When we think of the collapse of the Soviet Union, several names come to mind: Gorbachev, Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel. But one name is missing: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It was Solzhenitsyn’s great corpus of work, beginning with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and continuing through The Gulag Archipelago, that opened the eyes of the West to the magnitude of the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism. Marxist-style regimes now survive only in isolated pockets: Cuba, North Korea, and in a qualified sense China.
Today it is impossible to deny that Solzhenitsyn was correct about the “evil empire,” and his role in exposing it and bringing it down. But there is another side to Solzhenitsyn that has been largely ignored, and this is his critique of certain trends in Western civilization. Solzhenitsyn raised this subject, no less controversial and for us closer to home, in his famous 1978 Harvard address.
Even though he was second to none in his denunciation of totalitarian socialism, Solzhenitsyn said, "Should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively." The whole address is worth reading, but here are some highlights.
On the lack of courage in facing a totalitarian enemy: "The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country...and of course in the United Nations....Such a decline is especially notable among ruling groups and the intellectual elite....They get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists."
On how materialism makes a nation soft: "Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the pursuit of happiness...So why and for what should one risk one's precious life in defense of common values and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country?"
On what has happened to the rule of law: "People in the West has acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law....If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody might mention that one could still not be entirely right and urge a willingness to show restraint or sacrifice. Everybody operates at the extreme limits of those legal frames....A society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed, but a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either."