Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at the age of 89 in Moscow, was greatly admired by the late Pope John Paul II. According to Ted Lipien, the author of a recently published book, Wojtyla’s Women, How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church, both men shared a highly negative view of Western liberalism.
Like Solzhenitsyn, John Paul II was also convinced that the East Europeans, who for many decades had been forced to live under an atheistic system, have a much stronger attachment to religion than people in the West. In the mid 1980s, John Paul II published an encyclical, Slavorum apostoli, in which he presented a vision of a unified Europe with the traditional values of the Slavic nations and Eastern Christianity being incorporated into a common, Christian based European culture. In a 1993 interview, John Paul II further elaborated his view that the East Europeans are more willing to accept the idea of God as the “ultimate and absolute” source of human dignity: “The Easterner has realized this, the prisoner in the Gulag realized it, Solzhenitsyn realized it. In the West, man does not see this so clearly. He sees it up to a certain point. His awareness is to a large extent secularized. Not infrequently, he sees religion as something alienating.”
What the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said about the West in his commencement address at Harvard University in June 1978, corresponded closely to Pope John Paul II’s own beliefs, although some of those who are familiar with the conditions of life in pre-communist Russia, the Soviet Union, and in the West may question their reasoning. Solzhenitsyn concluded that “through intense suffering” Russia has achieved “spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.” Solzhenitsyn observed further that many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society, and even despise it for not being sufficiently spiritual. According to Solzhenitsyn, “destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space,” and Western societies “appear to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, […] misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.” Solzhenitsyn also complained about too much personal freedom and too much legalism in the West, making an interesting comment in 1978 that “when a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights.” Solzhenitsyn described his remarks about the West as “bitter truth,” but he assured his Harvard audience that he was speaking not as an adversary but as a friend. He concluded that human beings in the West are weakening, while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger, although at that time they were still being oppressed by communist regimes. John Paul II also believed that the struggle against Marxist totalitarianism had made Eastern Europe religiously more mature. After Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in the early 1990s from his exile in the United States, he continued to support a religious revival in Russia and remained highly critical of the West. The two men met in October 1993.
Solzhenitsyn’s prediction that the Western way of life was not likely to become the leading model for the rest of the world has been largely ignored by most middle class Russians and Central Europeans. Still, neither Solzhenitsyn nor John Paul II altered their belief that the Western liberal model poses tremendous dangers for the spirituality of people in the East. Asked in 1993 which part of Europe, the East or the West, has more to gain from the proposed reunification, John Paul II expressed fear that Eastern Europe faces a greater danger of losing its identity.