Solzhenitsyn is a dissident writer in the former Soviet Union. He's famous for writing the Gulag Archipelago. I recall that he eventually managed to escape to the West, in fact to the USA where after taking a good look around he denounced the the West too.

Once a dissident, always a dissident I suppose. I also recall that he was dropped like a hot potato by the West. I imagine its easy to cheer on a dissident in the 'enemy camp' but not so nice when his critique is turned upon the West.

I'm curious though now about what exactly was the content of his critique. It must have stung, as he was dropped very quickly.


In the article published by the Washington Post by Lee Lescaze in 1978 he is reported to have said:

Western societies have taken on a terrible similarity to the state-controlled societies of the communist world in its suffocation of spiritual life ... He says that Western society is morally bankrupt ... He attacks moral cowardice, selfishness and complacency ... materialism, sharp legal manoeuvring, a press that invades privacy, TV stupor and intolerable music.

Having just been to a local department store I can see very well what he means by intolerable music. It's a sad indictment on a society that has had so many great musicians and composers. The report does not give any specific details about why S is making the criticisms he has. It paints his criticisms with a very broad-brush. I'm looking for sources that are more specific about his critiques. For example, Lee further reports:

'A decline in courage' is the most striking feature of what he calls the 'spiritual exhaustion' of the West ... [And] 'the forces of evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. Where is the joy in that?' ... He attacks the Western press ... for reflecting more clearly than any other part of society 'the hastiness and superficiality' that he calls the 'psychic disease of the 20th C'

Q. What does he mean by the 'forces of evil have begun their decisive offensive'? Has he been clarified elsewhere in his writings what he means by this?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 23:18

2 Answers 2


The speech can be read in it's entirety here. A World Split Apart. delivered 8 June 1978, Harvard University and is well worth reading.

Solzhenitsyn was a Russian Conservative who's ideology was formed through Orthodox Christianity, Slavic traditionalism, and decades of persecution inside the Soviet Union. His ideology was a fierce weapon when wielded against the Soviet Union, and became an uncomfortable microscope when he was given the venue of the 1978 Harvard graduation ceremony to discuss any topic he wished. The topic he wished to discuss were problems and similarities between the West and Soviet Union. He offered these observations, not as a criticism but as a service to the West from a friend.

At least according to the beginning of his powerful speech.

It starts:

I am sincerely happy to be here on the occasion of the 327th commencement of this old and most prestigious university. My congratulations and very best wishes to all of today's graduates.

Harvard's motto is "VERITAS." Many of you have already found out, and others will find out in the course of their lives, that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on it's pursuit. But even while it eludes us, the illusion of knowing it still lingers and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in my today's speech too, but I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.

then he goes on to say if he was in the east giving a talk he would have confined his discussions of Soviet shortcomings, but since he was in the west the opposite was true. Then he went about critiquing the west, ripping it actually, with great eloquence. In words which still resonate off the page today independent of one's political leanings. The dignitaries in attendance looked on with slack jawed horror. Not, I suspect, because his speech was offensive, off base, not well thought out; but because it was clearly not the topic they expected to hear at Harvards graduation ceremony.

The speech goes down as one of the greatest of all time and remains controversial. It's main critics observe that Solzhenitsyn was ignorant of a Jeffersonian democracy and it's machinations to hold accountable it's governmental functionaries. Those less critical of Solzhenitsyn are continually stunned with how smart, hard hitting and observant his words were.

I give background because one can't appreciate the speech / criticism without understanding where the man came from and who he was.


