Jul 18, 2013
The Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who authored The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, won the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. Through his writings, he had made the world aware of the dehumanizing and repressive measures of the former Soviet Union. He himself had spent eight years in prisons and forced labor camps under the Communist state. In 1974, the Soviet Union deported him. After a brief residence in Germany and then in Switzerland, he eventually settled in the United States.
In America, Solzhenitsyn was greatly admired for his outspoken criticism of the oppression of the Soviet regime. On June 8, 1978, four years after he had been expelled from the Soviet Union, he was invited to deliver the Commencement Address at Harvard University. Everyone was excited. This was to be his first public statement since his arrival in the United States. Expectations were high.
As Solzhenitsyn rose to the podium for his address, students and professors, visitors and the media, anxiously anticipated his rebuke of Communism for its lack of freedom, its disregard of individual rights and its exaltation of the state over the individual. As his opening words in Russian were being translated into English, his listeners began to applaud. But, then his audience fell silent. His listeners realized that, instead of denouncing Communism, he was rebuking the West for its loss of values.
Solzhenitsyn acknowledged that our country, unlike the Soviet Union, had been founded to guarantee liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, he shocked his audience when he went on, not to extol, but to excoriate our society. He spoke of the great technological and social progress of recent decades. He saw this progress as creating the possibility for every citizen to accumulate material goods, money and leisure and to enjoy these possessions with an almost unlimited amount of freedom.
But Solzhenitsyn was quick to recognize that there has been a downside to such prosperity. The more individuals have to enjoy, the less likely they are inclined to renounce their pleasure and their enjoyment for the common good. Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn was disappointed with our legal system that has chosen to canonize liberty at any cost, individual rights over the common good. He saw this as dangerous and he was right!