Man of Courage: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

"Man of Courage: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008," Weekly Standard, 25 August 2008.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a hero with the hero’s virtue of courage. He displayed courage, he reflected on it. The display was for all to see, the reflection was deep, difficult, and reserved. Back to this in a moment.

But first: A hero deserves hero worship, something between action and reflection, and I begin with my own experience. I was witness to the great man’s great speech at Harvard on June 8, 1978. It happened to be my older son’s day of graduation and my 25th class reunion, and we were treated to the most, unhappily the only, memorable commencement speech in my nearly 60 years at Harvard.

The speech was given in a mist on its way to rain, yet the audience, on the edge of its seats, listened carefully, eager to find hope and hoping it would be something they already had. But Solzhenitsyn had not come to praise, no, not even to praise Harvard. There was something in his speech to displease everyone. Liberals heard liberalism being assailed and jumped to the conclusion that this was a conservative speech; but conservatives had to endure a criticism of capitalism and of the West that did not exempt them. The word “conservative” was used once to say that we in the West are too conservative. And in Solzhenitsyn’s introductory remarks, Harvard had its motto Veritas thrown in its face by a guest speaker who had to reassure the audience as he began that he was a friend, not an adversary.

With me was my late wife, Delba Winthrop, also a hero worshipper, but one who wrote articles on Solzhenitsyn’s thought. Later, she had the temerity to send one of them to the subject and was rewarded with a short, personal letter from him praising her for “giving much to think about,” while of course keeping mum about the accuracy of her analysis. What I say now came from her.

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