Last night I read the sad news that Solzhenitsyn had passed away. Besides being a great writer and an important dissident against the Soviet government, Solzhenitsyn was an impeccable moral witness against the corruption that went with great power and wealth no matter the regime or ideology. It was this outstanding conviction, which became increasingly more tied to religious experience and Orthodox spirituality over the course of his life, that marked him out as one of the great men of the last century. It was this same conviction that ensured that fewer and fewer people truly understood him, because he was unwilling to adopt the various fads, as he called them, that prevailed in the West just as he had been unwilling to accept the lies of the Soviet regime.
Fiercely anticommunist, he did not make the common errors of so many anticommunists. These usually involved praising individualism and making unqualified apologies for liberal democracy and capitalism, and furthermore urging the adoption of Western models throughout the world as if to mirror the communist desire for global uniformity. The famous 1978 Harvard commencement address to which Dan linked on the main blog contained powerful warnings against the idea of enforcing one model on the entire world that many Westerners continue to embrace even now:
But the persisting blindness of superiority continues to hold the belief that all the vast regions of our planet should develop and mature to the level of contemporary Western systems, the best in theory and the most attractive in practice; that all those other worlds are but temporarily prevented (by wicked leaders or by severe crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from pursuing Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in that direction. But in fact such a conception is a fruit of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, a result of mistakenly measuring them all with a Western yardstick [bold mine-DL].
Something else that many Westerners have had difficulty understanding is Solzhenitsyn himself. Though he cannot be reduced to a mere inheritor, he was part of the Russian intellectual tradition to which Dostoevsky and the Slavophiles before him belonged, and the same pressing concern they had with spiritual and moral goods threatened by the ravages of ideology and rationalism is evident in his writings and speeches. Solzhenitsyn’s critique of a legalistic way of life, which he made in his Harvard address, has deep roots in the Slavophiles’ combination of admiration for the material accomplishments of the West and the simultaneous repudiation of the spiritual and intellectual culture that fostered them. Like the Slavophiles and Dostoevsky, he did not wish any more of the modern Western experience on Russia:
But should I be asked, instead, whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.
Of course, this conviction was only deepened and made more powerful by the ruin that the attempt to impose such a model on Russia in the ’90s, and it was during this period when many of Solzhenitsyn’s remaining American admirers began to reject him.
Instead of the constant pursuit of rights codified in law, Solzhenitsyn counseled restraint and the practice of virtue, and he found the the legalistic attitude to be opposed to both:
Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: Everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.
The celebration and expansion of freedom at the expense of obligation also draws Solzhenitsyn’s stern judgement:
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.
His ringing condemnations of materialism are among the most obvious examples of his spiritual and fundamentally theocentric vision, and here again his affinities with the Slavophiles are clear. As with them, Solzhenitsyn held that moral renewal and spiritual regeneration are the means to combating the corrupting effects of materialism:
Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism.
What is so remarkable about Solzhenitsyn’s address thirty years later is how critical he was of George Kennan in particular, who was perhaps one of the few Americans who genuinely understood and respected Russia and the Russians and whose attitudes were generally more in line with Solzhenitsyn’s own than any other American of his generation. In retrospect and at a distance from the immediate post-Vietnam moment, Kennan’s opposition to the war in Vietnam has been by and large vindicated and Solzhenitsyn’s warnings of a “hundredfold Vietnam” seem the least persuasive part of his address. It may not have been as clear in the late 1970s because of certain policy disagreements, but in the post-Cold War era these two exceptional men were much closer to one another than they were to most of their own countrymen, and both have passed away in the first decade of this century having been poorly understood for much of their careers. In the end, the limited ability of many Westerners to understand Solzhenitsyn properly, to appreciate him as more than the literary master and Soviet dissident (categories that are very comfortable and ultimately flattering to Western assumptions), stems ultimately from the inability or perhaps unwillingness to understand Russia both past and present.
Update: Andrew Cusack has an exemplary obituary of Solzhenitsyn here.