In 1978, as an exile from the Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University. The address shocked many people and remains bracing even today. His audience no doubt expected him to praise the West for its individualism and commitment to human rights. He did, to a point. But he also offered a critique of Western materialism and legalism. “A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher,” he said through a translator, “is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.” His critique resonates with many current critiques of liberalism, which seems to be at a crisis point.
The Northern Illinois University Press recently released an interesting-looking new book on Solzhenitsyn’s thought, Solzhenitsyn: The Historical-Spiritual Destinies of Russia and the West, by James Madison University historian Lee Congdon. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
This study of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) and his writings focuses on his reflections on the religiopolitical trajectories of Russia and the West, understood as distinct civilizations. What perhaps most sets Russia apart from the West is the Orthodox Christian faith. The mature Solzhenitsyn returned to the Orthodox faith of his childhood while serving an eight-year sentence in the Gulag Archipelago. He believed that when men forget God, communism or a similar catastrophe is likely to be their fate. In his examination of the author and his work, Lee Congdon explores the consequences of the atheistic socialism that drove the Russian revolutionary movement.
Beginning with a description of the post-revolutionary Russia into which Solzhenitsyn was born, Congdon outlines the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, the origins of the concentration camp system, and the Bolsheviks’ war on Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church. He then focuses on Solzhenitsyn’s arrest near the war’s end, his time in the labor camps, and his struggle with cancer. Congdon describes his time in exile and increasing alienation from the Western way of life, as well as his return home and his final years. He concludes with a reminder of Solzhenitsyn’s warning to the West—that it was on a path parallel to that which Russia had followed into the abyss. This important study will appeal to scholars and educated general readers with an interest in Solzhenitsyn, Russia, Christianity, and the fate of Western civilization.