Magazine | June 25, 2018, Issue

My Harvard Speech in Retrospect

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
Solzhenitsyn’s reflections on his critics

In the winter of 1978 an invitation to give a commencement speech at Harvard suddenly arrived. Of course I could have declined, as I had done in 1975, and with hundreds of other invitations. But Harvard is a place of significance, and my speech would be heard throughout America. I had not given a speech in two years, and my temperament was pushing me once again to speak out. So I accepted the invitation.

When I began to prepare my speech in the spring, I found that, beyond my aversion to eternal repetition, I could not and did not want to return to previous directions or hit previous notes. For many years in the USSR, and for four years now in the West, I had kept slashing and hacking away at Communism, but in these last years I had also seen in the West much that was alarmingly dangerous, and here I preferred to talk about that. Giving expression to the new observations that had accumulated within me, I built my speech around Western matters, about the weaknesses of the West.

Unlike the case with my other speeches, I wrote this speech out, and Irina Ilovaiskaya [Solzhenitsyn’s secretary] translated it into English. Knowing the West very well, she was extremely worried and upset, and tried to persuade me to soften my ideas and words. I refused. After the speech had been translated and printed out, in tears she told Alya [Solzhenitsyn’s wife]: “He will not be forgiven for this!”

My speech was announced in advance, and what was mainly expected of me (they later wrote) was the gratitude of the exile to the great Atlantic fortress of Liberty, singing praises to its might and its virtues, which were lacking in the USSR. And needless to say, they expected an anti-Сommunist speech. The evening before, during the formal gala dinner, I had the honor to sit with the president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, his black skin almost purple in hue, his face betraying fatigue, and also with the former president of Israel, Ephraim Katzir (Katchalsky), who very much called to mind a good-natured Ukrainian peasant, but one keeping his plans to himself. And the nervously restless Richard Pipes — a man of great influence at Harvard, and who almost singlehandedly runs the studies of Russia here in America — came over to meet me and find out if it was true that my speech was to center on Cambodia. (That would indeed have been an issue well worth talking about.)

The following day, June 8, people took their seats under the open sky in Harvard Yard, the graduates according to their fields, then the guests, and a large crowd of people standing — some 20,000 in all, I was told. The president of Harvard congratulated the graduating students, after which honorary doctorates were given to the president of Botswana, to Katzir, to the Danish anthropologist Erik Erikson (who had a remarkable countenance), and to me — and to my surprise, the crowd rose to its feet and gave me a standing ovation; clearly the myth surrounding me had yet to be dismantled here. Then Harvard graduates marched across the yard (at their head an old man, who had been of the class of 1893), as did we, the honored guests, students calling out greetings to us, and then everyone again took their seats. When the moment came for me to speak, it began to rain heavily. We on the podium were protected by a canopy, but everyone else in the crowd was exposed to the rain, and as I was speaking I was amazed that some people opened umbrellas, others didn’t, but that everyone remained sitting in the rain, nobody hurrying away! And my speech, along with the translation, took an hour, twice as long as it normally would have, loudspeakers broadcasting it to all the corners of Harvard Yard.

I was also amazed at how often and how vigorously people applauded, something I had not expected, especially when I was talking about the importance of leaving behind materialism. This heartened me. At times they whistled, which is also, it turns out, a sign of approval, but there was another sound too, a drawn-out “ssss,” the way we call for silence in Russian, and that, on the contrary, was a sign of disapproval. (Later, I was to learn that on that same campus at an earlier time there had resounded the sharpest protests against the Vietnam War.)

After my speech the university asked me for the text, and it was immediately printed, with some 2,000 copies handed out, and there began a bacchanalian dissemination of arbitrary excerpts and quotes from it throughout the U.S. and around the world. The university received over 5,000 requests from twelve countries. (Here again: Things that I had said elsewhere that had fallen on deaf ears, now, coming from America, were listened to by the entire world, as if for the first time!) The tireless TV stations, which had recorded my entire speech, broadcast it that very evening along with a discussion. Of all this, Alya and I that night only managed to catch that the Voice of America was broadcasting the whole speech, in my voice, to the Soviet Union.

