An Orbital Journey

Alexander Solzhenitsyn boards a train in Vladivostok in 1994. (Reuters)
In a little-known 1974 speech, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn decries the materialism of modern society and calls for the establishment of a ‘worthy equilibrium’ between humanity’s material and spiritual concerns.

Editors’ note: In 1974, just a few months after being banished from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn delivered an address in Zurich to the Italian Catholic Press Union. In its ambivalence toward modernity and its call for a renewal of spiritual and moral values, it prefigures his much better-known Harvard commencement address of four years later. The Zurich speech, translated by Solzhenitsyn’s son Stephan, appears here for the first time in English.

Preface by Daniel J. Mahoney, Vice-President and Chief Academic Officer, The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center:

In the first volume of his riveting account of his years of forced exile in the West, Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile: 1974–1978 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn includes an intriguing discussion of the speech he gave in Zurich on the occasion of receiving the “Cliché d’Oro” (“Golden Matrix”) prize, awarded by the Italian Catholic Press Union for his activities resisting totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. The date was May 31, 1974, just three and a half months after Solzhenitsyn had been forcibly removed from the Soviet Union, most immediately because of the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, first in Russian in Paris and soon in many Western and world languages. That magisterial book had shaken the world and revealed for all to see the violence and mendacity at the heart of the Soviet state, and of an inhuman Communist ideology. Its publication was, as we now know, a fatal blow to the legitimacy of the entire Marxist-Leninist enterprise, one from which the Soviet Union never recovered.

The Italian journalists were expecting a political speech, a fiery assault on the Soviet Dragon, as Solzhenitsyn called it. Solzhenitsyn would give that speech on many other occasions. But in his Golden Matrix speech Solzhenitsyn chose another approach, one that addressed the larger sources of the ills of modern civilization, of what the eminent political theorist Eric Voegelin has called “modernity without restraint,” a phrase that fully resonates with Solzhenitsyn’s own analysis of the ongoing crisis of modernity.

Solzhenitsyn’s speech was not immediately effective: In fact, it “came up against a wall of deafness and a sea of silence” before the audience of well-intentioned but uncomprehending Italian journalists. Yet, as Solzhenitsyn himself would later note, when he offered the same analysis in 1978 in the amplified setting of Harvard University, his message resonated around the world.

The Golden Matrix address has certain advantages over the Harvard address: It is sparer, less polemical, and perhaps even more weighty and philosophical. It is also less immediately preoccupied with the issues of the day. It is high-minded in every sense of the term. Eschewing narrowly political and grossly ideological categories, Solzhenitsyn provides a measured account of the “orbital journey” of modern man and the modern project in both East and West. His address is a clarion call for civilized humanity to reject the theocratic temptations of the medieval world as well as the materialist hegemony of an unbounded modernity. He calls for the restoration of balance in the human soul and the human world: One must resist the tyranny of the spiritual — which forgets the centrality of human freedom to a life well lived — but also the debilitating opposing claim that Man is the highest measure of the universe. Solzhenitsyn calls on his contemporaries to have the wisdom “to discover once again that man is not the crown of the universe, but that there exists above him a Higher Spirit.” Attentive readers hear the voice of Solzhenitsyn, the conservative green, the eloquent critic of “cruel modern tyrannies” and of the accompanying illusion that socialism, coercive and devoid of higher spiritual content as it is, can restore balance to the human world.

The address also includes a luminous critique of “bloody physical revolutions” (as in France after 1789 and the Soviet Union after 1917). They “lead not to a brighter future, but to worse perdition, to worse violence.” Both here and in the Harvard address, Solzhenitsyn suggestively traces the possibility of a “moral revolution” that would move beyond the excesses of modernity, yet without returning to the spiritual despotisms of the past. He never advocates going back, only up, from modernity.

This text is indispensable for understanding and appreciating the full spiritual and philosophical wisdom of the much more famous Harvard address. We are delighted to offer it to the readers of National Review for their consideration and reflection.

Daniel J. Mahoney 

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An Orbital Journey
Remarks upon receiving the Golden Matrix prize of the Italian Catholic Press Union
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Having acquainted myself with the principles that the Italian Press Union follows in awarding its prize — already for eleven straight years, this year to me — I not only express to you my gratitude, but must also admit a certain feeling of pride in seeing such worthy and courageous people among the preceding recipients — including the entire Prague youth movement of 1968.

They who impart this award today, and he who today receives it, have lived their lives as though on separate halves of the planet, in different worlds, different systems, purportedly separated by a chasm, opposite in all things, and mutually exclusive. However, if it were so, then one couldn’t have identified the common values that might give you the idea to award me this prize. Since such common values were identified, then perhaps we can also generate a common view on what is transpiring in the world today, and maybe even uncover in each other similar aspirations, a similar resolve.

