Western intellectuals expected that novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once safely in the West after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, would enthusiastically endorse its way of life and intellectual consensus. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead of recognizing how much he had missed when cut off from New York, Washington, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, this ex-Soviet dissident not only refused to accept superior American ideas but even presumed to instruct us. Harvard was shocked at the speech he gave there in 1978, while the New York Times cautioned: “We fear that Mr. Solzhenitsyn does the world no favor by calling for a holy war.”

For his part, Solzhenitsyn could hardly believe that Westerners would not want to hear all he had learned journeying through the depths of totalitarian hell. “Even in soporific Canada, which always lagged behind, a leading television commentator lectured me that I presumed to judge the experience of the world from the viewpoint of my limited Soviet and prison camp experience,” Solzhenitsyn recalled. “Indeed, how true! Life and death, imprisonment and hunger, the cultivation of the soul despite the captivity of the body: how very limited this is compared to the bright world of political parties, yesterday’s numbers on the stock exchange, amusements without end, and exotic foreign travel!”

The West “turned out to be not what we [dissidents] had hoped and expected; it was not living by the ‘right’ values nor was it headed in the ‘right’ direction.” America was no longer the land of the free but of the licentious. The totalitarianism from which Solzhenitsyn had escaped loomed as the West’s likely future. Having written a series of novels about how Russia succumbed to Communism, Solzhenitsyn smelled the same social and intellectual rot among us. He thought it his duty to warn us, but nobody listened. Today, his warnings seem prescient. We have continued to follow the path to disaster he mapped.

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We Have Ceased to See the Purpose collects the most important speeches Solzhenitsyn delivered between 1972 and 1997.1 Inspired by various occasions—Solzhenitsyn’s winning the Nobel Prize, arriving in the West, and delivering that Harvard University commencement address, among others—these speeches convey a single message: Western civilization has lost its bearings because it has embraced a false and shallow understanding of life. The result is the accelerating decay of the West’s spiritual foundations. The very fact that the word “spiritual” sounded suspiciously outdated to so many intellectuals at the time shows how far the decay had already progressed. Sooner or later, Solzhenitsyn warned, Western civilization as we know it would collapse.

Solzhenitsyn would not have been surprised that, three decades after the collapse of the USSR, American intellectuals again find Marxist and quasi-Marxist doctrines attractive. Young people embrace “democratic socialism,” a phrase that Solzhenitsyn calls “about as meaningful as talking about ‘ice-cold heat.’”

Today we can ask: Why do so many cheer, or at least not object, when they witness mobs embracing the bloodthirsty and sadistic Hamas? Perhaps for the same reasons that young, pre-revolutionary Russians once celebrated terrorists who murdered innocent citizens? Having studied his country’s history, Solzhenitsyn foresaw the process that would lead to today’s chants of “globalize the intifada” and “any means necessary.” He repeatedly cautioned that Russia’s past may be America’s future.

How can it be, Solzhenitsyn asked, that so many Russians found the strength to “rise up and free themselves…while those [in the West] who soar unhindered over the peaks of freedom suddenly lose the taste for it, lose the will to defend it, and fatefully, almost [seem] to crave slavery?” Why do crudeness of thought and the repetition of ill-understood slogans pass for sophistication? “I couldn’t have imagined to what extreme degree the West desires to blind itself,” Solzhenitsyn told a London audience in 1976.

Those who have reflected on Soviet experience, Solzhenitsyn advised, readily discern “telltale signs by which history gives warning to a threatened or perishing society.” Referring to the electrical blackout that struck New York in 1977, he identified one such warning: “The center of your democracy and your culture is left without electrical power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.” What would he say if he had seen the Antifa riots following the murder of George Floyd or the cowardly responses to today’s university encampments?

Solzhenitsyn discovered the root cause of the West’s decline in its assumption, shared by almost everyone with any influence, that life’s purpose is individual happiness, from which it follows that freedom and democratic political institutions exist to make that goal easier to attain. And so elections usually turn on the growth of an already abundant economy. Could there be a view of life less worthy of human dignity? America’s Founders acknowledged a higher power, but now the most “advanced” people have succumbed to “the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious, humanistic consciousness. It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects.”

