Reflecting on Nature, a Soviet Exile, and the American Soul
“. . . The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. Part IV (1973)
We head towards water and wild places on Labor Day weekend to escape the cacophony of current events. Peaceful reflection remains elusive. Our racial reckoning, overheating planet, and polarized politics crowd out serenity. Courage requires us to listen carefully to our critics and resolve to improve.
I drove to the Whitehall Reservoir in Hopkinton, Massachusetts on Sunday morning in search of rest and reflection. The boat launch is located just 3.5 miles northwest of the starting line of the Boston Marathon. Traumatic memories of the 2013 Marathon bombing are still fresh. The terrorist attack reshaped the priorities and psyches of New Englanders. The wound has been exposed again with the recent vacating of his death sentence by the fifth circuit court of appeals. Many victims’ families simmer in righteous rage at the “miscarriage of justice.” Surely better armed and trained agents and police are part of the solution. Maybe another foreign war will deter the terrorists for good. Yet the question remains, “how much of our souls are we willing to sacrifice for an elusive sense of security for ourselves and our children?”
We are tempted to treat the symptoms and ignore our role in perpetuating the cycles of violence. Nurturing grudges we seek revenge, not reconciliation. The problem with revenge is that it adds fuel to the cycle of violence. Vladimir Putin has waited for a chance to weaken Western rivals for a very long time. As someone who studied in the Soviet Union as a college student I know what it feels like to live through the collapse of an empire. As my contemporaries celebrated “victory” in the Cold War, I watched ordinary Russians suffer through a complete collapse of their economy, empires, and shared myth.
Now Americans are experiencing a similar crisis. History is cyclical, but the patterns are opaque to those who don’t study its lessons. We eagerly celebrate the past and plan for the future but turn away from the collateral damage of our wars. While many Americans have short attention spans, courage calls us to explore the tragic consequences of our actions and learn the harder lessons. We must ponder the paradoxes of the past to gain resistance to manipulation by media, politicians, and cultural influencers. The difficult work of honest rebuilding cannot be rushed. We must clear the rubble and rebuild stronger and shared foundations.
I have long admired the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a beacon of hope amidst horrific suffering. The Soviet State launched a sustained campaign of vilification and intimidation against him. After being found “guilty” of writing private letters that criticized Soviet war crimes in Germany, Solzhenitsyn was sent to the GULAG, Soviet prison camps, for eight years. Solzhenitsyn’s true crime was his unwavering loyalty to truth and his Russian Orthodox faith rather than the Stalinist party line. Totalitarian states almost always punish honest criticism.
Solzhenitsyn took advantage of the brief opening for artists under Khruschev to publish A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The image conscious Soviet leaders hated his growing fame and expanding catalog of work detailing the appalling conditions in prison camps including The Gulag Archipelago and The First Circle.
After Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Kremlin leadership sought to silence the famous dissident. The KGB attempted to assassinate him in 1973 and three years later he was expelled to the West. Solzhenitsyn settled for the next twenty years in Cavendish, Vermont living as an artist and prophet in exile.
In 1978 Solzhenitsyn accepted an invitation to address the Harvard graduating class of 1978. Much to the chagrin of his listeners the exile refused to celebrate the freedoms of Western Society. Instead, he directed his prophetic fire on the elites at the pinnacle of American privilege. He criticized the United States for its materialism, secularism, and moral weakness.
“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.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center - A World Split Apart
"I am sincerely happy to be here with you on this occasion and to become personally acquainted with this old and most…
Without courage the West had lost its way and failed to provide effective leadership in a polarized world. Solzhenitsyn refused to see merely black and white, good and evil, or light and darkness. His writer’s eye and personal suffering pushed him to see the truth behind propaganda. He remembered there was a “third world” of developing countries and a peaceable kingdom described in the Scriptures. His words resonated far beyond the hallowed halls of ivy and were echoed in Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech delivered the following summer. Solzhenitsyn continued to find refuge in the woods and of Cavendish, Vermont before returning home in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Twelve years after Solzhenitsyn’s death the problems of the world seem even more intractable. Man made lakes are a pale reflection of the terrors and joys of wilderness. The beauty of the day and calmness of the water belied my racing thoughts. The myriad challenges quickly overwhelm us. We can only find respite if we calm our minds and hearts. But centering down cannot be another form of escapism. Finding our true core gives us clarity and the ability to bring healing, not hate to the present moment.
My paddle around Whitehall reservoir was disrupted by evidence of humanity’s growing impact on the natural world. Central Massachusetts is again experiencing a drought. The colored lines on the rock show where the surface would be in wetter seasons. The shallowness of the water revealed an active ecosystem where aquatic plants thrive. Yet, I struggled to paddle through the thick cover of lily pads disrupting the usually open surface of the water. The green carpet also blocked the view of the deeper forces at work beneath the surface.
It may seem odd to reflect upon our changing climate and a Soviet dissident during a global pandemic and political crisis. Yet unless we acknowledge our own failures we remain trapped in our limited perspectives. Maybe that is why Solzhenitsyn was so hesitant to praise the West. The Vietnam years coupled with his own suffering and Orthodox faith urged him to look more deeply.
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart. . .”
If Americans claim the mantle of white knights who rid the world of Fascists, communists, and terrorists, we blind ourselves to the ways we have unconsciously become like them. John McCain, late senator and decorated fighter pilot was shot down over Vietnam and tortured for five and a half years. During the War on Terror he steadfastly resisted justifications of torture by Bush administration officials McCain declared,
“the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”
People, nations, and even the global community are capable of change. But change requires openness and humility. If other countries see America as a source of wars, terror, and environmental destruction then we must listen to their critiques. It is both patriotic and loving to lower our psychological defenses. Maybe need to embark on a dreaded “apology tour.” That is what honest patriots and good citizens do.
Apologizing is not un-American, it lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Confession leads to restitution, healing, and hopefully wholeness.
Jesus famously taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5 NRSV) Clear vision precedes effective action. Recognizing our own moral blindness is the first step. We have to ask ourselves if we are brave enough to take it?
Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Ignatius Press, 2011.
Donald W. Shriver, Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds. Oxford University Press, 2008.