Orthodox America

  [Solzhenitsyn] A Prophet for Today

For a hundred years Noah called people to him, but only the dumb animals came. (Saint Nectarius of Optina)

A year after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, the Nobel prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn visited the late Archbishop Andrew of Novo-Diveyevo who greeted him with the following words:

"Dear, deeply respected Alexander Isaevich:

Thinking of you, I involuntarily present to myself (the) magnificent figure of Noah calling the people. Thus you also, my dear one, are calling people from the ungodliness of Communism! They hear you, they applaud you. They heard Noah also and, it may be, expressed their enthusiasm. Yes, they heard but they did not obey, and perished!"

In the seven years that have passed since this visit, Solzhenitsyn has continued to warn the West of the impending danger which lies ahead if it persists in following its present ruinous course. But, like the generations during the time of Noah, those to whom Solzhenitsyn speaks so urgently prefer to see only sunny skies and to ignore the voice of this prophet whom they variously brand as "old-fashioned," "utopian,” "messianic," "autocratic"... And this should not be surprising when one considers that the political fashion of today has once again turned to nuclear disarmament or "freeze," "peaceful coexistence" and clinging to a fragile status quo. Who wants to hear Solzhenitsyn say that "Communism will never desist from its efforts to seize the world," that detente amounts to "self-deception," or that "the West is on the verge of a collapse created by its own hands"?

Those of us who share his Orthodox Christian world-view would do well to listen carefully to his message which is the fruit of a life of suffering, struggle, and the concentrated pursuit of truth.

One of Solzhenitsyn's greatest literary achievements is his three-volume Gulag Archipelago. For the first time the West was forced to acknowledge the massive dimension and duration, the inhuman cruelty and the sheer volume of death generated by this natural product of communist ideology. Without understanding the phenomenon of Gulag, it is difficult to hear the rest of Solzhenitsyn's message. Those who prefer to retain the illusion that communism is just another ideology which occupies its share of space on planet earth, have defined Gulag as a peculiarly Russian "aberration." This, Solzhenitsyn points out, is a dangerous misconception. The ultimate cause of the crisis in which the West finds itself today lies, he says, "in 60 years of obstinate blindness to the true nature of communism" and "the failure to understand the radical hostility of communism to mankind as a whole." Nowhere is this communist inhumanity more clearly demonstrated than in Gulag.

Once having recognized the true nature of communism, what hope is there, what defense? Certainly an answer of "bigger and better bombs" is as foolish as trusting the communists to adhere to a disarmament treaty. An illness must be properly diagnosed before the right cure is prescribed. In his Harvard Address two years ago, Solzhenitsyn pointed out several symptoms of an illness which may prove the death of the Western world as we know it today-unless we heed these warning signals before it is too late.

Briefly, Solzhenitsyn sees the West as suffering from a decline in courage and a loss of will-power, both of which are the rotten fruit of a life of unrestrained materialism. "To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in a cult of material well-being." No longer is freedom given on the condition of each individual's religious responsibility; we have become a society based on laws which may as easily trample upon a common morality as defend it. In short, the West is suffering a spiritual decline. "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." This is the gradual result of the per haps unconscious acceptance of humanism which "based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs." By contrast, Solzhenitsyn observes, the suffering behind the Iron Curtain has given there "a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience."

Solzhenitsyn looks at the West and sees a morally impoverished, sick society. "The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive; you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of pre scribed smiles and raised glasses." There is, of course, no instant cure. But as individual Orthodox Christians we can begin that "spiritual upsurge" which Solzhenitsyn sees as the only possible road of recovery.

In his final words to Solzhenitsyn, Arch- bishop Andrew exhorted him to call people "from ungodliness to godliness! "-to Christ. Both Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalya are filled with this sense of mission towards their homeland. With few exceptions their only form of relaxation is to change from one form of work to another. Their house in rural Vermont, which includes an Orthodox chapel, is purposely isolated to protect from unnecessary distractions. Solzhenitsyn finds the time ahead "frighteningly short". And so should we.

The world has grown very small. Solzhenitsyn has repeatedly told the West: "The world has now come to the point where with out the rebirth of a healthy, national-minded Russia, America will not survive." But he admits that the West in general is too sick and blind to offer any help. Thanks to the moral courage and determination of Solzhenitsyn and others like him, however, the process of rebirth in Russia has begun. They are building what Archbishop Andrew called the New Testament Ark which is: "godliness, preserving what is God's in honor." And we who share the goal of salvation can help them in this task through prayer, material help, letters-and mainly through leading a more conscious, more concentrated Christian life. Only in being obedient to this call to godliness can we help others, and ourselves, to survive the flood of ungodliness which even now has reached the high-water mark.

Quotations taken from Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Address, "Harvard University Gazette," June 8, 1978; and his article, "Misconceptions About Russia are a Threat to America" in Foreign Affairs, Spring, 1980.