August 3, 2008


Solzhenitsyn and Russia's Golgotha: a review of The Solzhenitsyn Reader (JOHN COURETAS, CERC)

This new volume includes Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1978 commencement address at Harvard (deserving to be read at least annually), where he catalogued the West’s failings, including rampant materialism, the superficiality of the media, and the moral cowardice of intellectuals. (A prophet tends to speak his mind, even when invited to the most exclusive parties.) At Harvard, before the cream of the Cambridge intelligentsia, Solzhenitsyn accused the West of leaving behind “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.” He took the political and intellectual elites to task for cowardice, a “lack of manhood” in its dealings with international aggressors and terrorists. He lamented the “boundless space” that the West had provided for human freedom but without making any distinctions for human decadence. “The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer,” Solzhenitsyn told the Harvard crowd.

As a boy, Solzhenitsyn was deeply influenced by his Aunt Irina who instilled in him a love of literature and of Russian Orthodoxy. But he drifted away from the Christian faith under the spell of state indoctrination in Marxist-Leninism. It was his experience with the realities of the Soviet system that brought him to his metanoia, the change of mind that put him on the road to repentance. “He returned with adult thoughtfulness to the Christian worldview of his rearing,” the editors write. “Solzhenitsyn’s mature articulation of Christian truths was deeply informed by his experience in the prison camps. There he witnessed human nature in extremis and learned about the heights and depths of the human soul.”

Solzhenitsyn reserved his harshest condemnation for his own, particularly the Soviet leadership, and could not forgive what he saw as passivity in so many Russians during the long terror. [...]

Russian historian George Vernadsky estimated that between the years 1917-1920 “several hundred bishops, priests, and monks were either shot or starved to death in prisons.” In 1922, the Soviets confiscated religious art and liturgical items, citing the need to raise funds to combat a famine, and in the process, Vernadsky wrote, “many priests were arrested and a number executed, among them the bishop of Petrograd, Benjamin.” To this day, the Russian Orthodox Church holds an annual memorial service in Butovo, the location of a former secret police camp now known as Russia’s Golgotha. No one knows exactly how many died at the “shooting field” in 1937-38, although the official number tops 20,000 people. Among them were more than 1,000 clergymen, including seven bishops. Witnesses said "enemies of the people" were brought to the shooting range in food vans marked "MEAT." Shootings went on non-stop day and night in the later stages.

The Russian exile theologian Vladimir Lossky defined evil as “nothing other than an attraction of the will towards nothing, a negation of being, of creation, and above all of God, a furious hatred of grace against which the rebellious will puts up an implacable resistance.”

[originally posted: 2/02/08]

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 4:45 PM

Most of the Harvard audience in 1978 probably thought of the "church" as meat. And Solzhenitsyn's experience with 'the realities' of the Soviet Union was so far beyond what anyone at Harvard wanted to comprehend that he may as well have been speaking in the Politburo. I have often wondered how he felt as he gave the speech - was he angry, was he profoundly grieved, was he disappointed, was he stunned? Did he ever go back to Harvard (while he lived in Vermont)?

I wish he could have come to speak at Penn State. I would have skipped a final exam to see him.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 2, 2008 10:34 AM
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