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Solzhenitsyn’s advice to the free world

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was one of the great souls of the twentieth century. A survivor of World War II, cancer, and 11 years in captivity in the Soviet Gulag, he not only survived but went on to expose for the free Western countries what the true nature of the Soviet regime was with his breakout work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), as well as In the First Circle (1968),Cancer Ward (1968), and the monumental Gulag Archipelago (three volumes, 1973-78). As the historian and political journalist Richard Brookhiser observed, what Solzhenitsyn taught the West was the word “gulag” and its meaning: that Communism was not the path to freedom but the way of ideological lies, slavery, and violence.

This lesson was important for Westerners to hear. After decades of lies from Western journalists and intellectuals about what life in Communist regimes entailed, this was a man who lived and documentedthe Communist reality. “One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” Solzhenitsyn declared in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture. It seemed in the early 1970s that his many words of truth had caused a miracle even greater than Archimedes’ lever: He had changed the minds of some intellectuals and journalists.

But his celebrity and reputation were short-lived. After he was expelled from the USSR in 1974, he settled in the U. S. in Cavendish, Vermont, and continued to write and speak about truth, lies, and political matters both in person and in print. For many Western intellectuals, even those not Soviet fellow travelers, the problem was that he spoke not just about problems in his native Russia but in the free West. In a 1975 address to American trade unionists, Solzhenitsyn prefaced his comments with a warning that he would not offer them “sugary words,” explaining with a fitting Russian proverb: “The yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.”

He continued to argue with Americans and the West more broadly over the 20 years he lived in the United States, offering sometimes “bitter” words in his 1978 Harvard commencement address, his 1983 Templeton address, and a number of other speeches and writings. A close look at them reveals not a Russian chauvinist or anti-Western bigot but a man who had “worshipped the West” as “the sun of freedom, a fortress of the spirit, our hope, our ally,” but who had gradually seen chinks in the fortress.

"Liberty pointed the way to virtue and heroism. That is what you have forgotten."

Those chinks had included a lack of “firmness” in seeking the freedom of people under totalitarian domination. For Solzhenitsyn, the problem with the Cold War was not that it was happening at all, but that the U. S. and allies didn’t prosecute it firmly enough. At Harvard, Solzhenitsyn chastised the American government for its weakness in leaving southeast Asia to the Communists. In other speeches he observed that Western businesses, by doing business with the Soviet government, were propping up an unfree regime that would not have lasted long since it had killed the productivity of its own people. Lenin was right, he sardonically noted: Capitalists would sell the rope to the Communists to hang themselves.

What the West needed was a lesson in what to do with freedom when you actually have it. And to that end, the arguing friend persistently spoke about the enemies of true freedom and the habits needed to live and keep it.

While Solzhenitsyn admired immensely the American founding, considering the Founders’ “original intent” a blueprint for a good society with its defense of the rights of the individual “under God” proclaimed alongside his duties and “the assumption of his constant religious responsibility,” he believed too many Americans had fallen victim to an ersatz notion of happiness pursued apart from the “concepts of good and evil.”

This happiness consisted solely in a negative freedom combined with a materialism that paralleled that of the Marxists. Are plentiful and affordable goods and services a blessing? Yes, but they are not the only blessing to be pursued, and not at any cost. This counter notion, which we now call consumerism, of seeing happiness merely in the availability and possession of goods creates a malaise that “imprint[s] many Western faces with worry and even depression.” One is reminded of Mother Teresa’s similar diagnosis of Westerners as suffering from a spiritual poverty much greater than that found among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.

But the problem with false notions of happiness doesn’t limit itself to Westerners’ feelings. It paralyzes them by making them risk averse. Western “well-being” had the effect of making fighting for freedom at home and abroad seem not worth the effort. “And for what should one risk one’s precious life,” he asked in the Harvard address. “In defense of common values and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country? Even biology knows that habitual, extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism.”

The second enemy of liberty is a misunderstanding of equality, which is to be applauded when it means equal dignity as persons and equal treatment under the law but, when applied to economic and societal outcomes, saps the dynamic of action and responsibility that comprise our liberty. “Liberty, by its very nature, undermines social equality, and equality suppresses liberty – for how else could it be attained?” Solzhenitsyn observed. Asked by British journalist Bernard Levin whether it is true that free people could desire to be slaves, he replied, “Yes, today’s Western Europe is full of such people.” Today’s America is similarly stocked.

The third enemy is “legalism.” Like goods and services, a properly functioning legal system is a necessity for a good society. But people whose only boundary is the legal will not “take advantage of the full range of human possibilities” and will instead produce more of the “spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.” Westerners who only rise to the legal minimums and only stop at the legal maximums are not worthy of freedom, the telosof which is moral excellence.

The final enemy is an attitude that only considers human rights and not human obligations. Solzhenitsyn agreed with Lord Acton, who considered liberty had more to do with what we “ought” than what we “like.” Paying attention only to our rights is the broad way that leads to social Hell.

What then ought we to do with our freedom? The answer is to reject these enemies, first and foremost by seeking out the truth about happiness, liberty, equality, law, and rights – all of which are gifts of God. “Truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit,” said Solzhenitsyn. But we then need to speak the truth, courageously refusing to be intimidated into lying or agreeing with lies. Third, we need to freely act on the truth, doing our duties and going beyond them in charity. When we do that, we will see why God gave us liberty in the first place: to make us extraordinary: “[Liberty]’s old function was to render possible the emergence of values. Liberty pointed the way to virtue and heroism. That is what you have forgotten.”

Let us who have freedom remember and act. Let us be heroes.

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David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas. He is the 2013 winner of the Novak Prize.