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40 Years Ago Today: When Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard

The last presidential election cycle made it abundantly clear that something about our way of life does not “work.” After voting for change in 2008 and getting more of the status quo over the next eight years, furious voters from both parties decided to look outside the establishment for leadership.

So what exactly are we feeling right now? Perhaps it might be useful to take a trip to the past, 40 years ago to be exact. On this day in 1978, Russian writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn delivered a commencement speech to Harvard University graduates, entitled “A World Split Apart. [1] Not surprisingly, his fears about the sustainability of American society and culture still resonate today—though he offers little solace that any of it can be easily resolved.

While the country reeled from its recent losses in Vietnam and saw little inspiration coming the Carter administration, the gathered graduating class of Harvard ‘78 gathered—America’s elite—probably expected the former Gulag inmate to praise and reaffirm American exceptionalism and democratic ideals at the height of the Cold War.

To their disappointment, however, Solzhenitsyn had no such intentions. After noting at the outset that trust is not often “sweet” but “bitter,“ he said “a measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.”

Not to put a finer point on it, Harvard Magazine recalled in 2011 [2] that the ‘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.”

In doing so he further underscored that the true divide between what seemed to be two world superpowers was much deeper and more complex than simply capitalism-versus- communism—a context sorely missing in the American Cold War reality, whether it be politics, news, film, or higher education.

The Nobel Prize winner indeed trained most of his fire on the West (“since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one”), on its early colonization of other worlds, “not only without anticipating any real resistance, but usually with contempt for any possible values in the conquered people’s approach to life. It all seemed an overwhelming success, with no geographic limits. Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power.”

But there were limits, and in 1978:  “it is difficult yet to estimate the size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns, will be sufficient for the West to clear this account.”


Meanwhile in the West, the bill of The Enlightenment, and of humanism and unbridled individual liberty was also coming due in the 20th Century.

“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.”

He blamed the Western ruling class for lacking “civic courage,” leaving society, essentially, with so much freedom and material gain that they lost the ideals for the “common good” or the spiritual nourishment that served as motivating factors, if not necessary guideposts, for liberty in the first place.

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and in such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.)

In the pre-modern worldview that ended with the Renaissance, mankind was inherently evil and had to be made better. But following these harsh times, he noted, “we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal.”

Solzhenitsyn claimed that when “modern Western states were created, the principle was proclaimed that governments are meant to serve man and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness.” No longer was the world God’s domain, the “world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems, which must be corrected.”

Solzhenitsyn reminded his audience that the American experiment at its founding understood “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.”  Never was the historical idea of freedom or pursuit of happiness interpreted as satisfying “instincts or whims”.

Having been exiled from the USSR in 1974 for publishing the Gulag Archipelago [3], which shockingly detailed the Soviet prison camp system, Solzhenitsyn had the opportunity to study the United States in person and summarized our society’s organization as completely based on what he characterized as “the letter of the law.” The “limits of human rights are determined by a system of laws” and “any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution.” While he admitted,“I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed,” the western situation created an atmosphere “moral mediocrity” and “paralyzed man’s noblest intentions.”

The legalistic nature of society, devoid of a strong religious foundation, he said, was not conducive to mankind’s higher potential and could not stem or control human decadence and selfish impulses.

“Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.”

A slavophile deeply distressed by the totalitarian USSR, Mother Russia was not spared by her native son for her embrace of humanism which then led to socialism, and eventually, communism. Ending his speech, the former Gulag inmate tied his visions together:

“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 is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.”

With the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War one superpower crumbled and the freedom loving United States still stood. The Western world cheered the triumph of freedom and markets. The final battle between world ideologies was over. The future would be democracy across the world. World peace was at hand.

But was our victory due to the merit of our system or simply the collapse of Soviet socialism with the arrow of time, the final proof that communism simply doesn’t work? After all, the United States never directly fought the USSR in a military campaign. Nuclear weapons kept the peace.

