Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was an unlikely Russian hero. Novelist, philosopher, historian and political prisoner, during WWII he had been the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Army involved in major action at the front. He was awarded the Order of the Red Star in 1944. In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by SMERSH for writing a few derogatory comments about Joseph Stalin in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich. Accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code, he was sentenced in absentia on 7 July 1945 by the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labor camp – a normal sentence for Article 58 crimes. He was sent to the Gulag – a Soviet network of prison labor camps for criminals, political prisoners and other ‘undesirables’ of Stalinist cancel-culture. After the completion of his eight year sentence, he was then imprisoned for life (internal exile) at Birlik, South Kazakhstan.
Released during Russia’s leader Nikita Khrushchev’s general amnesty after three years in Birlik, Solzhenitsyn taught secondary school as a day job while secretly writing about his Gulag experiences. His magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago was later smuggled out of Russia. This three-volume history of the 18 million prisoners and three to six million fatalities has been described as the book which “brought down an empire” and “the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times.” Psychologist Jordan Peterson has said that The Gulag Archipelago is the most important book of the twentieth century.
Truth and consequences at Harvard Yard
After Solzhenitsyn was deported from Russia in March 1974, he moved to Cambridge, Vermont where he resided for 16 years before returning to post-Soviet Russia. In 1978 Harvard University granted him an honorary literary degree, also asking him to deliver their yearly Commencement Speech on June 8, 1978. His address “A world split apart” [Расколотый мир] landed like an atom bomb on the happy and soon-to-be-successful crowd. They had been expecting a condemnation of Soviet Communism presented with dry Russian literary flourish, but a different pièce de résistance was served. The shock waves of that speech still echo, and the prophetic challenge which Solzhenitsyn gave continues to resound among all who chew on his words. This newsletter will consider some highlights of Solzhenitsyn’s presentation. His challenges have deep relevance for our world.
A house divided against itself
To paraphrase Pete Seeger’s famous song, Solzhenitsyn had a hammer and a bell, and at Harvard Yard he was ringing out a warning. Though officially speaking to America’s elites, he was also issuing a prophetic warning to his Russian motherland. He was guided by the biblical passage, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3:25). Solzhenitsyn proclaimed that the world is facing major challenges which cannot be resolved primarily by political or military means. The threats are moral and spiritual, and the solutions are also moral and spiritual. There are not-so-hidden fault lines running under the public square of both the West and the East, and mankind is facing a sharp turn on the highway of history. Will we ascend upward or spiral downward – that is the pressing question.
In the shadow of Harvard’s august buildings, Solzhenitsyn began his address by noting that the university’s seal contains but one word – ‘Veritas’ (Latin for ‘truth’). If, as Yeshua said, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32), could it be honestly said that Harvard is still pursuing biblical truth? And is America still following its Puritan calling to be a city set on a hill and a light to the world (Matthew 5:14)? Solzhenitsyn wryly concludes that neither present-day America nor Soviet socialism stand up to the challenge of being viable spiritual models worth emulating. The words of John echo here: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good” (3 John 1:11).
Renaissance and Enlightenment have led to death and darkness
Both East and West have built their burgeoning empires on quicksilver foundations, said Solzhenitsyn. Both the Renaissance and the Enlightnment placed their focus on Man as the measure of all things, Man as the center of all values. Political thought, literature and culture have thus developed based on the presupposition that humanity is autonomous from any Higher Power. The result of this is anthropocentricity – man and his material happiness being the central focus and purpose of history. Solzhenitsyn calls these goals “the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment” – the denial of God, the glorification of human beauty and passions, and the pursuit of materialism. The dreams and goals here include endless materialism, freedom from religion and from religious responsibility, and focus on ‘science’ as the solution to humanity’s problem through the manipulation of social structures. Social dogmatism declares that the nature of man is non-spiritual and then proceeds to carry out a dictatorship of social engineering.