The following day and a half was like an excursion into the past. In the evening, Harper & Row threw a dinner for us in Harvard’s dining hall, and the aged Cass Canfield hobbled over to see me: He had been the one who had once behaved so capriciously over First Circle, and had ultimately prevailed, with conditions that were humiliating and disenfranchising for me. One should not nurse old grudges, but seeing him there was unpleasant. The next day we went to the Connecticut home of my translator, Thomas Whitney — his friend Harrison Salisbury was there too — both of whom had ended up taking my side in the Carlisle affair [some complications with the initial publications of Solzhenitsyn’s books in the West — NR]. That evening, our host had gathered together a few choice guests, Arthur Miller and his circle, New York’s elite.

On the following day we returned home, at which point there began — for a good two months! — an unending rush of agitated newspaper responses to my speech, and then also a flood of letters from Americans. Irina Ilovaiskaya read the letters and made summaries, while I myself read many of the articles. And I must say I was quite taken aback by the connection (or rather the lack thereof) between the criticism and the actual content of my speech.

I had given my speech the title “A World Split Apart,” and it was with this idea that I had opened the speech, that mankind is separated into original and distinct worlds, distinct independent cultures that are often far removed from one another and frequently unfamiliar with one another (I had then listed some of them). One has to renounce the arrogant blindness of evaluating these different worlds merely within the context of their development toward the Western model. Such a benchmark is the result of a misunderstanding of the essence of those different worlds. Also, one has to stand back and look soberly at one’s own system.

Western society in principle is based on a legal level that is far lower than the true moral yardstick, and besides, this legal way of thinking has a tendency to ossify. In principle, moral imperatives are not adhered to in politics, and often not in public life either. The notion of freedom has been diverted to unbridled passion, in other words, in the direction of the forces of evil (so that nobody’s “freedom” would be limited!). A sense of responsibility before God and society has fallen away. “Human rights” have been so exalted that the rights of society are being oppressed and destroyed. And above all, the press, not elected by anyone, acts high-handedly and has amassed more power than the legislative, executive, or judicial power. And in this free press itself, it is not true freedom of opinion that dominates, but the dictates of the political fashion of the moment, which lead to a surprising uniformity of opinion. (It was on this point that I had irritated them most.) The whole social system does not contribute to advancing outstanding individuals to the highest echelons. The reigning ideology, that prosperity and the accumulation of material riches are to be valued above all else, is leading to a weakening of character in the West, and also to a massive decline in courage and the will to defend itself, as was clearly seen in the Vietnam War, not to mention a perplexity in the face of terror. But the roots of this social condition spring from the Enlightenment, from rationalist humanism, from the notion that man is the center of all that exists, and that there is no Higher Power above him. And these roots of irreligious humanism are common to the current Western world and to Communism, and that is what has led the Western intelligentsia to such strong and dogged sympathy for Communism.

At the end of my speech I had pointed to the fact that the moral poverty of the 20th century comes from too much having been invested in sociopolitical changes, with the loss of the Whole and the High. We, all of us, have no other salvation but to look once more at the scale of moral values and rise to a new height of vision. “No one on earth has any other way left but — upward,” were the concluding words of my speech.

Not once throughout the entire speech did I use the word détente (they expected me more than anything to condemn it once again), nor did I make appeals for Communism to be overcome, and only in the background, as an aside, did I mention that “the next war . . . may well bury Western civilization forever.”

And what did the crème de la crème of the educated classes and the press hear in this speech, and how did they respond?

What surprised me was not that the newspapers attacked me from every angle (after all, I had taken a sharp cut at the press), but the fact that they had completely missed everything important (a remarkable skill of the media). They had invented things that simply did not exist in my speech, and had kept striking out at me on positions they expected me to hold, but which I had not taken. The newspapers went into a frenzy, as if my speech had focused on détente or war. (Had they prepared their responses in advance, anticipating that my speech would be like the ones I had given in Washington and New York three years earlier?) “Sets aside all other values in the crusade against Communism . . . Autocrat . . . A throwback to the czarist times . . . His ill-considered political analysis.” (The media is so blinkered it cannot even see beyond politics.)

In the first days the press spouted scalding invective: “He has flung his gauntlet at the West . . . Fanatic . . . Orthodox mystic . . . Fierce dogmatic . . . Political romantic . . . Conservative radical . . . Reactionary speech . . . Obsession . . . Has lost his balance . . . Has missed the point . . . Sounded like the wanderings of a mind split apart” (a pun on the title of my speech).