  • Shortly after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn(mother) became pregnant his father is killed in an accident.
  • Aleksandr born Dec 11, 1918 is raised fatherless.
  • In 1930, when Aleksandr is 11 years old his maternal grandmother Zakhar Shcherbak is harassed by the Soviet secret police.
  • Two years later 1932, Zakhar Shcherbak disappears and is never heard from again.
  • In Feb 1945, Lieutenant Solzhenitsyn (soviet artillery officer) is arrested for writing comments in private letters to a friend about Joseph Stalin, he is sentenced to 8 years in the Gulag for counter revolutionary ideas.
  • 1953, Solzhenitsyn after serving his time in the Gulag, is placed in exile to the southeast part of Kazakhstan. He is also told at this time he has cancer, and is given 3 weeks to live. His experience with the cancer treatment he is given becomes the basis of his book "Cancer Ward".
  • 1956, Kruschev denounces Stalin and pardons all those exiled under article 28 of the counter revolutionary doctrine which includes Aleksandr.
  • 1961, submits "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which takes a year to pass censors and is ultimately approved for publication personally by Nikita Krustchev. It's a 170 page description of one day in the life inside the gulag system.
  • 1962, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", is published domestically and abroad and makes Solzhenitsyn famous both in the Soviet Union and globally.
  • 1964, Khrushchev is removed from power and the Soviet Union will not publish another Solzhenitsyn novel or short story until 1990 after the fall of Communism. Solzhenitsyn spends the next three years in hiding.
  • 1967, Solzhenitsyn begins a war of words with Soviet Officials and becomes one of the most famous dissidents in Soviet History amazingly while still in Russia.
  • 1968, Solzhenitsyn begins publishing works abroad starting with First Circle, published in Paris France.
  • 1970, Wins the Nobel Prize for literature but declines to attend the award ceremony because he fears he will not be permitted to return.
  • 1973, An unpublished archive of Solzhenitsyn's works is seized by the KGB. It was being kept by a confident named Elizaveta Voronyanskaya who reportedly committed suicide. Solzhenitsyn hands over the microfilm of Gulag Archipelago to the west.
  • 1974. After the publication of Gulag Archipelago, the Soviet Union conducts a public campaign to discredit him, resulting in his arrest, conviction of treason, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and his second expulsion.
  • 1976 Goes on the speaking circuit across Europe and the United States. First visits Virmont where he will eventually make his home in exile. 1978 - After two years of living in the United States he is asked to give his famous address at Harvard University, where your question begins.

I'm curious though now about what exactly was the content of his critique. It must have stung, as he was dropped very quickly

You should really read the speech because it's an excellent read and goes down in the West as a cultural event and one of the greatest speeches of all time.

Beyond that he drew broad comparisons between the west devoid of dissension and Soviet Union.

I debated including quotes with the specific section, and might take them out if people think that's better. My quotes are small out of context paragraphs in what were essentially essay's on different topics. I don't want to tarnish or compete with the original speech but just to give folks who don't have time to read the speech a taste.


  • Criticism of western decadency under the premise of observations from a friend...

  • While he says he would not endorse Soviet style socialism, he continues he would also not endorse western style democracies because the West is devoid of great spirits. A people who were given so much, and had to overcome so little he postured could not develop the great spirits being forged in the furnace's of the Soviet Union.

But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.

A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger -- 60 years for our people and 30 years for the people of Eastern Europe. During that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life's complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally [produced] by standardized Western well-being.

  • Western leaders were cowards basically chosen for their ability to get along rather than their ability to do what's right.

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable, as well as intellectually and even morally worn it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and with countries not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

Should one point out that from ancient times declining courage has been considered the beginning of the end?

  • West is ignorant of evil not presented in the guise of objectionable ideology.

But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their offensive; you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

  • A western obsession with legality rather than morality.

Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based, I would say, one the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.

  • The America's Cold War blind spot when it comes to international events not relating to the Soviet Union.

There is the concept of "Third World": thus, we already have three worlds. Undoubtedly, however, the number is even greater; we are just too far away to see. Any ancient and deeply rooted, autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the earth's surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking. As a minimum, we must include in this category China, India, the Muslim world, and Africa, if indeed we accept the approximation of viewing the latter two as compact units.

  • Western political correctness which he equated with soviet censorship which stifles unpopular opinions, and represses dessention.

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.

  • With the American Press which he said was the greatest power in forming public opinion but was not accountable to the people.

  • He found fault with the Cold War being conducted between two ideologies without regard for people. He found it reflexive and not subject to normal tactics between nations to defuse aggression. treaties, negotiations could not overcome impasses, where ideology was the basis and he placed some of the blame for this on the west.

The split in today's world is perceptible even to a hasty glance. Any of our contemporaries readily identifies two world powers, each of them already capable of entirely destroying the other. However, understanding of the split often is limited to this political conception: that danger may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations or by achieving a balance of armed forces. The truth is that the split is a much [more] profound [one] and a more alienating one, that the rifts are more than one can see at first glance. This deep manifold split bears the danger of manifold disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that a kingdom -- in this case, our Earth -- divided against itself cannot stand.

  • With a western policy which he identified as recreating images of America's government abroad. That every country should emulate or develop to the same standards.

    the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick.

I don't want to rewrite the entire speech. I don't want to graffiti his speech with my commentary either. I could go on for many more pages. but will choose to end this here now and again restate, Everyone should read the speech themselves.

