In June 1978, some twenty-two thousand people sat or stood in the rain at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies to listen to a keynote speaker denounce them as lacking in courage, morally adrift, and self-deluded. The speaker, whose identity had been kept secret until just two days beforehand, was the celebrated Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the title he chose for his impassioned lecture was “A World Split Apart.”
Solzhenitsyn’s themes were the decline of the West, the moral emptiness of modern society, the excesses of liberal democracy, and the mortal threat to the world of Communist domination. His target was not just modernism but the Enlightenment values that had spawned it, and behind those values the heritage of the Renaissance. Echoing Tocqueville’s misgivings at the birth of the American republic, Solzhenitsyn scorned the idea that a government’s first duty is to serve the people. “The pursuit of happiness,” he argued, had led only to a soulless materialism, a cold and mechanical reliance on the law, and unpardonable license on the part of the citizenry. “In today’s Western society, there has opened up a disequilibrium between the freedom to do good deeds and the freedom to do bad.”
The ruling classes of the West, according to Solzhenitsyn, had lost their moral bearings and were guilty of a collapse of courage. Eastern Europe was spiritually far in advance of the decadent West. The “complex and deadly pressures” there had developed characters that were “stronger, more profound, and more interesting” than those in the “prosperous, ordered life of the West.” For the East to become like the West, he argued, would be for it to lose more than it gained.
I watched Solzhenitsyn’s speech on television with a group of friends in a summer house in Connecticut. The people around me had all admired Solzhenitsyn’s novels and been immensely impressed by his courage in publishing The Gulag Archipelago. They had been outraged by his forcible expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974. They were also used to having their society excoriated by visitors from other parts of the world, and inclined to agree with them that Americans should be doing more to improve their society.
So they were not surprised when the Harvard audience honored Solzhenitsyn with a tumultuous ovation, acknowledging the Russian’s personal magnetism, his literary achievements, and his civic courage. The entire occasion was a kind of public apotheosis, covered extensively in the press and on television afterward. James Reston, George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Archibald MacLeish were among those who commented immediately on Solzhenitsyn’s message, and a book of their responses was published later, with additional reflections by Sidney Hook, Richard Pipes, and Michael Novak, among others.1
From the immediate reaction Solzhenitsyn might have been forgiven for thinking that he had influenced American thinking. But most commentators held that although he was an inspiring figure who deserved a hearing, his judgments were too sweeping to bear close examination. His knowledge of American life seemed superficial at best. His…
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