Three scriptures uncover how God sees this process:
- For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25)
- For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:21-22)
- And they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let’s make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:4)
Solzhenitsyn sadly noted that both Western humanistic materialism and Communist materialism spell ‘man’ with a capital ‘M.’ Both West and East have drunk the secular Kool-Aid of Enlightenment materialism, and are left with the calamity of a de-spiritualized and irreligious seared human consciousness. Humanism without a biblical heritage cannot resist liberalism, which in time transforms itself into radicalism, eventually making way for socialism, and ultimately morphing into dictatorial communism.
Solzhenitsyn describes this struggle as a fight of cosmic proportions currently being waged over the spiritual destiny of our planet.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
In the American Declaration of Independence, it is written that all men are endowed “with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In his Harvard address Solzhenitsyn asks: If this is the true purpose of life, then why do we all die? Does ‘affluenza’ – a surfeit of material goods – actually bring happiness? Or does it often bring unease, a never-ending rat-race of keeping up with the Joneses, and a suppression of spiritual sensitivities? The cult of material well-being revolves around the worship of Man and his material needs.
But surely freedom was not given to simply satisfy instincts and whims, he says. The Founding Fathers concluded that individual human rights were recognized based on the fact that man was created by God and therefore has a constantly renewing spiritual responsibility to choose God, His ways and His values. A generation suckled on materialism grows up weak, without confronting the challenges that strengthen, with no need to overcome threats and as a result having no healthy development. The West may have achieved a higher degree of materialistic success, but when it comes down to brass tacks, both West and East are solidly married to materialism as their priority value and to material abundance as their overwhelming goal.
Four scriptures shed light on this process:
- Do not worry then, saying, “What are we to eat?” or “What are we to drink?” or “What are we to wear for clothing?” (Matthew 6:31)
- And which of you by worrying can add a single day to his life’s span? (Matthew 6:27)
- And I will say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years to come; relax, eat, drink and enjoy yourself!” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is demanded of you. And as for all that you have prepared, who will own it now?” (Luke 12:19-20)
- If the dead are not raised, let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die! (1 Corinthians 15:22)
Solzhenitsyn’s eyes were wide open to the tragedy that Soviet imperialism had visited on the peoples of Russia: “I dare hope that . . . all the peoples who have lived through communism will understand that communism is to blame for the bitter pages of their history.” But he points out that the West is blind about its own pretensions to cultural superiority and colonialistic pride. The West measures other civilizations by the yardstick of how Western they have become. Shining a spotlight on the cracks in the spiritual foundations of both Western and Communist materialism-based societies, Solzhenitsyn warns that if an empire is built on weak foundations, its future success is not guaranteed. “But the one who has heard and has not acted is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. And the river burst against it and it immediately collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great” (Luke 6:49).
Today in the West the wraiths of cultural superiority and sneering pride often try to anathematize those on the other side of the immediate political aisle. But ‘a world split apart’ and ‘a house divided’ are still real dangers. Today’s all-too-visible cracks and threats are moral and spiritual; their solutions are also moral and spiritual. Will we ascend upwards through repentance or spiral downwards through stubborn heart-heartedness?
When courage turns into dust in the wind
In his 1978 Harvard address Solzhenitsyn trumpets out a call to courage:
- “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”
A timid and mealy-mouthed response seems to be commonplace when facing the threats of Iranian state terrorism and economic warfare, Islamist jihadi movements, or anti-biblical leftist agendas regarding sexual morality and family foundations. These are the days which try men’s courage. At Harvard Solzhenitsyn stated that no weapon can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower.
