I’ve been debating for three days about whether I had anything original to say about Solzhenitsyn, who died last week. I only read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, so I am not competent to evaluate whether he was worthy of being grouped with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as a great Russian writer. But he was a courageous man, so much so that when he was given the chance to speak at Harvard in 1978, four years after being deported and landing in Vermont, he chose to bite that hand that fed him–The West. He started out talking about the way the West viewed the rest of the “developing world.”
There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development is quite different.
But for our purposes, it was his view of the U.S. political system and the role of the press that seems most prescient in light of the Obama campaign.
A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that every single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.
I continue to believe that this year we can triumph over mediocrity, but as the old Russian pointed out, it’s not a sure thing.