In a year in which certain segments of society in the US and EU have been obsessed with everything that is Russia, it is ironic that it is a Russian who explains why the West is facing so many problems today. While Russia — and in particular Russian President Vladimir Putin — seems to live rent-free in the heads of many, it is another Russian we should be listening to. I write of the late Aleksandar Solzhenitsyn, writer, Soviet dissident and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature.
In one of his best (and short) books, Warning to the West (1974), Solzhenitsyn writes “It is precisely because I am a friend of the United States, precisely because my speech is prompted by friendship, that I have come to tell you: ‘My friends, I’m not going to give you sugary words. The situation in the world is not just dangerous, it isn’t just threatening, it is catastrophic.’” He is not just warning the West about the dangers of the then-Soviet Union; he was warning the West of becoming like the Soviet Union — totalitarian. The Soviet Union is no more, of course. But Solzhenitsyn’s words ring ever true today. He writes “…at the moment the question is not how the Soviet Union will find a way out of totalitarianism but how the West will be able to avoid the same fate. How will the West be able to withstand the unprecedented force of totalitarianism?” How does the West slip, unbeknownst to ourselves, into totalitarianism? That should be obvious as he writes that today we are at a juncture in “which settled concepts suddenly become hazy, lose their precise contours, at which our familiar and commonly used words losing their meaning, become empty shells, and methods which have been reliable for many centuries no longer work. It’s the sort of turning point where the hierarchy of values which we have venerated, and which we use to determine what is important to us and what causes our hearts to beat is starting to rock and may collapse. The two crises, the political crisis of today’s world and the oncoming spiritual crisis, are occurring at the same time.”
Solzhenitsyn continues with prescient words (now over 43 years old): “In the twentieth century it is almost a joke in the Western world to use words like ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ They have become old-fashioned concepts, yet they are very real and genuine. These are concepts from a sphere which is above us….Among progressive people it is considered rather awkward to use seriously such words as ‘good’ and ‘evil.’” Solzhenitsyn tells us that we have been persuaded that “these concepts are old-fashioned and laughable. But if we are to be deprived of the concepts of good and evil, what will be left?” You know this to be true: too many today in the world but especially in the West reject such concepts as good and evil. This is the totalitarianism he warns us of. The Communists rejected such truths as do cultured and sophisticated Westerners. Because of this, crisis is coming to our doors.
Speaking to an American audience he writes “It makes one think that the men who created your country never lost sight of their moral bearings. They did not laugh at the absolute nature of the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Their practical policies where checked against that moral compass. And how surprising it is that a practical policy computed on the basis of moral considerations turned out to be the most far-sighted and most salutary. This is true even though in the short term one may wonder: Why all this morality? Let’s just get on with the immediate job….I am surprised that pragmatic philosophy consistently scorns moral considerations; and nowadays in the Western press we read a candid declaration of the principle that moral considerations have nothing to do with politics.” And then his kicker: “I wouldn’t be surprised at the sudden collapse and imminent fall of the West. The West is on the verge of a collapse created by its own hands.”
Continuing he writes “Human nature is full of riddles and contradictions….One of these riddles is: how is it that people who have been crushed by the sheer weight of slavery and cast to the bottom of the pit can nevertheless find strength to rise up and free themselves, first in spirit and then in body; while those who soar unhampered over the peaks of freedom suddenly lose the taste for freedom, lose the will to defend it, and, hopelessly confused and lost, almost begin to crave slavery. Or again: why is it that societies which have been benumbed for half a century by lies they have been forced to swallow find within themselves a certain lucidity of heart and soul which enables them to see things in their true perspective and to perceive the real meaning of events; whereas societies with access to every kind of information suddenly plunge into lethargy, into a kind of mass blindness, a kind of voluntary self-deception….And yet until I came to the West myself and spent two years looking around, I could never have imagined the extreme degree to which the West actually desired to blind itself…”
Finally, Solzhenitsyn gives us an explanation for all of our ills: “Of course there is a perfectly simple explanation for this process….Once, it was proclaimed and accepted that above man there was no supreme being, but instead that man was the crowning glory of the universe and the measure of all things, and that man’s needs, desires and indeed his weaknesses were taken to be the supreme imperatives of the universe. Consequently, the only good in the world — the only thing that needed to be done — was that which satisfied our feelings….we have become hopelessly enmeshed in our slavish worship of all that is pleasurable, all that is comfortable, all that is material — we worship things, we worship products.” And from Solzhenitsyn’s profound 1983 “Templeton Address” the very heart of the matter: “Here again we witness the single outcome of a worldwide process, with East and West yielding the same results, and once again for the same reason: Men have forgotten God.”
A return to God is what is needed if the West — which includes Macedonia — is to avoid fate of succumbing to totalitarianism. As you, Macedonia, prepare to celebrate Christmas and what it means, this is my prayer for you. Merry Christmas!