Western shame-based apologies, groveling and ‘pre-emptive cringe’ when faced with real enemies – all show that the West is held hostage by both love and fear: love of wealth and ease, and fear of the loss of these things. Here are four scriptures that hit the hammer on the head:
- You may say in your heart, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17)
- Their inner thought is that their houses are forever and their dwelling places to all generations . . . But man in his splendor will not endure (Psalm 49:11-12)
- And the one sown with seed among the thorns, this is the one who hears the word, and the anxiety of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful (Matthew 13:22)
- For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on (Matthew 6:25)
The opposite of courage is cowardice. The second to last chapter in the Bible hammers out a warning regarding this sin of the heart: “But for the cowardly . . . their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
It may be legal but it ain’t right
Solzhenitsyn raised the question at Harvard: is man basically good and simply in need of help in tweaking the problematic and inefficient social and legal systems he has inherited – or is man inherently evil and in need of healing for his internal corruption? In The Gulag Archipelago, Part I, Chapter 4, the author explains: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
At Harvard, Solzhenitsyn explained that legal parameters do not stop evil individuals. Laws cannot eradicate moral violence or human decadence. Unrestrained freedom is ultimately irresponsible and destructive. Economic planning, the redistribution of wealth, a more secure social safety net – these will not transform people’s hearts. The solution to sin is not socialism but the gospel – the good news about Messiah Yeshua.
When a person who does evil tries to validate his wicked deeds by pointing out that he has not technically broken the law, this cannot justify his evil ways or impute righteousness to him. In some societies monstrously evil things can be pronounced as legally sound, while mankind’s more noble impulses slowly fade to black.
- So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and to the nobles who were living with Naboth in his city. Now she had written in the letters, saying, “Proclaim a fast and seat Naboth at the head of the people; and seat two worthless men opposite him, and have them testify against him, saying, ‘You cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death.” (1 Kings 21:8-10)
Sometimes what seems to be a normal and healthy society is only a smooth patina concealing a society tottering on the brink. It only takes a spark to get the fire going, and suddenly the streets run red with riot. The West may be blessed by an over-abundance of lawyers, but human evil is also gathering at Western gates.
True unity in a society is not something that can be conjured up by a press conference. Real unity does not mean accepting, tolerating or ignoring each other’s defects and sins. Instead it involves calling ourselves and each other to repentance and healing works.
- For we do not presume to rank or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they have no understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12).
Mister Media and Miss-Information
One of Solzhenitsyn’s strongest remarks at Harvard in 1978 centered on ‘the fourth estate’ – also known as the press or the media. He pointed out that the media has moved away from its traditional role of reporting the news, and have instead turned into reality shapers and political power brokers:
- “Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislative power, the executive, and the judiciary. And 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?”
Solzhenitsyn laments that moral responsibility and accountability on the part of Western media have disappeared. They have been replaced by hastiness and superficiality. The media have become adept at disinformation, at misleading their audiences, and in using disproportion to bend facts. They have become mis-educators, propagandistic, and manipulators of public opinion. He poetically compared their self-awarded role of shaping a herd mentality, to the placing of petrified armor around people’s minds. That control, he prophesied, “will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”
L. Joseph Letendre, Eastern Orthodox author and theologian, shows the burning relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s words in his 2018 article Schism in Harvard Yard, (Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity; May/June 2018). Solzhenitsyn’s observations about the media “should be more alarming today: during the 2016 presidential election, major news organizations abandoned any claim to objectivity or impartiality and openly stated their intent to prevent the election of one of the nominees, Their shock and rage at their failure to do so has not abated.” Subsequent events show that the media’s rage in victory has reached even more fevered proportions.
As we recall Solzhenitsyn’s appeal to remember the spiritual and moral nature of the threats to our planet, let us turn to the ancient weapons of prayer and intercession, asking God to restore sanity to a planet careening out of control. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 4:3).
How should we then pray?
- Pray for light to shine in dark places and the gift of repentance to be richly distributed
- Pray for an awakening regarding the nature and strategies of spiritual warfare regarding these events
- Pray for ardent prevailing prayer to arise for God’s heart and purposes here
- Pray for the raising up of the Ezekiel 37 prophetic army among the Jewish people
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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