Acknowledging nothing higher than themselves, people overlook the evil in human nature. Original sin, what’s that? Sophisticates laugh at phrases such as “the Evil Empire” or “the Axis of Evil” because “it has become embarrassing to appeal to age-old values.” And so “the concepts of Good and Evil have been ridiculed for several centuries…. They’ve been replaced by political or class categorizations.” Crime and other ills supposedly result from readily amendable social arrangements and will inevitably give way to progress.

Like the Soviets, Westerners speak of being “on the right side of history,” as if progress were guaranteed and what comes later will be necessarily better. How readily such thinking seduced early-20th-century Russian (and Weimar German) intellectuals! And how vulnerable it leaves us to underestimating the evil that human beings can commit! “We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms only to find out that we are being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life” and our moral sense. People cannot even understand evil unless they recognize that it “resides in each individual heart before it enters a political system.”

“As for Progress,” Solzhenitsyn replied to self-styled progressives, “there can only be one true kind: the sum total of the spiritual progresses of individual persons, the degree of self-perfection in the course of their lives.” For the hedonist, death looms as the terrible cessation of pleasures, but for spiritual people it is proof that, as Pierre, the hero of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, enthuses as he points to the sky: “We must live, we must love, and we must believe not only that we live today on the scrap of earth, but that we have lived and shall live forever, there, in the Whole.” Or as Solzhenitsyn argued in his Harvard commencement address: “If as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not a search for the best way to obtain material goods. . . . It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life’s journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it.”

People can accomplish such moral growth not by self-indulgence but by its opposite, self-restraint or, as Solzhenitsyn also called it, “self-limitation.” Without that, they remain mired in the world of things and unable to see beyond the present moment. Après moi le déluge. 

“If we don’t learn to limit firmly our desires and demands, to subordinate our interests to moral criteria,” Solzhenitsyn insisted, “we, mankind, will simply be torn apart as the worst aspects of human nature bare their teeth.” Voicing the overriding lesson of the Russian literary tradition, Solzhenitsyn told Westerners: “if personality is not directed at values higher than the self, then it becomes inevitably invested with corruption and decay…. We can only experience true spiritual satisfaction not in seizing but in refusing to seize: in other words, in self-limitation.”

The spiritual malaise of hedonism fatally weakens a society by leaving it unable to defend itself. “The most striking feature that an outside observer discerns in the West today,” Solzhenitsyn asserted in the Harvard address, is “a decline in courage,” which “is particularly noticeable in the ruling and intellectual elites,” presumably including his Harvard audience. Amid an abundance of material goods, “why and for the sake of what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of the common good, and particularly in the nebulous case when the security of one’s nation must be defended in an as-yet distant land?” People naturally say, “Let someone else risk his life.” European powers “bargain to see who can spend least on defense so that more remains for a prosperous life.” (Thirty years later, few European countries not on the Russian border meet the agreed-upon defense expenditure of 2 percent of GDP.) America bases its security primarily on its formidable arsenal, Solzhenitsyn noted, but weapons are never enough without “stout hearts and steadfast men.”

One step beyond unwillingness to defend one’s country is actual hatred of it. I thought of Solzhenitsyn’s warnings when I learned of campus mobs this year shouting “Death to America!” For Solzhenitsyn, that is where the cult of individual happiness, sooner or later, is bound to lead. Facing the slightest frustration, forced to endure a modicum of adversity, or exposed to a world of contingency and misfortune, those educated to regard individual good fortune as their due seek someone to blame. They readily embrace any fashionable ideology that divides the world into oppressed and oppressors, the innocent good people and the implacably evil. But as Solzhenitsyn famously observed in The Gulag Archipelago, the line between good and evil runs not between groups but “through every human heart.”

Why worry about external enemies when the real threat supposedly comes from another group or party at home? “Or why restrain oneself from burning hatred,” Solzhenitsyn asked, “whatever its basis—race, class, or manic ideology?” As in the French and Russian Revolutions, such anger feeds on itself. “Atheist teachers are rearing a younger generation in a spirit of hatred toward their own society.” From the perspective of 2024, it is easy to verify Solzhenitsyn’s prediction that “the flames of hatred” against one another are bound to intensify.