And then they came to the “consequences”: “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?” (This came up in several newspapers, and more than once.) “Why, if life in the United States is so deplorable and venal, should he have chosen to live here? . . . Mr. Solzhenitsyn, don’t let the doorknob hit you in the rear on the way out . . . As you don’t like anything else here, it’s not unkind of us to point out that you don’t have to stay here . . . Love it or leave it . . . Would somebody please send [him] an airline schedule for overseas flights, east-bound.” They were particularly irritated that, when I said “our country” in my speech, I was referring to the Soviet Union and not to America. “If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is the guest who . . . lectures you on your faults. After getting out of Russia one step ahead of the KGB, Solzhenitsyn turns around and condemns us, his hosts, as having too much freedom” — (I admit that’s quite ironic) — while enjoyably “living in peace and freedom . . . It was America who saved his homeland from Hitler’s horde.” (Though one might argue about who saved whom.)

Before my Harvard speech, I naïvely believed that I had found myself in a society where one can say what one thinks, without having to flatter that society. It turns out that democracy expects to be flattered. When I called out “Live not by lies!” in the Soviet Union, that was fair enough, but when I called out “Live not by lies!” in the United States, I was told to go take a hike.

I was furthermore reproached, and in no uncertain terms, that I was criticizing the same Western press that had saved me in my battles in the Soviet Union. That did seem like ungratefulness on my part. But I had marched into battle prepared to die, without expecting to be saved. I had written in The Oak and the Calf that “Western sympathy began to grow warmer and warmer until it reached an undreamed-of temperature.” But now they regret having helped me. Had the Bolsheviks exiled me to Siberia in 1974, the West would have been happy to look the other way, especially after reading my Letter to the Soviet Leaders. Kissinger and Pope Paul VI had come to the conclusion as far back as 1973 that I should not be defended.

Almost at the same time that I was speaking at Harvard, President Carter was giving a speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, fervently praising America. “In contrast to Carter, who spoke of the American way of life in almost evangelical terms,” Solzhenitsyn was full of criticism, lamented Newsweek. A few days later the first lady, speaking at the National Press Club, almost overstepped the bounds of propriety, stating specifically in answer to me that there was no spiritual decline in America but that there was prosperity on all fronts. Now a great wave of justification of the United States swept throughout the press: “He does not grasp the American spirit . . . We are irresponsible, he tells us. We put our freedom first, before our responsibility” precisely “because we are a free people.”

The major newspapers did not print the actual speech, despite there being no copyright restrictions, but only passages convenient for their censure. “He arrived complete with preconceptions about American decadence and cowardice . . . Has no particular use for freedom, and little for democracy . . . Does not comprehend that there is strength, great strength, in our weakness, [even in] naïveness and non-monolithic government, [which] may be incomprehensible to a traditional Russian.” And through many articles there echoed: He is too Russian, he is incorrigibly Russian, his experience is limited to things Russian, he does not understand. “A voice from Russia’s past . . . a nineteenth-century Slavophile . . . He despises our press . . . The unspoken expectation was that after three years in our midst, he would have to say we are superior. [Could he] at least have given one cheer for the extension of freedom to a whole society? . . . Didn’t we publish his books? Wouldn’t that be reason enough for gratitude? . . . Most Americans will cringe at the thesis . . . that ‘people have the right not to know’” — (I had spoken about “the forfeited right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk” — A.S.) — or that “commercial interest tends to ‘suffocate’ spiritual life . . . His conclusions made Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West sound recklessly optimistic . . . The giant does not love us . . . [He points] obliquely and indeterminately to a regeneration of ‘spiritual life.’ . . . [The speech only] indicates the weakness of Harvard’s ability to get an honest American [to address the graduates]. Thank God for being an American.”

Harrison Salisbury, who had initially defended me on television, saying that a rural philosopher was perfectly capable of seeing the big picture from his retreat, now also expressed surprise: “Can Solzhenitsyn, in a sense, be the opposition government for the Soviet Union and also the United States? That’s an enormous burden to be put on anyone’s shoulders.”

But even in the initial unified chorus of condemnation, there were also appraisals of my speech (more vocal with every passing day) that did not focus on its political elements, but kept comparing it, dozens of times, to Biblical prophecy, and me to the old American Puritans. “Poured out doomsday warnings . . . Renewed a tradition of apocalyptic prophecy . . . Struck responsive chords in many American breasts . . . It’s been a long time since we heard a Puritan like this. Increase Mather was president of Harvard once, and he would have looked like a moral weakling compared to Solzhenitsyn . . . He shook the country with a magnitude-9 earthquake, a bitter truth.”

