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A world split apart

About the author
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) is among the greatest Russian and world writers of the 20th century. He survived the second world war, incarceration for political infractions in the Soviet UnionâÛªs prison-camp system (which he characterised as the âÛÏgulag archipelagoâÛù), and internal exile to produce a series of novels and essays that retrieved and reimagined the history of the Soviet state and the experience of its people. His major works include A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The First Circle (1968), Cancer Ward (1968), The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes, 1974-76), and The Oak and the Calf (1975). Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1970, and was deported to the west in 1974. He returned to Russia in 1994 and died near Moscow on 3 August 2008

The split in today's world is perceptible even to a hasty glance. Any of our contemporaries readily identifies 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 a 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 stand.

....

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 any possible values in the conquered peoples' 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. And all of a sudden in the 20th century came the discovery of its fragility and friability. We now see that the conquests proved to be short-lived and precarious, and this in turn points to defects in the western view of the world which led to these conquests. Relations with the former colonial world now have turned into their opposite and the western world often goes to extremes of obsequiousness, but it is difficult yet to estimate the total size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the west, and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns will be sufficient for the west to foot the bill.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) is among the greatest Russian and world writers of the 20th century. He survived the second world war, incarceration in the Soviet Union's prison-camp system, and internal exile to produce a series of novels and essays that retrieved and reimagined the history of the Soviet state and the experience of its people. His major works include A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The First Circle (1968), Cancer Ward (1968), The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes, 1974-76), and The Oak and the Calf (1975). Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1970, and was deported to the west in 1974. He returned to Russia in 1994 and died near Moscow on 3 August 2008

But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present-day western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. 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 or incomprehension from taking the way of western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a western yardstick. 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. Besides, convergence inevitably means acceptance of the other side's defects, too, and this is hardly desirable.

...

It 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 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. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasised by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralysed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

...

In today's western society, the inequality has been revealed of freedom for good deeds and freedom for evil deeds. 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 the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that every 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, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.

It is feasible and easy everywhere to undermine administrative power and, in fact, it has been drastically weakened in all western countries. The defence of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenceless against certain individuals. It is time, in the west, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

....

The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media). But what sort of use does it make of this freedom?

Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? 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 simulate public opinion and mis-educate it. Thus we may see terrorists heroised, or secret matters, pertaining to one's nation's defence, publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: "everyone is entitled to know everything." 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 of information.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press. It stops at sensational formulas.

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?

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. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspapers mostly give enough stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas 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 researchers 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 prevent independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development.

...

Western thinking has become conservative: the world situation should stay as it is at any cost, there should be no changes. This debilitating dream of a status quo is the symptom of a society which has come to the end of its development. But one must be blind in order not to see that oceans no longer belong to the west, while land under its domination keeps shrinking. The two so-called world wars (they were by far not on a world scale, not yet) have meant 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 civilisation forever.

...

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 from 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 centre of everything that exists.

However, 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, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or 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. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally 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 decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up 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 20th-century's moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th century.

...

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.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. 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 that assessment of the president's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of 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 anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but - upward.

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These are extracts from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's address at Harvard University in June 1978; the full text can be read here


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