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Solzhenitsyn in My Inbox

A Commencement address, and the “circle of consequence”


Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Commencement Day, 1978

Photograph copyright © 1978 by Christopher S. Johnson

Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Commencement Day, 1978

Photograph copyright © 1978 by Christopher S. Johnson

If you think no one will remember your words next week, let alone next year, think again. In fact, try 40 years—as I was recently reminded when a startling invitation popped up in my LinkedIn account. It was in Cyrillic. My first thought was spam…delete. Then I read the message, in flawless English:

Dear Ms. Urbanska,
I am A. Solzhenitsyn’s son. In 2018, his 1974-78 memoirs will be published in English. He quotes your 1978 article from a Maine newspaper about his Harvard speech. I cannot easily get it. But I wonder: might you have it? If so, could you send me a PDF? I would be very grateful!
                 СолженицынСтепан- Russian Federation

To say I was floored is an understatement. Could this be legit? It’s true that I graduated from Harvard in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and that the 1970 Nobel Laureate in literature was our Commencement speaker. His speech caused an international sensation. It’s also true that I had published an article about his speech. I never doubted that it had profoundly influenced the course of my life, but was it possible that I had made an impact on the reclusive Russian? My mind shot back to that dreary June graduation day, marked not by sunshine and encomiums but by umbrellas and gloom. Alexander Solzhenitsyn—who appeared on stage with ramrod straight posture in an olive military jacket and an unkempt beard (I described him at the time as “of another world”)—lobbed what was perceived to be a frontal assault on Western civilization. He took on not just America but “the West”—for its materialism, legalism, superficiality, and self-satisfied but “pernicious” well-being. “From ancient times,” he said, speaking in Russian through a translator, “a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end.”

The speech was roundly denounced in the West, including in an attack by First Lady Rosalynn Carter at the National Press Club: “I’m not a Pollyanna about the mood of the country, but I can tell you flatly—the people of this country are not weak, not cowardly, and not spiritually exhausted.” Most commentators criticized Solzhenitsyn for what amounted to a lack of appreciation for America and its superior values—after all, we had offered the writer and his family refuge in Vermont from the corrupt communist system and the god-awful Gulag. And, good grief, we even published his books!

Perhaps because my own Polish-born professor father had weaned me on cross-cultural critiques, Solzhenitsyn’s message did not seem alien or off-putting; in fact, it spoke to me. Having spent my high-school years in Maine, drawn to the philosophy of Helen and Scott Nearing and a growing cadre of environmental activists, I felt increasing discomfort at the disposable culture in evidence at Harvard, where at the end of the semester students cast off television sets, tennis rackets, and all manner of household items with the ease of discarding soiled tissues. And Solzhenitsyn put his finger on a quality that had been bothering me for some time: “the blindness” of cultural superiority. His speech made me think about my previous summer in Poland, where my family and friends queued up for oranges, sanitary napkins, and books of poetry, but expressed a pulsing spiritual life and connectedness to each other—and me—that I did not see or feel in America. That some Harvard students continued to fly the Marxist flag—when communism had been discredited behind the entire Iron Curtain—seemed unenlightened and naïve. Solzhenitsyn’s observations confirmed my own feelings. I pounded out an article in his defense on my Smith Corona and submitted it to The New York Times. When they passed, I sent it to a Maine paper, the Portland Press Herald, which featured it prominently on its editorial page, with the headline “He Will Be Remembered.”

“Solzhenitsyn ruffled many assumptions about ourselves and the world that Harvard has so carefully groomed,” I wrote. “His speech was disquieting...but he made our graduation the milestone it is supposed to be: he challenged us; he bothered us; he will stay with us.”

I have thought of his powerful address countless times through the years. And I have often traced to that day in Cambridge some of my more unorthodox professional choices: moving to a struggling family farm in Appalachia at the moment my journalism career in California was taking off; advocating simple living while peers were ramping up and cashing in; and  embarking in my fifties on a seven-month trip to Poland to explore my roots and find a new professional direction. Yes, Solzhenitsyn’s Commencement jeremiad—essentially my final lecture at Harvard—had been embedded in me every day since.

But the lead story here is that my article had made its way into the great man’s hands and heart; that he cared that an anonymous college graduate had defended him; that what I wrote had meant enough to him to quote it in his memoirs. And a decade after his death, his youngest child was so respectful of his father's legacy, and of editorial accuracy, as to go to great lengths to track me down to verify the text.

On a flight back to my North Carolina home from Atlanta, after I’d read the LinkedIn request on my phone, I struck up a conversation with the young man in the next seat. Nick was a freshman at Duke, studying...Russian. I told him my story and showed him the name: СолженицынСтепан. Yes, he confirmed. That is Stephan Solzhenitsyn.

“Have you heard of the ‘butterfly effect?’” Nick asked. It shows that everything is interconnected and that each and every action creates unintended consequences. You can never know the results of your actions: a butterfly flies in the jungle, and a storm ravages Europe.

Wanda Urbanska’s 1978 graduation photograph
Photograph courtesy of the author

Back home—within 15 minutes of beginning my search—I was able to find the yellowing Press Herald article tucked into an old portfolio, scan it, and deliver it to the younger Solzhenitsyn’s inbox 5,000 miles away. Of course, I went to YouTube to watch the speech again, remarking that Solzhenitsyn’s disquieting critique rings even truer today than it did back then. (Though he didn’t use “affluenza” to describe our runaway consumerism, Solzhenitsyn put his finger on the problem of the insulating, even crippling, quality of Western affluence, saying that “extreme safety and well-being are not advantages for a living organism.” What’s more, his comments about “a decline in courage” hit home in today’s polarized political climate.) The seamlessness of this chain of events reminds me of what my colleague Bill Crouch calls the “circle of consequence” to everything we do. It reminds me that we are all interlinked, past and present. It calls me—and all of us—to bring consciousness, meaning, and our best selves into every moment of our lives. Never forget that your every act causes ripples that you usually can’t see. But they are consequential, and they are profound. 

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