Soon evaluations of the initial newspaper reactions to my speech began to appear: “An avalanche of critical misunderstanding . . . Touched a raw nerve [with the press] . . . An intellect of great force and appetite, Solzhenitsyn stirred up a hornet’s nest . . . Seldom has so much earnest controversy arisen from a single speech by a private citizen, and seldom has the preponderance of response so widely missed the mark . . . He attacked the media for self-assurance, hypocrisy and deceit and they will never forgive him for it . . . Liberals usually blush at the word ‘evil’ [but Solzhenitsyn] has looked at one of hell’s faces.”

As more readers’ reactions (albeit watered down and cut by the editors) and articles of thoughtful journalists made their way into the newspapers, and the press in the heartland began to enter the discussion, the tone of voice in the assessments of my speech became significantly more varied: “What he said was unadulterated truth and the truth can hurt at times . . . There is no greater gift an exiled stranger could bring us . . . We should thank him for being man enough to stand before our young people and point to a better way, a way of law that honors right . . . We had better heed the wisdom of Solzhenitsyn . . . Reconsider the Harvard address — not primarily as an attack, but as a plea to the entire human family.”

Finally, a graduate of Harvard, Wanda Urbanska, who had heard my speech, also managed to get her opinion into a newspaper: The address “ruffled many assumptions about ourselves and the world that Harvard has so carefully groomed.” Why, she asks, does one newspaper columnist presume to speak on graduates’ behalf? She concludes: Solzhenitsyn “challenged us; he bothered us; and he will stay with us.”

Now one could also begin to read many responses that were markedly distinguished from the arrogant stance of the America of New York and Washington: “We know in our hearts he is right . . . We are worse than he says we are if we do not face up to our faults and try to do something to correct them . . . Solzhenitsyn is right, too awfully right . . . Brilliant and courageous Harvard speech cut like a two-edged sword right through America’s flab . . . The American people will sustain Solzhenitsyn on this count . . . The Washington Post may smile at the Russian accent of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s words, but it cannot detract from their universal meaning . . . Let us be grateful before it’s too late . . . His speech ought to be burned into America’s heart. But instead of being read, it was killed . . . Can the press maintain diversity when ultimate control rests in the hands of a small group of corporate executives?”

Gradually another America began unfolding before my eyes, one that was small-town and robust, the heartland, the America I had envisioned as I was writing my speech, and to which my speech was addressed. I now felt a glimmer of hope that I could connect with this America, warn it of what we had experienced, and perhaps even lead it to change direction. But how many years would that take, and how much strength?

And how was I to conduct such a battle, calling for a fight to the death against Communism, yet without in any way targeting Russia? And this in a situation where wily polemicists of the Third Emigration [the wave of émigrés allowed to leave in the 1970s — NR] were not only clouding the realities of Russia with their lies, but, in an unexpected turn, were spreading the credo that the true Russia, as opposed to the Soviet Union, is a far greater danger to the West than the current benign Communist regime, which must be supported, though kept in check by maintaining adroit negotiations.

In the wake of the Harvard invitation, there also came one from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: The adjutant general offered to gather together the entire student body, over 5,000 students, and I could lecture on any subject I chose. It would be an ideal platform from which to steer America in a new direction! West Point is a tribune of American presidents, and there would be a strong and sympathetic crowd, not like the brooding Harvard audience. What listeners could it be more important to convince? A severe and decisive place: These very students were going to be the military leaders on the battlefields of the Third World War and the administrators of the regions near the front. If not in them, then in whom did American hatred need to be deflected from Russia? Who, if not they, should be the first to be told of the betrayals of the First and Second World Wars, the first to whom the difference between the USSR and Russia should be explained? It would have been an ideal blow against the Communists. I was very much inclined to go to West Point, but Alya rightly dissuaded me: How would such a speech be perceived back home in Russia? If, after speeches I had given at trade-union conventions I had been falsely accused of insisting that Russia be brought to her knees by starvation, then a speech at the military academy would be taken as my fraternizing with the “American imperialists.” The end result would have been the exact opposite of what I intended. So I was forced to decline the invitation.

The Harvard speech unleashed echoes that kept resounding far longer than I could have foreseen.

This excerpt is reprinted from Book 1 of Solzhenitsyn’s memoir Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile, with permission from University of Notre Dame Press, © 2018 by University of Notre Dame. The chapter excerpted here was written in autumn 1978, shortly after the Harvard address that it describes. The translation is by Peter Constantine.

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