Dividing the world, primitively, into two systems is the result of political judgment — a mediocre thing indeed. All political tactics, per se, use ready-made ethical (or unethical) precepts, and thus occupy a low rung on the ladder of human consciousness and existence. They break off and change course frequently, whenever the situation changes. Instead of helping us ponder the state of the world today, impassioned political labels rather lead us astray. If, on the other hand, we wish to grasp the true essence of the human condition today, to gauge humanity’s hopelessness as well as its hope — a goal which is, surely, among the higher aims also of the press — then we must rise to a level well above political characterizations, formulas, and recipes.

And then we shall perhaps see — though it will hardly gladden us — that the main danger is not that the world is split apart into two alternative social systems, but that both systems are struck by malady, in fact a common malady, and thus neither of the systems, with their current worldview, augurs a healthy outcome. This malady has evolved organically over several centuries, through all the happenstance of developments in individual countries, and entered the very fabric of modern humanity. And if we take a distant vantage point, we can trace its path.

We — all of us, all of civilized humanity — have been seated and fastened onto a single, rigidly interconnected carousel, and have taken a long orbital journey. Like little kids mounted on the carousel’s horses, we thought this journey would be endless, always forward, only forward, never sideways or askew. This orbital journey has been — the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, bloody physical revolutions, democratic societies, socialist projects. This journey had to occur because the Middle Ages failed, in their time, to hold humanity’s course; because the planting on Earth of the Kingdom of God was forcibly imposed, with essential personal rights being revoked in favor of the Whole. We were violently pulled, forced toward the spiritual, and so we tore away and dove — headlong and unbounded — into the Material. Thus began a long era of humanistic individualism, the construction of a civilization based on the principle that man is the measure of all things, that man is above all.

This whole inevitable journey greatly enriched humanity’s experience, but it has exhausted itself before our eyes. The foundational errors that were ignored at the beginning of the journey now take their revenge. Having established man — with all his shortcomings and greed — as the highest measure of all things, and having given ourselves over to the Material, immoderately and with abandon, we have now clogged up the works amidst profuse pollution. We are mired in the earth’s pollution. It fills, clogs all spheres of our existence. In the material sphere this pollution is by now all too evident to everyone. It has poisoned the air, water, the settled parts of the land’s surface, and is now spreading to the unsettled parts. It has been the unseemly reward for our mighty industrial endeavors, just as in the everyday lives of individual people the most appealing advertisements, packaging, and plastics turn into piles of urban refuse.

But also in the so-called spiritual sphere, this pollution bombards and presses us: with heavy lumps unabsorbable by our eyes, ears, chests; with the incessant hammering-out of ideas that seem to resound as all-encompassing and self-evident but in reality are helpless and shallow; with false science; with affectation in art — in short, with everything that knows no responsibility above Man, that is, above you and me and people of our ilk. Our blustering civilization has completely robbed us of a concentrated inner life, dragged our souls out into a bazaar, whether of commerce or of party politics. In the social sphere our centuries-long journey has brought us in some cases to the brink of anarchy, in other cases to a stable despotism. In between these two grim outcomes, we see one democratic government after another grow feeble and powerless before our eyes — because communities large and small have no wish to set limits on themselves in favor of the Whole. This idea — that there must, after all, be something Whole, something Higher than us, which we have lost somewhere along the way, something that once placed limits on our passions and our irresponsibility — now this idea is keenly adopted by cruel modern tyrannies and duly displayed under the label of Socialism. But the display is false, and the moniker — unexamined. In reality, the past 50 years have shown quite clearly that also over there the masses are but fodder for the prosperity of a few individuals, the most worthless and polluted ones at that.

That is why the journey has turned out to be an orbital one: because we tore ourselves from the hold of violence, and into the hold of violence we have returned — not all of us yet, but all are threatened, given the weakened will and distorted perspective that are hallmarks of our common illness. The orbit threatens to close up ignominiously.

It would appear that human civilization is approaching a historic turn (in everyday life and in worldview), one as significant as the turn from the Middle Ages to Modern History — if only we are not too careless or crestfallen to miss it. It was your country, Italy, that was once first in the world to show us that previous historic turn. Perhaps now you are also among the first to feel the depths of our current predicament. Given your keen sense, perhaps you will help us find the forms that would ease our transition to a higher orbit, one where we will learn to sustain a worthy equilibrium between our physical nature and our spiritual nature. Let us find in our souls the stature to discover once again that man is not the crown of the universe, but that there exists above him a Higher Spirit.

The intimidating rhythm of life today means we will have little time to make sense of this turn and to complete it — much less time than we were afforded in the unhurried flow of the 14th, or 16th, century. Meanwhile, the bloody experience of the intervening centuries means that we must find both finer and higher forms of transition. We have learned, already, that the convulsion of nation-states, their violent physical overthrow, leads not to a bright future, but to worse perdition, to worse violence. And if there are to be salvific revolutions in our future, they must be moral ones — that is, a certain new phenomenon, which we have yet to discover, discern, and bring to life.

— translated from the Russian by Stephan Solzhenitsyn, copyright © 2019


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