Society tears itself apart. Turning all questions into a matter of absolute rights makes amicable com-promise impossible, and it is the most privileged peo-ple, shielded from life’s inevitable disappointments, who are the most inclined to such thinking. Those raised in gated communities and preparing for lucrative professions are the first to express resentment and complain they feel “unsafe.” As Solzhenitsyn anticipated, “the broader the personal freedoms, the higher the level of social well-being or even affluence—the more vehement, paradoxically, this blind hatred” of America.

The specter—or rather, the zombie—of Marxism has returned because it divides the world into the damned and the saved. They need not be “the bourgeoisie” and “the proletariat” but can be any pair that conveniently presents itself. To the amazement of those who only recently escaped such thinking, “what one people has already endured, appraised, and rejected suddenly emerges among another people as the very latest word.”

Solzhenitsyn asked: Why does one country blindly embrace another’s catastrophic mistakes? Why can’t those mistakes become a cautionary lesson? “This inability to understand someone else’s faraway grief,” he pleads, “threatens to bring on imminent and violent extinction.”

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Surely there must be some way “to overcome man’s perverse habit of learning only from his own experience, so that the experience of others often passes him by without profit”! And in fact, there is: art, and especially literature.

Great literature has the power, he explained in his Nobel Prize lecture, to “impress upon an obstinate human being someone else’s far-off sorrows or joys” and to “give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions that he’s never himself experienced.” He went on: “Making up for man’s scant time on earth, art transmits from one person to another the entire accumulated burden of another’s life experience … and allows us to assimilate it as our own.” Nothing else possesses literature’s “miraculous power” to overcome the barriers of language, custom, and social structure and thereby communicate “the experience of an entire nation to another nation that hasn’t undergone such a difficult, decades-long collective experience.” Literature “could save an entire nation from a redundant” and self-destructive course.

Solzhenitsyn’s audience must have wondered: But surely novelists can err, mislead, or even lie like everyone else! Isn’t that what Soviet socialist realist, “Party-minded” writers actually did? Here it is helpful to remember that in the Russian tradition not everything called a novel or poem qualifies as “literature.” Writing that lies or lacks compassion for those who suffer cannot belong to the canon. As Dmitri Likhachev, the foremost scholar of medieval Russian literature, explained:

Literature is the conscience of a society, its soul. The honor and merit of a writer consists in defending truth and the right to that truth under the most unfavorable circumstances…. Can you really consider literature literature, or a writer a writer if they side-step the truth, if they silence or try to falsify it? Literature which does not evoke a pang of conscience is already a lie. And to lie in literature, you will agree, is the worst kind of lying.

When the novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, also a Nobel Prize winner, praised the Soviet government’s imprisonment of dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, the editor and poet Aleksandr Tvardovsky, joined by novelist Lydia Chukovskaia and others, expelled him from “Russian literature.” “Sholokhov is now a former writer,” Tvardovsky asserted.

The most that ordinary people can do when a totalitarian regime blankets them with lies, Solzhenitsyn explained, is not to participate: “Let that come into the world—only not through me.” But writers can do more: “It is within their power … to defeat the lie! …The lie can prevail against much in the world, but never against art.”

Why exactly can a genuine novel not lie? What prompts Solzhenitsyn to deem “the persuasiveness of a true work of art irrefutable” and declare that “it prevails even over a resisting heart”? The answer is that a novel tests ideas as political speeches, journalistic articles, and philosophical systems do not.

If an author implausibly makes a character assert or do something just because a political position requires it, readers will sense the falsity. They will recognize that the assertion comes from the author’s prefabricated ideology and does not arise from the character’s experience. It seems fake, forced, out of character. Analogous tests pertain to other artistic forms, which display their own kinds of proof and disproof. That is why “a true work of art carries its verification within itself: artificial or forced concepts do not survive their trial by image; both concept and image crumble, and turn out feeble, pale, convincing no one.”

