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A World Split Apart
by Isayevich (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn
On June 8th, 1978 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn delivered the Commencement Address at Harvard University.
Few speeches in recent years have generated as much critical comment as has this speech.
The great exiled Russian author touched some really raw nerves when he laid the present day situation in the West on the line, in a manner only he can do. He of course was denounced by the Communists, but was also denounced by such liberal papers as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Vancouver, Canada daily The Province. This just goes to show that the people who control the mass media either do not understand what Solzhenitsyn is saying, or they fear what he is saying, which is more likely closer to the Truth.
The text of his address follows:
A World Split Apart
I am sincerely happy to be here with you on
this occasion and to become personally acquainted with this old and
most prestigious university. My congratulations and very best wishes
to all of today's graduates.
Three years ago in the United States I said certain things which at that time appeared unacceptable. Today, however, many people agree with what I then said.
The split in today's world is perceptible even
at a hasty glance. Any of our contemporaries can readily identify
two world powers, each of them already capable of entirely destroying
the other. However, understanding of the split often is limited to
this political conception, to the illusion that danger may be abolished
through successful diplomatic negotiations or by achieving a balance
of armed forces. The truth is that the split is a much profounder
and more alienating one, that the rifts are more than one can see
at first glance. This deep, manifold split bears the danger of manifold
disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that
a Kingdom - in this case, our Earth - divided against itself cannot
Any ancient, deeply rooted, autonomous culture, especially if it is spread over a wide part of the earth's surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking. At a minimum, we must include in this category China, India, the Muslim world, and Africa, if indeed we accept the approximation of viewing the latter two as compact units.
For one thousand years Russia belonged to such a category, although Western thinking systematically committed the mistake of denying its autonomous character and therefore never understood it, just as today the West does not understand Russia in Communist captivity. It may be that Japan has increasingly become a distant part of the West, I am no judge here; but as to Israel, for instance, it seems to me that it stands apart from the Western world in that its state system is fundamentally linked to religion.
How short a time ago, relatively, the small
new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only
without anticipating any real resistance but also usually despising
the conquered peoples and denying any possible value in their approach
to life. On the face of it, it was an overwhelming success. There
were no geographic frontiers to it; Western society expanded in a
triumph of human independence and power. Then all of a sudden, in
the twentieth century, came the discovery of its fragility and friability.
There is this belief that all those other worlds
are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by
heavy crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension from taking
the way of Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western
way of life. Countries are judged on the basis of their progress
in this direction.
The real picture of our planet's development is quite different.
Anguish about our divided world gave birth
to the theory of convergence between leading Western countries and
the Soviet Union. It is a soothing theory which overlooks the fact
that these worlds are not at all developing into similarity; neither
one can be transformed into the other without the use of violence.
Of course there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions, in their statements, and most of all in their theoretical reflections intended to explain how realistic and reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. The decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of those same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries that are not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
Should one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?
When the modern Western states were created,
the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to
serve man, and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness. (see,
for example, the American Declaration of Independence.)
In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life, and the struggle to obtain them, imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings.
Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.
The individual's independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted well being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to this ideal, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this?
Why and for what should one risk one's precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases as when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country?
Even biology knows that habitual extreme safety
and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today,
well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its
The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law, even though the laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law, and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required; nobody may mention that one could still be not entirely right, and urge self restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice, and selfless risk it would sound simply absurd.
One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint.
The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. When the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses.
The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society.
Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to survive the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.
In today's Western society, the inequality has
been revealed between the freedom to do good and the freedom to do
evil. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly
constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly;
there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him,
parliament and press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has
to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely
flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person
who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a
chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, traps will be
set out all around him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse
of restrictions imposed by democracy.
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space.
Society appears to have little defense against
the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of
liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures
full of pornography, crime, and horror. This is considered to be
part of freedom, and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people's
right not to look or not to accept.
And what shall we say about the dark realm of criminality as such? Legal frames (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists' civil rights. There are many such cases.
Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually, but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected.
Strangely enough, though the best social conditions
have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality, and there
even is considerably more of it than in the pauperized and lawless
Soviet society. (There is a huge number of prisoners in our camps
who are termed criminals, but most of them never committed any crime;
they merely tried to defend themselves against a lawless state, resorting
to means outside of a legal framework.)
There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If he has misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases where the same journalist or the same newspaper has publicly recognized and rectified such mistakes? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.
Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers' memory.