Solzhenitsyn’s opinion fell into the latter. Russia’s experiment in totalitarian communism lasted about 70 years, a small blink of time in Russia’s rich history. The American experiment in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is about to turn 242 years old.

In the Bible the number 40 represents a time of trial and testing, or even a probationary period. He added:

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…

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 own 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. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just enumerated are extremely saddening.

On the anniversary of his speech it is worth examining the American system after many trials and tests over the last 40 years. Where do we stand today?

Materially speaking, there is a lot to be proud of.

Our supermarkets are stocked to the brim, abundant and cheap fossil fuels power our cars and homes, 4 (soon to be 5) G networks keep us connected at all times, diseases have been eradicated, and any consumer good our hearts desire is at the touch of our fingers with Amazon Prime.

But despite these luxuries that make America the envy of the free world, the average citizen has had second thoughts. Domestically we are facing racial and economic tensions, a demoralized middle class, record deficits, and a polarized electorate to name a few. Notable writers at The American Conservative have commented on our pathologies [4], and the shift from democracy to nationalism [5].

40 Years after a World Split Apart, as Americans search for answers to our present state of dissatisfaction, our leaders and citizens would be wise to heed the central theme of Solzhenitsyn’s message:

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

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show [6] (2018).

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "40 Years Ago Today: When Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard"

#1 Comment By Seraphim On June 8, 2018 @ 12:11 am

Aleksander Isaevich’s conclusion should be quoted in full:

“If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. 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 importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.”

… and for a good account before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us pray to the Lord.
R/ Lord have mercy!

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 8, 2018 @ 2:51 am

Capitalism and communism both are the two sides of the same absurdly reductionist materialism coin.

#3 Comment By Will Harrington On June 8, 2018 @ 9:32 am

For the most part this is a good piece, but the idea expressed in the conclusion, that America is turning from democracy to nationalism, indicates a failure to understand either democracy or nationalism by portraying them as opposites. Indeed, America has a long history of nationalism and has become more democratic over time. Increased democracy is a good thing when it has expanded the franchise, but a bad thing when it has undermined the Republic (such as the direct election of senators). One thing is clear, democracy and nationalism are not opposites at the end of some political scale. They are two different concepts that are not at all mutually exclusive. Another point about democracy. It works best with small populations. The more people there are, the less of a voice each person has and the less their vote is worth. Globalism may look democratic, but each vote would be so diluted that democratic pretensions become a bad joke. In this way, nationalism, far from being the opposite of democracy, is a friend to democracy.

#4 Comment By Frank Healy On June 8, 2018 @ 10:46 am

I thought the real reason that people on the “right” became unhappy with Aleksander was his book calling attention to the involvement of the Jewish community in Russia with the creation of Bolshevism.

Or is this too taboo a topic for the TAC?

#5 Comment By b. On June 8, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

Imagine Putin said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

One step away from imaging Solzhenitsyn saying “ask what you can do for God.” Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather go for Enlightenment 2.0. We do civilization with the people we have, not the rulers we wish for, so we might as well place our trust in man, and whatever we might make of our own crooked timber.

#6 Comment By pfed On June 8, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

President James Earl Carter, July 15, 1979

#7 Comment By Rictus On June 8, 2018 @ 3:24 pm

The sad reality is that Sozhenitzen’s prediction that Russia would become more spiritually awake than the West as the result of the suffering engendered by the failure of 1917 never happened. Instead the reverse happened. Russia today is as shamelessly materialistic and decadent as the West, if not more so, and few read Tolstoy or Doestoevsky

#8 Comment By KarrenBrown On June 8, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

I agree with a lot of what Solzhenitsyn said but I need to read more of his writing to find out what he means by “religion”. The focus of Christian churches, with the collusion of their governments, seems to be gaining wealth and power under the guise of charity. Just need to look at the evangelical business model & the catholic church. Think this is probably true of all organized religion. Read somewhere the basis for Genghis Khan establishing the Mongol Empire (largest empire in history) was the prophecy of a shaman. Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking article. My reading list keeps getting longer.

