Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at Harvard Remembered: Forty Years Later

If you think no one will remember your words next week, let alone next year, think again. In fact, the shelf life of everything you do — what you say and write and how you conduct yourself personally and professionally  — is much longer than you may realize. I was recently reminded just how long: Try forty years.

Just last week, a startling invitation popped up in my LinkedIn account. It was in Cyrillic. My first thought was spam – delete. Then I read the message, in flawless English:

“Dear Ms. Urbanska,
I am A. Solzhenitsyn’s son. In 2018, his 1974-78 memoirs will be published in English. He quotes your 1978 article from a Maine newspaper about his Harvard speech. I cannot easily get it. But I wonder: might you have it? If so, could you send me a PDF? I would be very grateful!
                         – Солженицын Степан – Russian Federation”

To say I was floored is an understatement. Could this be legit? It’s true that I graduated from Harvard University in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and that the 1970 Nobel Laureate in literature was our commencement speaker. He delivered a speech that caused an international sensation. It’s also true that I had published an article about his speech. I never doubted that Solzhenitsyn’s speech had profoundly influenced the course of my life, but was it possible that I had made an impact on the reclusive Russian?

Photograph copyright © 1978 by Christopher S. Johnson

My mind shot back to that dreary graduation day in June 1978, marked not by sunshine and encomiums but by umbrellas and gloom. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn — who appeared on stage with ramrod straight posture in an olive military jacket and an unkempt beard (I described him at the time as “of another world”) — lobbed what was perceived to be a frontal assault on Western civilization. He took on not just America — but “the West” — for its materialism, legalism, superficiality and self-satisfied but “pernicious” well-being. “From ancient times,” said Solzhenitsyn, speaking in Russian through a translator, “a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end.”

The speech was roundly denounced in the West. Most commentators criticized Solzhenitsyn for what amounted to a lack of appreciation for America and its superior values — after all, we offered the writer and his family refuge in Vermont from the corrupt communist system and the god-awful Gulag. And, good grief, we even published his books!

Perhaps because my own Polish-born professor father had weaned me on cross-cultural critiques, Solzhenitsyn’s message did not seem alien or off-putting; in fact, it spoke to me. I pounded out an article in his defense on my Smith Corona and submitted it to The New York Times. When they passed, I sent it to the Portland Press Herald which featured it prominently on its editorial page, with the headline “He Will Be Remembered.”

“Solzhenitsyn ruffled many assumptions about ourselves and the world that Harvard has so carefully groomed,” I wrote. “His speech was disquieting… but he made our graduation the milestone it is supposed to be: he challenged us; he bothered us; he will stay with us.”

I have thought of his powerful address countless times through the years. And I have often traced to that day in Cambridge some of my more unorthodox professional choices: moving to a struggling family farm in Appalachia at the moment my journalism career in California was taking off; advocating simple living while peers were ramping up and cashing in; and, then, in my 50s, embarking on a seven-month trip to Poland to explore my roots and find a new professional direction. Yes, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s jeremiad — essentially my final lecture at Harvard — had been embedded in me every day since June 8, 1978.

But the lead story here is that my article had made its way into the great man’s hands and heart; that he cared that I, an anonymous college graduate, had defended him; that what I wrote had meant enough to him to quote it in his memoirs. A decade after his death, his youngest child was so respectful to his father’s memory and editorial accuracy to go to great lengths to track me down to verify the text.

On a flight back to my home in Raleigh, North Carolina from Atlanta as I was reading the LinkedIn request on my phone, I struck up a conversation with a young man in the next seat. Nick was freshman at Duke, studying… Russian. I told him my story and showed him the name Солженицын Степан. Yes, he confirmed. That is Stephan Solzhenitsyn.

“Have you heard of the ‘butterfly effect?’ ” Nick asked. The butterfly effect shows that everything is interconnected and that each and every action creates unintended consequences. You can never know the consequence of your actions: a simple act may come to nothing — or it may move mountains. A butterfly flies in the jungle, and a storm ravages Europe.

Back home — within 15 minutes of beginning my search — I was able to find the yellowing article tucked into an old portfolio, scan it and deliver it to the younger Solzhenitsyn’s inbox 5,000 miles away. Of course, I went to YouTube to watch the speech again, remarking that Solzhenitsyn’s disquieting critique rings even truer today than it did back then. The seamlessness of this chain of events reminds me of what my colleague Bill Crouch calls the “circle of consequence” to everything we do. It  reminds me that we are all interlinked, past and present. It calls me — and all of us — to bring consciousness, meaning and our best selves into every moment of our lives. Never forget that your every act causes ripples that you usually can’t see. But they are consequential, and they are profound.

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