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A World Split Apart by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

by Brent Stewart on Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was one of the subjects of 7 More Men by Eric Metaxas, a set of short biographies I recently read. Mataxas referenced A World Apart as an important speech, leading me to find it. This reading was at least the fourth time I’ve encountered Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn was an artillery officer in World War II, arrested for including critical thoughts in a letter to a friend. He was a political prisoner for a decade under harsh conditions, a period where he rediscovered the Christianity of his youth. As a writer, he became known inside the Soviet Union and internationally as a dissident through works such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn was exiled to the west in the 1970s, and it is from this perspective that he spoke at Harvard.

I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in High School. It’s depiction of the Gulags is horrifying, but I don’t think I had the life experiences and perspective to understand everything in the book as a teenager. In recent years, Jordan Peterson has brought Solzhenitsyn forward as someone who has thought deeply about both individual and political integrity. Peterson also credits one of Solzhenitsyn’s books, The Gulag Archipeligo, with exposing the true nature of communism.

A World Split Apart is Solzhenitsyn’s graduation address to Harvard from June 8th, 1978. Solzhenitsyn - by virtue of his experiences and subjects, if not personality - can be difficult to read, both because his language is dense and his subject depressing. At roughly 16 pages, A World Split Apart is a pretty good exposure on all counts. But the speech isn’t really about the issues with Communism, which he had firmly established in previous works. It is about the soulless nature of Western democracy, bound up in materialism and legalism, and a rejection of this as the only alternative.

I don’t think I agree with Solzhenitsyn’s opinions in every case. It’s been almost fifty years since the speech, and some things bear out better than others. Still, there are some haunting thoughts here that I continue to think about and wish that I had someone with whom to discuss. Our modern “post-truth” politics and culture certainly ring a confirmation of Solzhenitsyn’s observations. In many ways, this is similar to Karl Marx’ Critique of Capitalism in that, even if some big assumptions are wrong, there is a grounding truth to the concerns raised.

The reference included in this article takes you to a copy of the speech as well as a video recording of it’s presentation.


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