“Harvard’s motto is ‘VERITAS,'” the Nobel-Prize-winning Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said 40 years ago in his “A World Split Apart” commencement address. “[Truth] eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it.”
Solzhenitsyn would have turned 100 this month. His celebrated works “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) and “The Gulag Archipelago” (1973) demolished the Soviet Union’s utopian folklore and made him the world’s greatest literary figure during the Cold War era.
Marxist-Leninist doctrines were Solzhenitsyn’s earliest ideology when he pursued a promising career in mathematics and physics. He then served in the Red Army and fought Nazi Germany as a decorated World War II officer until criticizing Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in private letters doomed him.
Solzhenitsyn was quickly arrested as “an enemy of the people” and sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison. He spent three years of his punishment in a Kazakhstan gulag, where he was also treated for cancer.
All American students should know that the 20th-century communist regimes Solzhenitsyn condemned left “mountains of corpses” as their legacies.
French historian Stéphane Courtois’ groundbreaking “The Black Book of Communism” (1997) revealed that the Soviets killed 20 million countrymen. Biographer Jung Chang reports that Mao Zedong’s China was responsible for the deaths of 70 million of its own people.
Tragically, Cold War touchstones are lost on many American students. On the history-civics portion of the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the Nation’s Report Card,” most U.S. kids scored below “proficient.” For 30 years, meaningful civics instruction has been largely abandoned in our public schools.
According to a 2017 poll from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, 58 percent of millennials surveyed would prefer to live in a socialist, communist or fascist nation. If still alive, Solzhenitsyn might ask who exactly won the Cold War.
He was like an ancient prophet or mythical figure who, tortured by the gods, still cheats death. Born from adversity, Solzhenitsyn’s darkly poetic sincerity imparts the mystical intelligence of a cantankerous sage.
“[T]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “but right through every human heart…”
By 1974, Soviet leaders wearied of Solzhenitsyn’s embarrassing truth-telling, especially his explosive books smuggled to the West for publication. Once exiled, he spent 18 years in rural Vermont, writing 18 hours a day, and experiencing American local self-government.
But Solzhenitsyn’s acidic rebukes weren’t reserved only for totalitarian crimes. He also targeted the frivolous indifference of contemporary American life. At Harvard in 1978, this farsighted friend and ally directed his candor much closer to home.
Solzhenitsyn’s stern message to America: the Cold War split the world in two, but Western democracies are intellectually and spiritually divided against themselves, which imperils their ability to face evil. Specifically, the West’s “short-sightedness,” “loss of will,” and “decline in courage” creates a crisis of spirit that politics alone cannot remedy.
Far deeper than Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s political and economic criticisms of communism, and in some ways closer to the views of Pope John Paul II, Solzhenitsyn channeled the self-reflective Ancient Greek dictum: “know thyself.” The Berlin Wall fell, but has the American conscience declined, too?
America’s enduring historical, literary, and civic ideals are unmistakably being assaulted in the movie house, the statehouse, the courthouse, the schoolhouse, and even some houses of worship.
We cannot fail to see that too many innocent schoolchildren are bombarded by a toxic mix of digital pop culture, politically straight-jacketed education, and various forms of self-inflicted harm. Only now do we more fully understand that Solzhenitsyn pointed the American mind towards durable hope rooted in honesty.
In his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Solzhenitsyn quoted a Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” This is how he lived and wrote while using searingly straightforward language to confront history’s most violent ideology and the soul-slaying fads of our age.
Our world is clearly still split apart over politics, but students should learn Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offers a courageous vision of unconquered human dignity that transcends any earthly tyranny.
Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at the nonprofit Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.