Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: A Reassessment Four Decades Later

Friday, April 12, 2019 - 3:00pm to 4:45pm

CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Room S354

In June 1978 the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been expelled from the Soviet Union in February 1974, came to Harvard University to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver the commencement address. Solzhenitsyn had gained renown for his books documenting the systematic cruelty and violence of Stalin’s network of Gulag slave labor camps. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 but was unable to go to Stockholm for the award ceremony.

By the time Solzhenitsyn came to Harvard, he had been out of the USSR for more than four years and living in Cavendish, Vermont, for two years. He understood English but spoke it only haltingly, and he therefore delivered his commencement speech through an interpreter, whose translation was broadcast on an imperfect speaker system that at times was nearly inaudible. Technical problems aside, the speech proved to be quite different from what many in the audience had been expecting.

Solzhenitsyn made only a few fleeting references to the Soviet Union and instead spoke mostly about the “lack of courage,” “loss of willpower,” and “depression, passivity, and perplexity” he had found in the West. He denounced the West’s secular culture, claiming that it had led to “weakness and cowardice” in the face of “aggressors and terrorists,” and spoke scathingly about “destructive and irresponsible freedom.” He called for an end to the “moral poverty” of secularism and a return to spirituality and traditional values. 

Solzhenitsyn’s speech was hailed in some quarters and greeted with bewilderment in others. Drawing on various types of sources, the scholars at this symposium will reappraise Solzhenitsyn’s visit to Harvard with the perspective of some four decades.


Mark Kramer, Program Director, Cold War Studies Project, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

Hervé Mariton, Former Member of French Parliament and Minister, Member of the French Committee for the Centenary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Nina Tumarkin Kathryn Wasserman Davis Professor of Slavic Studies, Professor of History and Director of Russian Area Studies, Wellesley College

Co-sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Consulate General of France in Boston

For more information, please call 617-495-4037.