Toward the close of his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, Alexander Solzhenitsyn affirmed the power of literature “to help mankind, in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties.“ In this, the great man affirmed the power of literature to communicate the moral truths of our lives, our societies, across all national and ethnic boundaries. Solzhenitsyn, perhaps known by most as a Soviet dissident, was nonetheless an artist of great distinction who heroically exposed the lies at the heart of Marxism-Leninism and the near destruction of traditional Russian society and faith communities at the hands of the Soviets.
Solzhenitsyn took a sledgehammer to the crumbling foundations of the Soviet system and, more than any other single person, was responsible for its collapse. Indeed, his artistic mission was to chronicle—in works such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, The First Circle and The Gulag Archipelago—the catastrophe that the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet repression wrought on Russia. Solzhenitsyn never forgot the injustice of his own imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag and the stories of those he met there.
In his works, their sacrifices would not be forgotten. As he said in his powerful Nobel lecture (smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1972 and published to a sensational reception all over the world), violence—both physical and spiritual—cannot ultimately stand against the truth. “And no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness—and violence, decrepit, will fall,“ he wrote. Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Solzenitsyn soon settled in the United States. But the Western liberal elites, feeling the writer’s withering condemnation, were quick to turn on him. Scholars Edward E. Ericson and Daniel J. Mahoney recounted how journalist Jeri Laber, who in 1972 had praised Solzhenitsyn as a person and a writer, in 1974 declared his art dull and his politics reactionary. Her memorable generalization: “He is not the ’liberal’ we would like him to be.“
What would she have thought of Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1978 commencement address at Harvard where he catalogued the West’s failings, including rampant materialism, the superficiality of the media, and the moral cowardice of intellectuals? Standing before the cream of the Cambridge intelligentsia, Solzhenitsyn accused the West of leaving behind “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.“ He took the political and intellectual elites to task for cowardice, a “lack of manhood“ in its dealings with international aggressors and terrorists. He lamented the “boundless space“ that the West had provided for human freedom without making any distinctions for human decadence. “The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer,“ Solzhenitsyn told the Harvard crowd.
As a boy, Solzhenitsyn was deeply influenced by his Aunt Irina, who instilled in him a love of literature and of Russian Orthodoxy. But he drifted away from the Christian faith under the spell of state indoctrination in Marxism-Leninism. It was his experience with the realities of the labor camps that brought him to his metanoia, the change of mind that put him on the road to repentance. “He returned with adult thoughtfulness to the Christian worldview of his rearing,“ Ericson and Mahoney wrote. “Solzhenitsyn’s mature articulation of Christian truths was deeply informed by his experience in the prison camps. There he witnessed human nature in extremis and learned about the heights and depths of the human soul.“