Remembering Solzhenitsyn

Nobel Prize in Literature, historian, dissident, exile, critic  – no words can capture the immensity of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Two remembrances stand out. His 1978 lecture at Harvard University, and his short story entitled "Matryona’s House." Here are excerpts from both.

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Harvard Lecture:

The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations….

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, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror….

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….

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. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

This selection from "Matryona’s House" is more down to earth, and there is more of Solzhenitsyn the story teller.

“Misunderstood, abandoned even by her own husband, she had buried six children, but had not lost her natural readiness to help; regarded as strange by her sisters and sisters-in- law, a laughable person, who was stupid enough to work for others without reward, she had at the end of her life savedno possessions. A dirty white goat, a lame cat, rubber plants…

We had all lived alongside her and none of us understood that she was that righteous person without whom, as the proverb says, no village can live… and no city, and not our whole country.

Peter Schineller, S.J.

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10 years ago
I agree that it is difficult to capture in words the immensity of Solzhenitsyn.Unfortunately, he seems to have been forgotten by many Russians after the fall of Communism in the country. This morning on NPR there was a brief segment about Solzhenitsyn's funeral. The reporter mentioned Solzhenitsyn's friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin. It seemed odd to me that one of the fiercest opponents of Russian Communism would befriend a man who was a KGB operative during such a repressive regime. However, the first sentence from the Harvard lecture quoted above puts the Solzhenitsyn/Putin relationship in some perspective for me: "The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations…." As much as he decried the atrocities of Russian Communism, Solzhenitsyn also railed against the capitalist secularism of the West, a West that Russia largely imitated after the fall of the Iron Curtain and which Russia in many ways has pushed to the extreme. I guess it really shouldn't be so surprising that Solzhenitsyn was among the many Russians who desire a steady if often authoritarian hand at the political helm of their society.

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