June 8th marked the 37th anniversary of one of the most important and controversial commencement addresses ever delivered at Harvard University. Standing in a light rain before a large crowd of professors, students, graduates and their families, Russian author, Nobel Prize winner, and Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn laid communist atrocities – and Western indifference – bare before the world. His speech entitled A World Split Apart drew both admiration and hostility and forced many to confront the ugly realities of communism and the reality of an expansionist Soviet threat. To a stunned audience, he said he delivered these truths “not from an adversary but from a friend.” He also criticized the certain aspects of the West in his address (which can be argued was the correct diagnosis – see graduating senior Charles R. Kesler’s incredible and erudite analysis of the address in National Review here), but it was his candid treatment of the Soviet Union that got him ostracized from the inner intellectual circle of the United States. After the address, he was quickly derided as a zealot, a madman, and a crank by the media and professoriate. Solzhenitsyn became at once a voice to be silenced from the public stage, and almost immediately he began to disappear from public discussions as well as most literature, history, and political science syllabi.
Perhaps because of the negative reaction to the Harvard Address, or perhaps because of his unapologetic anti-communism, one the world’s foremost witnesses to the atrocities of the USSR has slipped from memory. As Professor James F. Pontuso lamented in his book Assault on Ideology: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Political Thought, Solzhenitsyn is “almost a forgotten man, a relic of the Cold War, a bit like some discarded chard of the Berlin Wall.” However, he is an author whose name should be known to every student and politician throughout the world. He did what relatively few have ever done: he took a stand against communism from the inside. Solzhenitsyn miraculously survived the full wrath of the Soviet Union at its height, including Stalin’s reign of terror, an eight-year stint in the Gulag, unrelenting KGB surveillance and countermeasures, and eventual exile. His voluminous writing left the world a powerful witness of the realities of living under a communist regime.
Born in Kislovodsk, Russia, in 1918, he grew up in the shadow of the October Revolution and at school was steeped in Marxist and Bolshevik propaganda. He attended college at Rostov University where he studied mathematics and physics, but always aspired to write and publish literature. When Hitler began his invasion of Russia in 1941, Solzhenitsyn joined the Red Army and was quickly promoted to captain in an artillery unit, being cited for heroism. It was during his push through Eastern Europe towards Berlin that he was arrested for writing critical letters to an old family friend about Stalin’s mismanagement of the Soviet Union. Red Army intelligence eventually caught the letters and he was arrested. He was stripped of his rank, subjected to brutal and constant humiliation and torture, and eventually ended up in the infamous forced-labor camps known as the Gulag. He survived his sentence, and afterwards began to write about the experience.
We now know a lot about the Gulag system, thanks to myriads of sources found in the Soviet archives and records of survivors (Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History is unmatched in its exhaustive research on the subject). Up through the 1960s, the Gulag system was still a rumor among many intellectuals in the West who argued that it was a fabrication by anti-communist zealots to besmirch Stalin (or, even more naïvely, they believed Stalin didn’t have anything to do with the Gulag, and instead that it was the result of runaway bureaucracy). Survivors and escapees of the Gulag had been quietly disregarded for decades, allowing many to cling to the belief that communism was working brilliantly “over there” and was the most viable option for the future of the world. This distorted view might have persisted had it not been for Solzhenitsyn and his two masterpieces on the subject entitled A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but it was The Gulag Archipelago that shocked the world. Authors John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr recently wrote, “no book did more to publicize the crimes of communism.”
In 1974, Communist Party leaders had had enough and Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union where he took up residence in Switzerland. Thanks to KGB archives, we know that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and KGB head Yuri Andropov took active measures to spy on and discredit him by placing several KGB agents disguised as friends and sympathizers close to him. Once Solzhenitsyn found out he was compromised, he fled to the United States, taking up residence on a small estate in Vermont where he continued to write. KGB archives note that the KGB bureau in New York was immediately tasked with finding new ways to subvert and discredit him in the US. However, after his Harvard Address and the negative reaction in the press, the Soviet leaders in Moscow were convinced that Solzhenitsyn had undermined his own credibility, and were satisfied to leave him alone.
Solzhenitsyn continued to write about the cruelty and moral corruption of the Soviet Union up until his death in 2008. The Soviet Union, he repeated over and over, continually lied to its own citizens, as well as the world, about the realities of Marxist rule: “everything is steeped in lies” he wrote, “and everybody knows it.” It took the fall of the Soviet Union before the world found out just how right he was.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, he eventually returned to Russia where successive leaders including Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin praised him for his work. That Solzhenitsyn wasn’t without controversy is a well-known fact. Despite repeated efforts by interested scholars, misinformation abounds about the man. Some claim he was anti-Semitic, others that he was arguing for religious authoritarianism, and still others that he was categorically opposed to democracy. Each of these claims don’t hold up when scrutinized, and for a systematic refutation of each of them, one can read Professor and unrivaled Solzhenitsyn scholar Daniel J. Mahoney’s book The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker. Mahoney himself is a wellspring of knowledge on the work of Solzhenitsyn and any analysis of the author should begin with him.
Any serious consideration of the Soviet Union must ultimately, and often, cross paths with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His determined stand against the horrors of a communist regime was monumental for its sheer tenacity. To publicly and forcefully criticize one of the most brutally oppressive regimes in human history (and somehow live to tell about it) takes courage that should make him a household name. Strangely enough, he still remains a largely forgotten voice of the past, which is a shame. Large portions of his work have yet to be translated into English, although most of them have been translated into French. His words are important and searching enough to warrant a deeper consideration among literary, historical, and political circles because he stood as an eyewitness to the destructive nature of communism on the human soul.
Above all, there is something powerfully redeeming in Solzhenitsyn’s writing that carries a message of hope to citizens suffering under the oppression of communism. He demonstrates that there is, ultimately, a nobility and sublimity in resisting communism’s grasp. Mahoney wrote that Solzhenitsyn “shows how resistance to radical evil can liberate seemingly dormant noble qualities in the human soul.” The world is incredibly fortunate to have access to Solzhenitsyn’s thoughtful and penetrating voice at a time when communist regimes still somehow function, thrive, and oppress millions. Solzhenitsyn’s legacy is one of hope and resistance in the face of a regime that seeks to destroy humanity one soul at a time.