Speeches That Made History: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s "A World Split Apart"

by Derrick G. Jeter

The man who stood in Harvard Yard on June 8, 1978, looked more like an Old Testament prophet than a Nobel Prize winning author. And before he finished the first paragraph of his commencement speech he began to sound like one to.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn achieved his prophet-like status through suffering—especially suffering for the truth. A Soviet Army veteran, Solzhenitsyn was arrested in February 1945 for including veiled, but unflattering, references about Stalin in a letter to a friend. Sentenced to eight years imprisonment, he spent the first portion of this time in labor camps. Eventually he was sent to a special prison doing mathematical research, and finally transferred to a camp for political prisoners where he worked as a bricklayer, miner, and foundryman. It was out of this experience that Solzhenitsyn wrote his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Exiled to southern Kazakhstan after his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn took the only job he could find: teaching mathematics and physics at a local school. While there a cancerous lump was discovered in his abdomen. Though successfully treated, Solzhenitsyn believed it to be the miraculous hand of God. “With a hopelessly neglected and acutely malignant tumor,” he later wrote, “this was a divine miracle; I could see no other explanation. Since then, all the life that has been given back to me has not been mine in the full sense: it is built around a purpose.” That purpose was to testify to the truth in the form of The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the Soviet prison camp system, and other works which resulted in his expulsion from the Soviet Union and eventual residency in America.

Two years after arriving in the United States this one man prophet of truth delivered what was, and remains, a speech that both scandalized and captivated the West—“A World Split Apart.”

Journalists and academics immediately threw up their hands and cried foul. James Reston of The New York Times said the speech represented “the wanderings of a mind split apart.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., then Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York, and former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, said the speech promoted “a Christian authoritarianism governed by God-fearing despots without benefit of politics, parties, undue intellectual freedom or undue concern for human happiness.” And philosopher Sidney Hook insisted that “theology is irrelevant not only to democracy and capitalism and socialism as social systems, but to the validity of morality itself.”

But to those philosophically conservative, Solzhenitsyn’s speech sent a rapturous chill down their collective spine. It was seen as a major philosophical and religious statement—an indictment on the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the West. Michael Novak, resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, described the address as “the most important religious document of our time.”

What made Solzhenitsyn’s speech both a stumbling block and a rallying cry continues to this day, because it unflinching stared the truth in the eye. “Many of you have already found out,” he says in the opening, “and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today. . . .”

Solzhenitsyn offers this bitter cup of truth “as a friend, not as an adversary.” Whether from friend or foe, its easy to understand why those who believe in the absolute sovereignty of man, the supremacy of socialism, and the extinction of evil found the truth too sour for their stomachs. For the speech, though complex and somewhat disorganized, delivers its propositions forcefully and unapologetically. His listeners were the graduates sitting before him, but his audience was the intellectuals, elites, and journalist of America.

After laying the foundation that the world is perilously “split” culturally, economically, and philosophically, Solzhenitsyn offers five broad propositions.

1. Americans’ beloved “pursuit of happiness” is denigrated into a self-consumed, self-interested pursuit of materialism, which has serious consequences for the health and stability of the United States—especially since we’ve grown more litigious and misuse the legal system as the only means to solve social and personal problems.

2. Journalistic standards in the United States are morally bankrupt because it trivializes important events and people, shamelessly invades privacy, refuses to acknowledge errors in judgment, and has built up a comfortable collusion to prevent new views from reaching the marketplace of ideas.

3. Intellectuals in the West continue to be enamored with the ideas of socialism, even though citizens of such regimes have repudiated its utopian illusion.

4. Americans’ treasured ideas of freedom are corrupted—especially among the civil and political cowardice of intellectuals—because there is no longer a belief in the existence of evil, leaving us defenseless against the evil of pornography and crime, and the very real possibility of our civilization’s destruction.

5. The foundational reason for humankind’s woes and the West’s current weakness is the Enlightenment philosophy that we are independent from God and accountable only to ourselves, which has left us spiritually depleted and morally anemic.Taken together, these propositions add up to a major crisis for the human race. So what does Solzhenitsyn propose we do to avoid a catastrophe? We must cease from the deception that evil doesn’t exist. The dividing line separating it and goodness runs through every human heart. We must stir up our courage and resist evil wherever we find it, even if it means fighting it to the death. Finally, we must acknowledge God’s sovereignty over His creation, including us. “No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.”

Solzhenitsyn quote about his tumor: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and The Calf: A Memoir, translated from the Russian by Harry Willetts (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 4.

Critical quotes: David Aikman, “A World Split Apart” (McLean, VA: The Trinity Forum Readings, 2002), 6–7.

Solzhenitsyn quotes from the speech: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, June 8, 1978, Harvard University, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html