Tuesday, February 4, 2014

JPII and Solzhenitsyn

In June of 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard concerning Soviet Russia and the weakness of the West. By mid October of the same year, Karol Wojtyla would ascend to the chair of St. Peter. “A direct gift from God” was Solzhenitsyn’s response to the news of the first Slavic Pope. Below are some examples of how desperate the socialist situation was in Solzhenitsyn’s eyes, and how the West was powerless to stop it with only capitalism as its standard.

He describes his concern for the West in a financial metaphor of sorts:

Relations with the former colonial world now have switched to the opposite extreme and the Western world often exhibits an excess of obsequiousness, but it is difficult yet to estimate the size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns, will be sufficient for the West to clear this account[…] But the persisting blindness of superiority continues to hold the belief that all the vast regions of our planet should develop and mature to the level of contemporary Western systems, the best in theory and the most attractive in practice; that all those other worlds are but temporarily prevented (by wicked leaders or by severe crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from pursuing Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in that direction. But in fact such a conception is a fruit of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, a result of mistakenly measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet's development bears little resemblance to all this.[1]

At its core, Solzhenitsyn’s address identifies the West’s need for redemption—indeed, the entire world’s need! He continues, “All the celebrated technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century’s moral poverty, which no one could have imagined even as late as the nineteenth century.[2]”

He accuses westerners of “weak human personality” due to avoidance of suffering, “decline in courage” from hiding behind rationalized laws based on weakness and cowardice, “lack of manhood” and “they [western governments] get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists”. By and large, Solzhenitsyn basically calls America and Western Europe, “girly men” compared with his own people.

He goes on to describe Soviets as stronger than westerners, on account of their sufferings:

But should I be asked, instead, whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our own country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.[3]

To what does he attribute such weakness? Irresponsibility: “A total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer.[4]”

Now, based on my last post, anyone can see why Wojtyla’s election was an answer to Solzhenitsyn’s prayer! Redemption, Responsibility, Mercy…they all are at the heart of John Paul’s prophetic life. Furthermore, they are all rooted in Christ—the source of such abundant grace. But, when Christ is divorced from the public square, Solzhenitsyn speaks from his own experience:

Humanism which has lost its Christian heritage cannot prevail in this competition. Thus during the past centuries and especially in recent decades, as the process became more acute, the alignment of forces was as follows: Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism[…] The communist regime in the East could endure and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who (feeling the kinship!) refused to see communism's crimes, and when they no longer could do so, they tried to justify these crimes. The problem persists: In our Eastern countries, communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. And yet Western intellectuals still look at it with considerable interest and empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East.[5]

Unfortunately, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. How true is the above statement even a quarter century later! We are too slow to learn from Solzhenitsyn and Wojtyla.

Nevertheless, there is hope—just as there was for Solzhenitsyn when Wojtyla was elected; when he visited him in 1993 (a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain) and with John Paul’s canonization fast approaching this Easter. Not that Wojtyla is himself the source of the hope—but that he is a “witness to hope”. He is a witness to the rediscovery of our Christian heritage through the New Evangelization, finally being enacted in parishes nearly ten years after his passing. He is a witness to vindication from the despotism of Stalin and others. He is a witness to suffering, probably the most needed of all crosses.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn stood as a forerunner to Wojtyla, and Wojtyla stands as a forerunner to the Redeemer. With the Olympics in Russia this year, and the World Youth Day in Krakow following, it will be interesting to see what transpires in these forerunners’ homelands.


[1] Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “A World Split Apart: Commencement Address to Harvard University, June 8, 1978” http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/SolzhenitsynHarvard.php

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

Update: While the '14 olympics were low-profile for the most part, the Ukrainian/Russian conflict erupted soon after this post. It will interesting to see how the conflict turns out...
Further reading: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/2978/his_beatitude_sviatoslav_shevchuk_speaks_truth_to_secular_powers.aspx

And again: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/03/13/ukrainian-catholics-fear-new-oppression-after-russian-takeover/

03/19/14 Update from http://www.aawsat.net/2014/03/article55329733:
Last month, when Vladimir Putin ordered that the Black Madonna of Kazan, the holiest icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, be flown over the Black Sea, many believed he wished to secure blessings for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

It was the first time the icon, or rather a copy of it, since the original was stolen and possibly destroyed in 1904, was deployed to bless a peaceful enterprise. Over the centuries, the “Black Virgin” has been taken to battlefields to bless Russian armies fighting Swedish, Polish, Turkish, Persian, French and German invaders. Stalin sent it to Stalingrad in 1943 to ensure victory over the German invaders under Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.

With Putin’s troops in control of Crimea and threatening to move further into Ukraine, we now know that the icon was brought in to bless a military operation this time as well.

Lastly, Weigel on the topic http://denvercatholicregister.org/opinion/orthodoxy-state-society/:
the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches faced a dramatic choice: stand in pastoral solidarity with the people, or stand with the state that was brutally repressing Ukrainian citizen-reformers? The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches (Byzantine in liturgy and Church organization, but in full communion with the Bishop of Rome), did not face this dilemma; the UGCC was long the safe-deposit box of Ukrainian national consciousness, and in the post-Soviet period it has devoted its public life to building Ukrainian civil society. But the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches did face a historic fork-in-the-road: civil society, or the state?


ByzCath said...

I remember in my prayers tonight the people in the Ukraine. The people in this unfortunate corner of the world, with its beautiful culture and Christian tradition, have suffered so much in the last 100 years.What I understand is that Ukraine, caught between Russia,being reconstituted in its Soviet incarnation by Putin et al., and the flaccid but at least European EU, has a president who is caving to the Russian side and is repressing protests in favor of a European alignment and greater freedom.People are dying and Kiev is burning.I will pray for the people in the Ukraine who have been injured, who have died and for their families… and for the protesters, whose cause seems the right one.

Meanwhile, we probably must wait for the Olympics to end before we see the real hard repression of protest to begin.


RuthCath said...

The Ukraine is home to a very large Eastern Rite Catholic population. There are also Latin Rite Ukrainians as well. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with over 5,000,000 members, is the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches. And yet, their major archbishop has yet to be honoured with the title that is rightfully his, namely that of patriarch. Of course, the idea of a Eastern Catholic Patriarch of Kyiv is enough to offend the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow deeply, so it is not done.

Western Ukraine is home also to the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo which serves those of Rusyn or Ruthenian heritage. Most of the people which make up the four eparchies of the Byzantine Rite in America are Rusyn, though there are many people who are not Rusyn who now attend Byzantine Catholic parishes, either to escape liturgical aberrations or to because they are drawn to the beautiful liturgical and devotional traditions of the Eastern Churches.

The Greek Catholics in the Ukraine suffered mightily for their faith. All of the bishops were imprisoned, as were many of the priests. The faith was driven underground and yet it survived. These people need our support and our prayers.

Perone said...


Pope Francvis on Ukraine--he celebrates ruthinian rite too

Reporter said...

Commentary on his address at Harvard:

Reporter said...

Proving that the Universe has a certain sort of humor, it is worth noting that during the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games, during the portion of the ceremony in which Russia’s greatest literary figures received honor, Solzhenitsyn was deemed worthy of honor.


PearceJ said...


Objective thought on Ukraine