#9 Comment By Cynthia McLean On June 8, 2018 @ 4:18 pm

I agree that unbridled individualism does not make for a healthy society. I think too Solzhenitsyn would agree that there are 5 sets of universal Human Rights — social, cultural and economic — and not just the 2 — civil and political — that most Americans trumpet.

#10 Comment By brazilian On June 8, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

Rictus says:
“Russia today is as shamelessly materialistic and decadent as the West, if not more so, and few read Tolstoy or Doestoevsky”

Russia seems to be far removed from the ostentatious contempt for religion that has become a hallmark of Western culture.If Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are read in Russia today, I do not have statistics. But the West is not a model of love for classical culture.

#11 Comment By Dusan R. On June 8, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

Solzhenitsyn reminded his audience that the American experiment at its founding understood “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.” Never was the historical idea of freedom or pursuit of happiness interpreted as satisfying “instincts or whims”.

Enough said!

#12 Comment By Seraphim On June 9, 2018 @ 10:25 am

@Frank Healy: let’s see if Notre Dame, which has apparently become the publisher in the US for Solzhenitsyn’s writings, will translate and publish “200 Hundred Years Together”.

#13 Comment By Egypt Steve On June 9, 2018 @ 10:43 am

This is the dishonest part:

“since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years …”

No one was forcing him to live a millionaire’s life in Vermont. He could have lived in exile in Saudi Arabia or someplace equally “spiritual.” For some reason he didn’t.

#14 Comment By Jon On June 9, 2018 @ 11:25 am

Societies go their own way. Individuals go their own way. The choices that matter are individual ones. Collective choices are non-choices — the unconscious selection of crowds.

To hold an entire society to account is the same absurdity of holding a dumb animal to the same. And when we judge an entire nation, we are participating in a futile contest perhaps with a smugness and secret pride in our castigating an entire people because they do not hold up to our expectations.

Such is the privilege of an artist, a writer, and especially one who has suffered so. But Solzhenitsyn was nothing more than a man of flesh and blood and now what remains are his bones. He has come and gone. Civilizations come and go. And when we judge an entire world or a significant portion thereof we feign sitting on the thrones of kings scepter in hand to pass sentence upon our subjects.

It is nothing but a delusion that all of this foolscap dedicated to condemning a culture for its excesses or waywardness remains a pile of words that rain upon the populace who adhere not.

That the greatness of a society rests with its people? Really, when society knows no greatness.

But what is judged is not flesh and bone people but an ideology, a belief system. Liberal Democracy has been placed on trial. But Liberal Democracy is nothing but an idea. How do we judge cumulus clouds? As harbingers of thunderstorms? How do we judge smoke or vapor or fog? And ideas are even less substantive than clouds or water vapor.

#15 Comment By Gerald Arcuri On June 9, 2018 @ 1:15 pm

I trust that the editors of TAC will correct the typo in the Solzshenitsyn quote they rendered thusly:

After noting at the outset that trust is not often “sweet” but “bitter,“ he said “a measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.”

The subject is, of course, “truth’, not “trust”.

#16 Comment By John SMith On June 9, 2018 @ 3:29 pm

Please correct me if I am wrong but wasn’t Solzhenitsyn booed by the audience there for his insistence on a morality founded in our relationship with the Creator. And he referred to it as one of the saddest days of his life, where the city on the hill, the beacon of hope, was turning it’s back on God.

#17 Comment By Seraphim On June 9, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

Obviously, “Two Hundred Years Together”.

#18 Comment By Tyro On June 9, 2018 @ 5:25 pm

If you asked Americans — particularly conservative Americans— to trade the size of their TVs and cars for Europe’s, they would turn you down in an instant.

