On June 8, 1978, a man who looked more like an Old Testament prophet than a Nobel Prize winning author stood before Harvard’s graduating class and gave a speech that both offended and fascinated our nation. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet Army veteran arrested in February 1945 for speaking against Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend. He spent the next eight years in prison in the Gulag, eventually being transferred to a camp for political prisoners. It was out of this experience that Solzhenitsyn wrote his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
He was exiled to southern Kazakhstan after his imprisonment and taught at a local school. He developed cancer and was treated successfully. He saw this as a miracle. “I could see no other explanation. Since then, all the life that has been given back to me has not been mine in the full sense: it is built around a purpose.” And he believed that purpose was to expose the injustice of the Soviet prison system which he did in his book The Gulag Archipelago and subsequent works, which resulted in him getting kicked out of Soviet Russia. He eventually came to the US and, two years later, gave the Harvard speech, “A World Split Apart.”
It did not go over well. James Reston of The New York Times said the speech represented “the wanderings of a mind split apart.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., then Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York, and former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, said the speech promoted “a Christian authoritarianism governed by God-fearing despots without benefit of politics, parties, undue intellectual freedom or undue concern for human happiness.” And philosopher Sidney Hook insisted that “theology is irrelevant not only to democracy and capitalism and socialism as social systems, but to the validity of morality itself.” But to the more philosophically conservative, his speech was a prophetic warning. Michael Novak, resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, described the address as “the most important religious document of our time.”
“Many of you have already found out,” Solzhenitsyn said in his opening, “and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today. . . .”
America’s concentration has flagged. She has taken her eye off the ball of truth and has been distracted by other things, like her own absolute sovereignty and supremacy. She has also been blinded to other things, like her own evil and injustice. In junior high I was playing pitch and catch and I took my eye off the ball. It hit me just above the eye and they took me to the ER for stitches. America needs more than stitches. Solzhenitsyn may have spoken to young graduates, but his speech was meant for us living 36 years later. More about what Solzhenitsyn said, next week…
(Some quotes were taken from a 2007 WordPress blog by D. Jeter)