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City Journal

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of his years in exile holds vital lessons for a fractured America.

David P. Deavel

August 6, 2021

Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore (University of Notre Dame Press, 584 pp., $39)

Once a darling of the media but now despised, the old man continues to heap abuse on the media as the “loony left press,” comparing them constantly to “Soviet era newspapers.” He says American news outlets tend to “trumpet” their narratives “in unison” in order to “bamboozle America’s reading public,” though in his populist fashion he says this maneuver “doesn’t affect average Americans at all.”

Donald Trump from Mar-a-Lago in 2021?

Try Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from Cavendish, Vermont, in the 1980s. While the language may be more elevated and less Twitterized, the accusations lobbed against the elites (or as Solzhenitsyn calls them: “pseudo-educated elites”) hit almost all the same notes as Trump. It is salutary to remember that the elite tendency to believe in or cynically use media fabrications and manipulations is not new. Though we have more resources for uncovering these deceptions today, they seem much closer to dominating our political and social life. Solzhenitsyn saw it all coming: “No, deny it all you like, but our humanitarian intelligentsia has the same roots, the very same roots as the Bolsheviks.”

As this line suggests, Solzhenitsyn’s early hopefulness about the West, evident in the first volume of this memoir, covering his journey to America until 1978, is absent in Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Sketches of Exile, 1978-1994. Gone are his dreams of a Russian college or university in North America, and mostly gone are the speaking engagements telling American elites what they don’t want to hear about their own country or situation. Of course, he still had plenty of opinions, and he frequently offered them on the topic of his beloved homeland. But in this period of his exile, Solzhenitsyn became highly selective about giving interviews, writing articles, and, especially, speaking on panels.


Alya was able to join him on his English trip, during which he delivered one of his most quoted lectures, the Templeton Address. His account is moving for its reflection on what the speech called for: his most explicit commentary on religion up to that point. Readers can also delight in his recollections of various figures, including Harry Willetts (the gentle, scholarly, and precise translator of his own works) and Margaret Thatcher, whose hand he kissed. “Rarely has a woman’s hand been more deserving, and I felt both deep admiration and liking for this stateswoman.” In good Solzhenitsyn fashion, he did not flatter Thatcher but instead argued about the situation regarding then-Soviet premier Yuri Andropov and the West. Though he took a more pessimistic line at the time, he admits that “with Reagan’s help, she turned out to be right.”




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Acceptance Address by Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’

Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’


Dostoevsky warned that ‘great events could come upon us and catch us intellectually unprepared’. That is precisely what has happened. And he predicted that ‘the world will be saved only after it has been possessed by the demon of evil.’ Whether it really will be saved we shall have to wait and see: this will depend on our conscience, on our spiritual lucidity, on our individual and combined efforts in the face of catastrophic circumstances. But it has already come to pass that the demon of evil, like a whirlwind, triumphantly circles all five continents of the earth.


The West has yet to experience a communist invasion; religion remains free. But the West’s own historical evolution has been such that today it, too, is experiencing a drying up of religious consciousness. It, too, has witnessed racking schisms, bloody religious wars, and enmity, to say nothing of the tide of secularism which, from the late Middle Ages onward, has progressively inundated the West. This gradual sapping of strength from within is a threat to faith that is perhaps even more dangerous than any attempt to assault religion violently from without.

Unnoticeably, through decades of gradual erosion, the meaning of life in the West ceased to stand for anything more lofty than the pursuit of ‘happiness’, a goal that has even been solemnly guaranteed by constitutions. The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries; banished from common use, they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short-lived value. It has become embarrassing to appeal to eternal concepts, embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system. Yet it is not considered shameful to make daily concessions to an integral evil. Judging by the continuing landslide of concessions made before the eyes of our very own generation, the West is ineluctably slipping toward the abyss. Western societies are losing more and more of their religious essence as they thoughtlessly yield up their younger generation to atheism. What other evidence of godlessness does one need, if a blasphemous film about Jesus is shown throughout the United States, reputedly one of the most religious countries in the world? Or if a major newspaper publishes a shameless caricature of the Virgin Mary? When external rights are completely unrestricted, why should one make an inner effort to restrain oneself from ignoble acts? . . .




Something I have recently come to think. The root of many of out problems/issues can be found in one word...Materialism. We (our culture) have forgotten God. I believe God has designed a (moral) universe, where if you Forget God. Bad Things Start To Happen.

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