Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - Modern Day Prophet, Moral Crusader, Critic of Both West and East

by John Jalsevac


This article about the recently deceased Alexander Solzhenitsyn discusses his major writings and his courageous opposition to totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and to the materialism and atheism found in the West.

Publisher & Date, August 5, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the towering literary figure often referred to as a modern day prophet, passed away of natural causes in his homeland at the age of 89 this past Sunday.

During his life the Nobel prize winning author - best known for his role in exposing and opposing the horrors of the Soviet empire - survived WWII (in which he served and was twice decorated as an artillery unit commander), 8 years in the Soviet prison camps (known as the Gulag), a bout with cancer that nearly took his life, had numerous run-ins with Soviet authorities on account of his subversive writings, and spent 20 years in exile in the United States.

Besides being credited as one of the most prominent figures in bringing about the demise of Soviet communism, Solzhenitsyn is considered to be one of the most articulate critics of the materialistic decadence of the West and post-communist Russia, a position most famously elucidated in his devastating 1978 "Harvard Address."

In that Address, delivered to some 10-15 thousand listeners, and which ultimately served to put him out of favor with many of the West's intelligentsia, Solzhenitsyn denounced the West for its lack of courage and personality, its legalism, moral decadence, intellectual and social shallowness, enslavement to fashion, passivity, short-sightedness, and more. The writer traced these Western sicknesses to the embrace of the materialistic humanism of the Enlightenment, which he defined as "the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him."

The Address included such blunt and unapologetic observations as: "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today….Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?"

Solzhenitsyn suggested that the solution to the vacuity, malaise and selfishness that he felt characterized Western existence in the latter half of the 20th century, was a return to morality and religion. In particular he believed that religion and morality belonged firmly in the public square, and should guide the political life of nations.

"We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life," he told his Harvard listeners. "It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West." Solzhenitsyn himself was a devoted adherent of the Russian Orthodox branch of Christianity.

While many in the intellectual establishment in the West admired the Russian author's courageous opposition to the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, he alienated many of his liberal sympathizers with his increasingly vocal indictments of Western-style capitalism, materialism and atheism.

As a consequence the author spent the last two decades of his life slipping into relative obscurity. Media reports following his death reveal that many members of the younger generation of Russians are completely unaware of the author and his legacy, despite the fact that at one time his name was one of the most recognized not only in Russia, but across the globe. Media has described the reaction to the author's death in Russia as "muted," despite the fact that his death was publicly mourned by prominent civil leaders across the world, including President Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 to a poor widow, his father having died in a hunting accident while the writer's mother was pregnant. In university he studied mathematics, and went on to serve as the commander of an artillery unit in the Red Army. While in the army he wrote a letter to a friend in which he included a remark critical of Stalin. Soviet censors intercepted the letter and the young Solzhenitsyn was subsequently sentenced to 8 years in the Soviet Gulag - a series of labour camps, many of which were situated in the icy desert of Siberia. A significant number of those who were sent to the prison camps did not survive.

Solzhenitsyn, however, did survive, and went on to chronicle his experiences in the work of fiction "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch." This slim novel, which relates in nearly minute-by-minute detail a single day of a single inhabitant of a Soviet prison camp, was an immediate global sensation, providing as it did a heretofore unseen glimpse of the brutality which Solzhenitsyn believed is inherent in the communist ideology.

The author went on to write numerous other works, including the popular novel The First Circle, also a depiction of the Soviet Gulag, the title of which was drawn from Dante's Inferno and which refers to the first circle of hell. He also wrote the heavily autobiographical novel Cancer Ward, which depicts the battle with cancer of a fictional character who has only recently been released from the Gulag.

However, Solzhenitsyn's most powerful, if not most enduring work, at least in terms of its effect upon Soviet Communism, was the monumental, three-volume The Gulag Archipelago. In this work Solzhenitsyn documented in painstaking detail the history and nature of the Soviet labour camp system, relying heavily on first-person testimonies and his own personal experiences.

If One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch peeled back the Iron Curtain, giving the West a glimpse at the evils perpetrated by the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago tore the wall down, exposing the horrors of Soviet communism for anyone who cared to look. In order to have The Gulag Archipelago published, Solzhenitsyn was forced to smuggle the text into the West so as to avoid Soviet censors.

Solzhenitsyn was deported and stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1974, eventually ending up in the United States in Vermont, where he lived a quiet and reclusive life for the next two decades, spending much of his time working on his massive, and mostly ignored history of the 1917 Russian Revolution, entitled The Red Wheel. Only occasionally did the author appear in public, and when he did he typically did so only to issue a resounding denunciation of what he believed was the accelerating materialism and atheism of the West, as well as of his beloved homeland.

In 1994 the author returned to Russia, where he continued to lead a quiet life, writing and publishing various works of fiction and non-fiction.

In a recent interview Solzhenitsyn was asked whether he was afraid of death:

"No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me…and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one's existence."

Solzhenitsyn's wife told reporters that her husband died peacefully. "He wanted to die in the summer, and he died in the summer," she said. "He wanted to die at home, and he died at home. In general I should say that Alexander Isaevich lived a difficult but happy life."

Note: For an admirable selection of Solzhenitsyn's writing, including many of his later essays and addresses, dealing specifically with the problem of the West and its materialistic humanism, see "The Solzhenitsyn Reader" published by ISI books (

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