Solzhenitsyn Flays the West

The Russian Nobel laureate's biting 1978 Harvard Commencement speech

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In 1974, the Soviet Union deported dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Litt.D. ’78, author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,  and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. After living in Cologne, Germany; Zurich, Switzerland; and at Stanford University, he settled in Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976. Two years later, Harvard awarded the 59-year-old Solzhenitsyn an honorary doctor of letters degree and chose him as its Commencement speaker. His address on June 8, 1978, was Solzhenitsyn's  first public statement since his arrival in the United States. Given the suffering he had endured in the Soviet Union, many in the audience expected that the writer's address would be a stern rebuke to Communist totalitarianism, combined with a paean to Western liberty and democracy. The Tercentenary Theatre audience was in for a rude surprise. "The Exhausted West," delivered in Russian with English translation under overcast skies, chastised the arrogance and smugness of Western materialist culture and exposed the adverse effects of some of those achievements that Western democracies had long prided themselves upon. "The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals," the author declared, for example. "It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations." Solzhenitsyn's brilliant, iconoclastic speech ranks among the most thoughtful, articulate, and challenging  addresses ever delivered at a Harvard Commencement. 

Read more in this PDF from the July-August 1978 issue.

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