How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification? The press can both stimulate public opinion and mis-educate it. Thus we may see terrorists turned into heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one's nation's defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusions on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: "Everyone is entitled to know every thing."
But this is a false slogan, characteristic
of a false era. People also have the right not to know, and it is
a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls
stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and
leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow
Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?
In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?
Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too sharply contradict their own, or the general trend.
There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification.
Without any censorship, fashionable trends of thought and ideas in the West are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researches are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day.
There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development.
I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people's minds.
Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern
Europe and Asia cannot pierce it.
I have mentioned a few traits of Western life which surprise and shock a new arrival to this world.
The purpose and scope of this speech will not
allow me to continue such a review, to look into the influence of
these Western characteristics on important aspects of a nation's
life, such as elementary education, and advanced education in the
humanities and in art.
The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich,
a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant
book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis
showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction
of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death. Shafarevich's
book was published in France almost two years ago, and so far no
one has been found to refute it. It will shortly be published in
English in the United States.
Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.
Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.
A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West, while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life's complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generated by standardized Western well-being. Therefore, if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores.
It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot
remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country.
But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic
smoothness as you have. After suffering decades of violence and oppression,
the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those
offered by today's mass living habits, exemplified by the revolting
invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.
The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.
There are various meaningful warnings which history gives a threatened or perishing society, the decadence of art, for instance, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc.
The smooth surface film must be very thin, then; the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.
But the fight, physical and spiritual, for our planet, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?
Very well-known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: We cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world.
On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West against Communism's well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy.
After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the size and meaning of events.
In spite of the abundance of information, or
maybe because of it, the West has difficulties in understanding reality
such as it is. There have been naïve predictions by some American
experts who believed that Angola would become the Soviet Union's
Vietnam or that Cuban expeditions in Africa would best be stopped
by special U.S. courtesy to Cuba.
If you only knew how the youngest of the Moscow
Old Square* officials laugh at your political wizards! As to Fidel
Castro, he frankly scorns the United States, sending his troops to
distant adventures from his country right next to yours.
The American intelligentsia lost its nerve, and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing space; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation's courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
I have had occasion already to say that in the twentieth century Western democracy has not won any major war without help and protection from a powerful Continental ally whose philosophy and ideology it did not question.
In World War II against Hitler, instead of winning that war with its own forces, which would certainly have been sufficient, Western democracy cultivated another enemy who would prove worse and more powerful yet: Hitler never had so many resources and so many people, nor did he offer any attractive ideas, or have such a large number of supporters in the West - a potential fifth column - as the Soviet Union does.
At present, some Western voices already have
spoken of obtaining protection from a third power against aggression
in the next world conflict, if there is one; in this case the shield
would be China. But I would not wish this on any country in the world.
First of all, it is again a doomed alliance with Evil; also, it would
grant the United States a respite, but when at a later date China
with its billion people would turn around armed with American weapons,
America itself would fall prey to a genocide similar to the one perpetrated
in Cambodia in our days.
In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal. Thus, at the shameful Belgrade conference, free Western diplomats in their weakness surrendered the line where enslaved members of Helsinki Watch groups are sacrificing their lives.
*The Old Square in Moscow (Staraya Ploshchad) is the place where the headquarters of the Central committee of the CPSU are located; it is the real name of what in the west is conventionally referred to as "the Kremlin."
Western thinking has become conservative: the
world situation should stay as it is at any cost, there should be
The two so-called world wars (they were by no
means on a world scale, not yet) meant the internal self-destruction
of the small progressive West, which has thus prepared its own end.
The next war (which does not have to be an atomic one, and I do not
believe it will) may well bury Western civilization forever.
The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.
This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression starting in the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy; the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him.
It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.
The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically. The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man's physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth.
It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend toward worshiping man and his material needs.
Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the range of attention of the state and the social system, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow.
But freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life, and it even adds a number of new ones.
At that, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God's creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, on the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years.
Two hundred years ago - even fifty years ago - it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.
Meanwhile, state systems were becoming increasingly materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.
In the past few decades, the legalistic, selfish aspect of Western thinking has reached its apogee, and the world is now in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse.
All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century's moral poverty, which no one could imagine even as late as in the nineteenth century.
As humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation, at first by socialism and then by Communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say in 1844 "Communism is naturalized humanism." This statement turned out to be not entirely meaningless.