#19 Comment By John Gruskos On June 9, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

In my opinion, Solzhenitsyn was one of the greatest conservative writers, in the same league as Burke and Chesterton.

#20 Comment By karol On June 10, 2018 @ 1:39 am

“Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space”. I am not so sure if Solzhenitsyn would say it now about the West, when freedom of expression has been formally or informally restricted in so many Western countries. So, for example, his last book “Two hundred years together” is absent in such articles as the one above. Why? Because in the book Solzhetitzyn documents the life of Jews not only in tsarist Russia, but also during the Revolution clearly indicating that “Jews were as much perpetrators of the repression as its victims” ( [7])

#21 Comment By Harry S On June 10, 2018 @ 9:57 am

Solzhenitskin’s perspective is beyond shallow, into perverse. The idea that suffering builds spirituality is a form of cruelty. Ask those who are suffering in, say, Darfur. Capitalism and Communism, for all their ideological baggage, are essentially forms of political and economic organization. Solzhenitsyn simply did nor like the fact that in the west, people are capable of, indeed, forced to pursue their own ideas of spirituality. If it is a difficult journey, it is so because spirituality is a deep sensibility not easily invoked. Even in his despised west, people are capable of the search.

#22 Comment By polistra On June 10, 2018 @ 9:58 am

We need to remember that Solzhenitsyn was owned and weaponized by our Deepstate. He was serving their purposes in preparing our attack on Russia. You can see the ownership in the Wikileaks archive from those years:


That’s why he was living a pleasant materialistic life in Vermont, and he knew it.

Dmitri Orlov’s 2008 critique of the two systems is more recent, less mystical and more objective. Orlov’s writing is more useful for us. His primary article:


#23 Comment By Egypt Steve On June 10, 2018 @ 11:42 am

Another conservative hero on individualism and society:

“And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
— Margaret Thatcher

So, conservatives shouldn’t blame all this awful individualism on the evil decadent liberals.

#24 Comment By JR On June 11, 2018 @ 8:49 am

The diagnosis Solzhenitsyn provides has been also provided by hundreds of non-western and Western intellectuals. Unfortunately, he has no sensible solution either. His prediction for Russia has been completely wrong. He’s just another Russian author in the line who thinks that “Eastern” Russia has some spiritual answers for the West.

#25 Comment By Josep On June 11, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

@ Tyro
The attachment to large TVs is less of a concern for me than that of large cars. The comments to this article speak volumes about the materialism in post-Christian America:
A lot of the commentators in that article seem to have no problem bashing small cars in Europe and boasting about larger cars in America. Are they aware of fuel costs? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the definitions of “conserve” to use or manage (e.g. natural resources) wisely?

#26 Comment By Frank Healy On June 12, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

I am not confident that they will ever publish a translation of “Two Hundred Years Together.” The problem with this text is that it is extremely well-written and erudite. It’s easier to either dismiss its author completely – by flushing him down the memory hole. If that’s impossible, you can simply pretend he never wrote the book – which is the standard practice with Dostoevsky’s “The Diary of A Writer” which is problematic for the exact same reasons.

#27 Comment By Christopher Ch. On September 23, 2018 @ 4:48 am

To Egypt Steve:
Nobody forced Solzhinitsy to live in America for 4 years, but he was forced to live in the Gulag system. I don’t know what you’ve experienced, but having read his two volume account I can say he suffered more in his life than I have. Furthermore, he longed to return to his Homeland, not valuing that millionaire lifestyle his literary pursuits had brought him,having seen that, in the final analysis, his host country’s problems were not so different than those Russia, Soviet and otherwise, experienced. Thank God that America gave him liberty to speak not only against Soviet Russia, but against herself. When God enlightens us to end the legalized infanticide, which in it’s scale makes Nazi crimes look paltry, let us praise Him, our God, even more.
The criticism he gave us, if we’re not too headstrong to rationally consider them, can still help us right this ship.