One of the most exciting questions I've seen on History Stack exchange for quite some time. I hope I did it justice.. I enjoyed revisiting that speech, thank you for the question.


  • 4
    It could strip a lot of extraneous information, but the basis is Orthodoxy and nationalism. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 1:50
  • @SamuelRussell, there was nothing patriotic in Solzhenitsyn's speech. Not from a Soviet perspective and not from an American perspective. Solzhenitsyn was a devout anti communist. So I would disagree with Nationalism in any form. Orthodoxy is perhaps a better basis, but then again it was a Russian Orthodoxy and not an American Orthodoxy which the crowd expected, so I think that should be specified.
    – user27618
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 2:51
  • 3
    “The nation” often refers to a cultural and language community claimed to embody specific ideal characteristics, as opposed to “pro-patria” rah rah rah. Solzhenitsyn found the Soviet state deeply deficient from the perspective of his view of the essence of Russian culture. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 3:00

He accuses West of being spiritually void

Full text is here . I will skip parts about Soviet Union , Third World and concentrate on critique of the West .

It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leaving them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this? Why? And for what should one risk one's precious life in defense of common values and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country? Even biology knows that habitual, extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism.

Common theme, not only for Solzhenitsyn. People in the West are being accustomed to live in relative luxury, they do not have any greater goal in life except their physical well-being and enjoyment. Decadence.

If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.

Morality replaced by (formal) laws, in service of egoism. Again common theme, going back to Gospels, and Jesus's critique of pharisees.

A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly. There are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him; parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself.

Critique of political system - successful politician had to be duplicitous, caring more about avoiding politically non-correct statements then presenting any fresh ideas. Of course, in modern times there is a quite of backlash against this, with populists like Trump elected despite this.

The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It's time, in the West -- It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

Old philosophical question : Who is the citizen ? . Does citizen only enjoy legal rights, or he has to "carry the spear and the shield for the state", or humanity in general .

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

Again, old motif of law not being sufficient protection against the devil. Misuse of freedom, liberalism as a disease of society .

The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media.) But what sort of use does it make of this freedom? Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no true moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to his readers, or to his history -- or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper?

Pointing out that media, or to be more precise those who own and control media have almost unrestricted power over society.

The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus, we may see terrorists described as heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one's nation's defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: "Everyone is entitled to know everything." But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it's a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

Tabloidization of media, with many superficial "celebrity news" given full spotlight, while on the other hand other, more important stories, being hidden and burried. Also, media trying to create political opinion instead of informing , "fake news" effect.

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified. One gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment; there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification.

This is actually very interesting, one of the first expression of idea that all mass media is being controlled by same group(s) with sinister agendas.

There are meaningful warnings which history gives a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, the decadence of art, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.

Again, pointing out decadence and lack of morality. Everyone looks only for his selfish self-interest, without threat of law they easily turn to crime.

And yet -- no weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.

Again pointing out spiritual weakness of average Western citizen who doesn't have any higher goal in life then self-preservation.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.

Pointing out perceived root of weakness - humanism.

Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs.

Again the same.

However, in early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God's creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.

Shoutout to Constitutionalists and Originalists . US must return to its spiritual roots.

As humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation by socialism and then by communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say that "communism is naturalized humanism." This statement turned out not to be entirely senseless. One does see the same stones in the foundations of a despiritualized humanism and of any type of socialism: endless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility, which under communist regimes reach the stage of anti-religious dictatorships; concentration on social structures with a seemingly scientific approach.

Parallels between socialism and modern liberal capitalism. They both have same root, theme used not only by Solzhenitsyn, but all modern rightist movements.

The interrelationship is such, too, that the current of materialism which is most to the left always ends up by being stronger, more attractive, and victorious, because it is more consistent. Humanism without its Christian heritage cannot resist such competition. We watch this process in the past centuries and especially in the past decades, on a world scale as the situation becomes increasingly dramatic. Liberalism was inevitably displaced by radicalism; radicalism had to surrender to socialism; and socialism could never resist communism.

Without (Christian) religion, West would undoubtedly fall to some kind of dictatorship, current liberalism is just a prelude to rise of radicals. Again, very modern idea - many on the Right side of political spectrum point out militant leftist groups like Antifa as precursors of very undemocratic state.

Overall, Solzhenitsyn's speech is very relevant even today. He could be described as Christian Conservative in today's political therms. Many of his talking points are well known even to a casual observer of political events.

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