One does see the same stones in the foundations
of a despiritualized humanism and of any type of socialism: endless
materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility,
which under Communist regimes reaches the stage of anti-religious
dictatorship; concentration on social structures, with a seemingly
Not by coincidence, all of Communism's meaningless
pledges and oaths are about Man, with a capital M, and his earthly
happiness. At first glance it seems an ugly parallel; common traits
in the thinking and way of life of today's West and today's East?
But such is the logic of materialistic development. The interrelationship
is such too, that the current of materialism which is farthest Left
always ends up being stronger, more attractive, and finally, victorious,
because it is more consistent.
We watch this process over the past centuries
and, especially in the past decades, on a world scale, as the situation
becomes increasingly dramatic. Liberalism was inevitably displaced
by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism
could never resist Communism. The Communist regime in the East could
stand and grow, thanks to the enthusiastic support of an enormous
number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship with Communism
and refused to see its crimes.
In our Eastern countries, Communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. But Western intellectuals still look at it with interest and with empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East.
I am not examining here the disasterous case of a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.
To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey.
On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.
We have placed too much hope in political and
social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our
most precious possession: our spiritual life.
It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty, so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.
It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible to reduce the assessment of the President's performance to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntarily inspired self-restraint can raise man above the stream of materialism.
It would be retrogression to attach oneself
today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism
leaves us completely helpless before the trials of our times. Even
if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change
if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising
the fundamental definitions of human life and human society.
If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern Era
This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage.
No one on earth has any way left but-upward.
The Third World War Has Ended
This is an English translation of the greater part of a statement by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published in the May 31st, 1975 issue of the French newspaper, Le Monde. This statement has not been given the wide circulation it should have, therefore it is being published as an appendix to this booklet so as it may get the wider circulation it deserves.
We haven't understood that the Third World War came about differently from its predecessors. It began not with a thundering declaration of war, not with attacks by thousands of airplanes, but invisibly, stealthily boring into the flabby body of the world. It used a variety of pseudonyms - "democratic" transformations that the people approved 100 per cent, cold war, peaceful coexistence, normalization, Realpolitik, detente, trade (which serves only to strengthen the aggressor).
When we study the course of these last thirty years, we see it as a long, sinuous descent - an unbroken descent toward enfeeblement and decadence. The powerful Western states, having emerged victorious from two previous world wars, in the course of these thirty years of peace have lost their real and potential allies, ruined their credibility in the eyes of the world, and abandoned to an implacable enemy whole territories and populations: China (which had been their most important ally in the Second World War), North Korea, Cuba, North Vietnam, today South Vietnam, today Cambodia.
Laos is being lost; Thailand, South Korea, and Israel are in danger; Portugal is throwing herself irretrievably into the abyss; Finland and Austria are resigned to their fate, powerless to defend themselves and unable, on the evidence, to expect help from outside. There is no room to list all the little countries of Africa and the Middle East that have become puppets of Communism, and all the others, even in Europe, that hasten to grovel on their knees in order to survive. And the UN has become a podium from which to ridicule the West - a measure of the brutal collapse of Western power.
The victorious nations have transformed themselves into the vanquished, having totally ceded more countries and peoples than have ever been ceded in any surrender in any war in human history. And that is why it is not speaking metaphorically to say: the Third World War has taken place and has ended in defeat.
Today the longest and most visible battle of
this war, Vietnam, is ending tragically, with the assassination of
thousands, the subjugation of millions more, the creation of immense
concentration camps. And as it ends, one might vainly rack one's
brain to remember a case when, in the course of these thirty years,
the West managed to stand its ground. One could say that yes, it
did, on three occasions that are already ancient history: Greece
in 1947, West Berlin in 1948, and South Korea in 1950. These inspired
hope and faith in the West. But take a look at these three names
The Third World War attacks the West at its most vulnerable point; the side of human nature willing to make any concession for the sake of material well-being. Hence the joy at the ratification of each new accord (as if the Soviet Union had ever respected a single one of them once it ceased to be of use).
Soon, at the European Security Conference, the countries of Western Europe will ratify, of their own free will, the slavery of their brothers in the East - believing that they are thus serving the cause of peace.
The situation as I have described it is clear
to any average man in the East, from Poznan to Canton. But Westerners
will need a great deal of strength, of resolution, to see and accept
the evidence of the implacable tide of violence and bloodshed that
has methodically, steadily, triumphantly radiated out from a single
center for nearly sixty years, and to locate the countries already
lined up for the next holocaust.
But we must have the courage and clearheadedness to stop the Fourth.
To stop it, not grovel on our knees.
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