The Speech That Stunned the Western World
Solzhenitsyn’s first public speech in the United States was delivered in June of 1978, three years after his arrival. The occasion was the commencement ceremony at Harvard University where he was granted an honorary degree. He arrived on campus as a hero; he departed as a pariah.
The Harvard intelligentsia was outraged over his presentation, and some actually booed him! The New York Times declared him to be a “dangerous zealot.”8 The Washington Post wrote him off as a man who did not understand Western society.9 Critics denounced him as a “Tsarist reactionary, an Orthodox Christian ayatollah, a hater of democracy [and] a Russian ultranationalist.” 10 None of which were true. As one of his biographers, Daniel J. H. Mahoney, has put it: “Solzhenitsyn wasn’t just dismissed; he was demonized.”11
What in the world had Solzhenitsyn done to provoke such outrage? The answer is simple. He spoke prophetically, and he spoke the truth. And his audience did not want to hear it. So, what did he say?
He began his speech by proclaiming that the Western world, including the United States, had lost its courage in confronting evil. He declared that our foreign policies were based on “weakness and cowardice.” And then he observed: “Should one point out that from ancient times, declining courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”12
Next, he attacked American democracy for its exercise of liberty without self-restraint and for its obsession with solving all problems through its legal system. His words sound like they were spoken yesterday instead of almost 40 years ago:13
The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals… It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.
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 [with] motion pictures full of pornography, violence and horror.
Solzhenitsyn’s next target was the press. He criticized it for its lack of “moral responsibility.” He declared the press to be the greatest power within the Western countries, and then he asked, “By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?” 14
He characterized the press as being full of “hastiness and superficiality,” and he argued that the press has a herd mentality which gives birth “to strong mass prejudices” and “blindness.”15
He then shifted his focus to the moral degradation of American society. He pointed to “TV stupor,” “intolerable music,” and “the overall decadence of art.” He decried the lack of “great statesmen.” And he pointed to the thin “surface film” of social stability that can easily be shattered with an electrical blackout that produces looting.16
He then posed the crucial question: “How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness?”17
He answered this question by pointing to what he called “anthropocentricity” — the elevation of Man over God, to the extent that “man [is] seen as the center of everything that exists.”18 In other words, at this point in his speech, Solzhenitsyn began to attack Humanism, the godless philosophy that has become the religion of the Western world.
He proceeded to point out that Humanism always leads to Materialism and Materialism produces “moral poverty.” He made the point powerfully:19
All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th Century moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as the 19th Century.
This observation brought Solzhenitsyn to his concluding and defining statement:20
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 was destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis.
It was a breathtaking, challenging and stunning presentation. It is no wonder that the negative response to it was so strong. The wonder is that he was not lynched on the spot!
Yet, 33 years later, in 2011, the Harvard Magazine published the speech in full and introduced it with these words that must have outraged Harvard professors: 21
Given the suffering he [Solzhenitsyn] had endured in the Soviet Union, many in the audience expected that the writer’s address would be a stern rebuke to Communist totalitarianism, combined with a paean to Western liberty and democracy. The… audience was in for a rude surprise.
“The Exhausted West,” delivered in Russian with English translation under overcast skies, chastised the arrogance and smugness of Western materialist culture and exposed the adverse effects of some of those achievements that Western democracies had long prided themselves upon…
Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant, iconoclastic speech ranks among the most thoughtful, articulate and challenging addresses ever delivered at a Harvard commencement.
In like manner, Michael Novak, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has described Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech “as the most important religious document of our time.”22
In the third and final part of this series on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the danger of forgetting God, we’ll look at his greatest speech.
8) David Aikman, “Profiles in Faith: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Part II: A World Split Apart: Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Speech Twenty-four Years Later,” www.cslewisinstitute.org, page 1.
10) Brian C. Anderson, “Solzhenitsyn’s Permanence,” http://www.newcriterion.comarticles.cfm/Solzhenitsyn-s-permanence-8077, page 1.
12) American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, “Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: ‘A World Split Apart,’ Address at Harvard University on June 8, 1978,” http://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/alexandersolzhenitsynharvard.htm, page 4.
13) Ibid., page 5.
14) Ibid., page 6.
15) Ibid., pages 6-7.
16) Ibid., page 8.
17) Ibid., page 10.
19) Ibid., page 11.
20) Ibid., page 12.
21) Unsigned editorial, “Solzhenitsyn Flays the West,” Harvard Magazine, April 25, 2011.
22) David Aikman, page 1.