Genuine works of art based on truth “attract us to themselves powerfully, and no one ever—even centuries later—will step forth to refute them.” They become classics. When Dostoevsky’s famously stated that “beauty will save the world,” he meant that even if regimes crush truth and goodness, “the intricate, unpredictable, and unlooked-for shoots of Beauty will force their way through… therefore fulfilling the task of all three.”

This view of art as something sacred made Solzhenitsyn highly impatient with the “falsely understood avant-gardism” of certain kinds of modernism and postmodernism. As he explains in his speech “Playing Upon the Strings of Emptiness,” delivered in New York in 1993, cleverness alone ultimately proves trivial and, at times, destructive. “Before erupting on the streets of Petrograd, this cataclysmic [Russian] revolution had erupted on the pages of the artistic and literary journals of Bohemian circles. It is there we first heard…[of] the sweeping away of all ethical codes and religions.” Even the most talented “futurists,” ensnared by a false revolutionism, demanded the destruction of “the Racines, Murillos, and Raphaels, ‘so that bullets would bounce off museum walls’” while calling for the Russian literary classics to be “‘thrown overboard from the ship of modernity’.”

Decades later, some Russian writers of the Brezhnev era embraced postmodernist relativism: “Yes, they say, Communist dogma was a great lie—but then again, absolute truths don’t exist anyhow, and it’s hardly worthwhile trying to find them.” In this way, the masterpieces of Russian fiction became the object of condescending scorn.

And so, in one sweeping gesture of alienated vexation, classical Russian literature—which never disdained reality but sought the truth—is dismissed as next to worthless. Denigrating the past is deemed to be the key to progress. And so today it’s once again fashionable in our country to ridicule, debunk, and throw overboard the great Russian literature, steeped as it is in love and compassion.

Even more than Russia, Solzhenitsyn said, the West has embraced this shallow relativism. The most advanced theories teach that “there is no God, there is no truth, the universe is chaotic, all is relative, ‘the world as a text.’” Postmodern literature purports to “play,” but this is “not the Mozartian playfulness of a universe overflowing with joy—but a forced playing upon the strings of emptiness.”

In literature as in life, “nothing can be fashioned on a neglect of higher meanings.” No doubt about it, Solzhenitsyn maintained, the world is going through a profound and accelerating spiritual crisis, and its only hope—great literature—is betraying its mission. In a rare moment of hopefulness, Solzhenitsyn found it “hard to believe that we’ll allow this to occur.” He said, “Even in Russia, so terribly ill right now—we wait and hope that, after the coma and period of silence, we shall feel the reawakening of Russian literature, and witness the subsequent arrival of fresh new forces” that will spiritually uplift the world. But only if people return to “higher meaning.”

If Solzhenitsyn’s warnings about their society’s collapse irritated Westerners, his exalted view of literature struck them as too naive to take seriously. How many Americans regard novels as supremely important, let alone redemptive? Today, as literature departments “decolonize” the curriculum, fewer and fewer become acquainted with the greatest works at all.

More and more, students view literature as what they teach—or rather, used to teach—in required courses. Literature no longer has sufficient prestige to attract the best minds, and so the process of decline accelerates. Who reads contemporary poetry, and what timeless American novels have appeared in the past half century?

What’s more, young people increasingly lack the patience that great literature demands. They surf, they scan, they tweet. So how likely is it that, as Solzhenitsyn hoped, literature would transmit the experience needed to avoid a disastrous future?

When a country disparages the classics, it invites what Russians experienced as a “seventy-year long ice age.” People imprison themselves in the present moment and, in the name of freedom, enslave themselves to a single way of seeing the world. Wisdom earned by very different experiences seems increasingly irrelevant.

At the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn directly addressed those elites most resistant to his warning:

All you freedom-loving “left-wing” thinkers in the West! You left laborites! You progressive American, German, and French students! As far as you are concerned, none of this amounts to much. As far as you are concerned, this whole book of mine is a waste of effort. You may suddenly understand it someday—but only when you yourselves hear “hands behind your backs there!” and step ashore on our Archipelago.


1 We Have Ceased to See the Purpose: Essential Speeches of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, ed. Ignat Solzhenitsyn (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2024).

Photo: AP Photo, File

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