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Alek­sandr Solzhen­itsyn | Wiki­media Commons

“One word of truth shall out­weigh the whole world,” said Soviet dis­sident Alek­sandr Solzhen­itsyn. Indeed, the pro­lific author offered not just one word of truth, but many. With his work “The Gulag Arch­i­pelago,” Solzhen­itsyn pro­vided what diplomat George Kennan called “the most pow­erful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.” For his con­tri­bu­tions in exposing the evils of total­i­tar­i­anism, Solzhen­itsyn deserves a place on Hillsdale’s Liberty Walk.

Alek­sandr Solzhen­itsyn was born in Russia in 1918. His father died before his birth, so he was raised by his widowed mother. She encouraged her son’s edu­cation in lit­er­ature and science and brought him up in the Russian Orthodox Church. But at 14-years-old, Alek­sandr left behind the teachings of Jesus Christ for those of Karl Marx. He became a com­mitted scholar of Marxism and math­e­matics in college and soon after joined the Red Army. Solzhen­itsyn com­manded an artillery unit during World War II and was twice dec­o­rated for his bravery.

During his time in the army, Solzhen­itsyn was arrested for crit­i­cizing Joseph Stalin in private letters to a friend. The devoted Marxist was sen­tenced to eight years in a labor camp and three years in exile. Here, he redis­covered religion and began writing . In a Soviet journal in 1961, he pub­lished his first short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about a day in the life of a Soviet inmate. His work was there­after cen­sored, so he turned abroad to con­tinue pub­lishing.

In 1970, he won the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­ature. Solzhen­itsyn declined his invi­tation to receive the award in Stockholm because he feared the Soviets would not allow him to return home. So, he sub­mitted his Nobel address in written form. Here, Solzhen­itsyn admitted: “I was con­vinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime” — but still he wrote nonetheless. In this address, he reflected on Dostoevsky’s pow­erful line: Beauty will save the world. Falsehood, vio­lence, ugliness — all will come crum­bling down when con­fronted by truth, Solzhen­itsyn argued. He urged his fellow writers to action: “I believe that we are able to help the world in its white-hot hour. Not by making the excuse of pos­sessing no weapons, and not by giving our­selves over to a friv­olous life – but by going to war!”

And, go to war he did. Three years later, in 1973, he pub­lished his mas­ter­piece: “The Gulag Arch­i­pelago,” named for the Soviet network of labor camps that stretched like islands from the “Bering Strait almost to the Bosporus,” exposing the atroc­ities of the Soviet regime to the world. Solzhenitsyn’s writings reminded the world that people are not purely material beings, soulless and godless, to be molded and per­fected like clay. Instead, man is a spir­itual creature, longing for truth and a des­ti­nation higher than this world. “The Gulag Arch­i­pelago” is a pow­erful tes­timony to this simple truth: Man is meant to be free. After the pub­li­cation of this three-volume work, Solzhen­itsyn was arrested and exiled. He retreated to a barbed-wire enclosed home in a remote mountain village in Vermont until 1994.

Solzhen­itsyn con­fronted the mon­strous ide­ologies of the East, but he found little comfort in his new home in the West. In 1978, Harvard Uni­versity invited him to give its com­mencement address and he delivered a speech that ended in con­tro­versy. Rather than praising the Western way of life, he offered a warning: “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days.” Solzhen­itsyn warned America’s intel­lectual class of a liberty divorced from virtue, a softness induced by luxury. He crit­i­cized the “spir­itual exhaustion,” “psy­cho­logical weakness,” and “loss of willpower” that has come to char­ac­terize American society. Rights abound, but duties have van­ished. What is good has been sub­sti­tuted for what is legal. Material lux­uries have replaced spir­itual ful­fillment. Misery abounds.

Why the tyranny of the East? And why the misery of the West? Solzhen­itsyn pro­vided an answer in a 1983 speech: “Men have for­gotten God; that’s why all this has hap­pened.” In this way, the problems facing the East and the West are not two but one. They mirror each other, both depriving man of the divine, both premised on the idea that man’s final des­ti­nation is this world, and that, in Marx’s own for­mu­lation, “man is the highest being for man.”

After expressing these sen­ti­ments at Harvard, Solzhen­itsyn was ostra­cized from academia. “When I called out ‘Live not by lies!’ in the United States, I was told to go take a hike,” he reflected in 1978. “It turns out, democracy expects to be flat­tered.” So he returned to Russia in 1994, where he lived out the rest of his days and died in 2008 at the age of 89.

His pre­science was unmatched, his prose unequaled. He longed to pre­serve those same things that Hillsdale College seeks to pre­serve today: “That ancient trinity,” as he called it, “of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.”

For his coura­geous defense of unpopular truths, Alek­sandr Solzhen­itsyn was excluded from other cam­puses. For that very same reason, we should welcome him to ours.

Gar­rison Grisedale is a senior studying Pol­itics. 

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    I kind of agreed with the premise of the title until I read the rest of this article. We need fewer crazy reli­gionists — not more!

    • George Gibbs

      I would agree except clearly there aren’t many non-reli­gious examples of Western icons. And I don’t think it’s fair to put the his­toric Russian Orthodoxy in the same box as ol’ cuckoo American Evan­gelism. Solzhenitsyn’s reli­gious beliefs were of the same intensely grounded, thoughtful stock as Dostoevsky’s, after all. (However, I wouldn’t be in favor of inducting someone who died as recently as 2008.)
      You were too quick to dismiss this time.

      • Jen­nifer Melfi

        Fair enough… I can take a smart cri­tique. I change my mind — I like the idea of including solzhen­itsyn because Hillsdale used to use the phrase “edu­cating for liberty” and I think that some of these leaders that stood against tyranny should be included, over and above the inclusion of politi­cians.

        • George Gibbs

          Amen. A wise student wrote for the Col­legian back in 2003, when this all began, that the choices for the Walk were too his­tor­i­cally “shallow” — and, keep in mind, this was before then-living politi­cians Thatcher and Reagan were even planned (I think). I still shutter over that choice, and even rel­ative fans of the two should admit it was wrong for the college’s edu­ca­tional purpose — but they probably aren’t the donors.

          • George Gibbs

            P.S. Case in point, if Hillsdale ever ded­i­cates a statue to Billy Graham, I will curse the sky and never set foot on campus again. If they ever ded­icate a statue to Donald Trump, I will light myself on fire and somehow mail them the ashes.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    I applaud this Opinion piece, nearly every­thing Solzhen­itsyn said about both the East and the West has come to fruition. He was ostra­cized by the same Elites who promote a mate­rially focused, anti-spir­itual lifestyle for America today. They’ve brought this nation to near ruin with their wrong-headed ide­ology and moral rel­a­tivisim.