The Conscience of the Era: Remembering Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

by Derrick G. Jeter

To be the conscience of a nation is to invite the scorn of some and the wrath of others. But to the lovers of truth the clarion call of a national conscience is a reason for praise. This was the role Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn played for the former Soviet Union and the newly burgeoning state of Russia—for a time.


With the publication of his first novel—a novella, really—One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, during the days of Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist policies, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the mantle of the Soviet conscience. But with the publication of his history of the Soviet Union’s brutal prison system, The Gulag Archipelago, he became the pariah of the nation—scorned by the intellectual elites for pulling back the curtain and exposing the rotten evil of the Communist system, and bearing the wrath of the ruling elites who stripped him of his citizenship and expelled him from his country. His works had become, as he said of all literature, in his Nobel lecture, “the living memory of a nation.”1 It was a memory too horrendous—60 million memories escaping the gulag to bear witness against the evil of Communism. And Solzhenitsyn had unlocked the gate.


Solzhenitsyn wrote in his novel, The First Circle, that “a great writer is, so to speak, a second government. That’s why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers, only its minor ones.”2 How true his words were, as his own life attested. After his expulsion he eventually settled in Cavendish, Vermont.


With his speech at Harvard University in 1978, “A World Split Apart,” Solzhenitsyn became the conscience of the era. As I wrote of the speech: “To those philosophically conservative, the 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. . . . What made Solzhenitsyn’s speech . . . a rallying cry continues to this day, because it unflinchingly started the truth in the eye.”3


Without truth there is no conscience.


But with his return to his home land in 1994, Solzhenitsyn’s mantle as the conscience of the nation and the era began to dim. Dismissed as a crank, a hack, and even an anti-Semite, his writing and speeches lost favor. Now with his death, on August 3, 2008, the conscience of Russia has grown mute. But not silenced completely. As he declared, “One word of truth shall outweigh the world.”4 And his words of truth live on.


In his literary biography, The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn wrote:


The one worrying thing was that I might not be given time to carry out the whole scheme. I felt as though I was about to fill a space in the world that was meant for me and had long awaited me, a mold, as it were, made for me alone but discerned by me only this very moment. I was a molten substance, impatient, unendurably impatient, to pour into my mold, to fill it full, without air bubbles or cracks, before I cooled and stiffened. . . .


Once again, my vision and my calculations are probably faulty. There are many things which I cannot see even at close quarters, many things in which the Hand of the Highest will correct me. But this casts no cloud over my feelings. It makes me happier, more secure, to think that I do not have to plan and manage everything for myself, that I am only a sword made sharp to smite the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them.


Grant, O Lord, that I may not break as I strike! Let me not fall from Thy hand!5


His prayer was answered—he didn’t break or fall from God’s hand. He did smite unclean forces and disperse them as the conscience of the era.


May he rest in peace. But his words continue to smite and disperse evil.


1. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, “Nobel Lecture,” 1970, (accessed August 5, 2008).


2. Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 358.


3. Derrick G. Jeter, “Speeches that Made a Difference: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘A World Split Apart,’” (accessed August 5, 2008).


4. Solzhenitsyn, “Nobel Lecture.”


5. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir, trans. Harry Willetts (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 344, 379.