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Solzhenitsyn Foresaw Tests of Western Courage

Original Article

Many gifted writers have written retrospectives about the five-year anniversary of Sept. 11 and have asked what our country has learned, if anything, from the last five years of war with Islamic fascists.

One of the most important questions that has been asked in this bout of introspection is: Does the West actually believe in its stated values, and does it have the will to defend them in the current struggle?

In examining this question, I could only think of the stark contrast between Alexaksandr Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address in 1978 and last week’s speech by former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami at Harvard. The contrast between the two messages is that between wounds from a friend and kisses from an enemy.

In his June 8, 1978 commencement address, Solzhenitsyn declared to a skeptical Harvard audience:

How short a time ago, relatively, the small, new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but also usually despising any possible values in the conquered people’s approach to life. On the face of it, it was an overwhelming success. There were no geographic frontiers [limits] to it. Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power. And all of a sudden in the 20th century came the discovery of its fragility and friability.

This part seemed uncontroversial, but what followed made the students and faculty squirm in their seats:

We now see that the conquests proved to be short lived and precarious — and this, in turn, points to defects in the Western view of the world which led to these conquests. Relations with the former colonial world now have turned into their opposite and the Western world often goes to extremes of subservience, but it is difficult yet to estimate the total 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 foot the bill.

The idea that the children and grandchildren of Western empires could themselves become the victims of a new (but old) imperial expansion in the opposite direction had just begun to be expressed in the 1970s. Today, with art and satiric cartoons provoking violent reactions on European soil, with radical clerics preaching that neighborhoods in Europe’s greatest cities should be governed by Islamic sharia rather than secular law, and with the Pope’s recent attempts to begin an interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity being met with rioting and violence in the Muslim world, the question is unavoidable.

What is most striking about Solzhenitsyn’s speech for the reader in 2006 is that Solzhenitsyn saw beyond the Cold War to the struggle that lay ahead, and asked if the West would have the courage to fight for values Western elites no longer believed in:

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. 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. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

Another prescient aspect of his speech is how well Solzhenitsyn anticipated the looming culture war within the West, and how it would be easier for Western elites to rage against fellow citizens than aggression from outside the society. Solzhenitsyn identified cognitive dissonance about universal values at the root of this rage. But how much easier is it to blame one man, one Administration, or America, Russia and Israel than to examine painful fundamental realities:

Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable, as well as intellectually and even morally worn it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and with countries not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

It is far safer to curse Bush or to say, as Khatami has said, that Bush and Bin Laden are two sides of the same coin, than to become another Theo Van Gogh or Ayan Hirsi Ali. As Australian blogger Richard Fernandez observes, this global campaign of intellectual and moral intimidation creates a perverse situation where the governments most open to criticism and democratic debate receive the most criticism, and funders of NGOs are often more interested in attacking governments than people who show no concern for human rights at all. Being a “stateless” organization like Hezbollah means impunity from international human rights law, even if you have all the trappings of a state.

The Hezbollah militia that Mr. Khatami funded as President of Iran can threaten journalists with death for reporting their placement of rockets in crowded neighborhoods, but even in countries like Russia that have been victimized by Islamist terrorism, Israel is blamed for using disproportionate force. In post-Beslan Russia, the director of Memorial, a prominent Russian NGO, recently told The Nation’s readers what they wanted to hear: that by fighting terrorism, governments are creating new terrorists and terrorism cannot be fought because it originates from strictly local grievances. There is no mention of a worldwide caliphate, or jihad replacing Communism as the worldwide ideology du jour for men whose God is power, not love.

To the extent that Mr. Khatami serves as smiling spokesman for a regime that has threatened to annihilate Israel and wants to usher in the age of the Mahdi, he has succeeded in sowing confusion in the Western camp. But not everyone is fooled, and there are other camps besides the West waiting in the wings — with a weakened but still proud Russia at the forefront, as well as the rising Asian superpowers India and China. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn feared what China might do armed with Western weapons more than he feared a Soviet victory over the West.

If America is unwilling or unable to tackle global terrorism, we will probably not like how others choose to fight it. If we stay engaged, than there is hope of limiting the furies building up on the other side of the ledger, actions that even Mr. Ahmadinejad would not welcome when the Mahdi fails to show up and save the utopia he wanted to create from destruction. The cloud of smoke and ash we saw over Manhattan was a small glimpse of what that world would look like, a door being cracked open to a lower circle — but that is where these fanatics will take us, if they are allowed to get nuclear weapons. My hope isn’t just in the squabbling West, but in the whole world will come together before we cross that apocalyptic threshold.

Charles D. Ganske is a Seattle-based writer for Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Project. This essay is adapted from a post on Russia Blog (, a website created by Discovery Institute Senior Foreign Policy Fellow Yuri Mamchur.