The Press – Solzhenitsyn: The Prophet

In June 1978, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address to Harvard University.

It was entitled, “A world split apart”, and boy did it cause ripples! The truth, it hurts!

If I were today addressing an audience in my country, examining the overall pattern of the world’s rifts, I would have concentrated on the East’s calamities. But since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one, I think it may be of greater interest to concentrate on certain aspects of the West, in our days, such as I see them.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: A World Split Apart

I’ll be posting a number of the controversial elements from the speech, in parts.

It may have rubbed some in the West the wrong way at the time, but more than 40 years on, I find the words somewhat prophetic – and it took him less than four years to work it out, from flash to bang.

Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.

The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media.) But what sort of use does it make of this freedom?

Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no true moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to his readers, or to his history — or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? It hardly ever happens because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist usually always gets away with it. One may — One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none — and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memories. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press — The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus, we may see terrorists described as heroes, or secret matters  pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislative power, the executive, and the judiciary. And one would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the communist East a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified. One gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment; there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspaper[s] mostly develop stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to flock together and shut off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of a petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: A World Split Apart

20 thoughts on “The Press – Solzhenitsyn: The Prophet”

  1. Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden,…

    Today, Solzhenitsyn would have to include the tech giants who do indeed censor independent voices, even those of a US President.


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  2. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press — The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus, we may see terrorists described as heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

    He’s describing the internet at its worst.


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  3. I recently finished the audiobook of the ‘Gulag’, it was amazing and deeply upsetting, the unrelenting bleakness, the informing on friends, family acquaintances etc really got to me, the cruelty and slavery. It’s no wonder that Russia hasn’t and may never fully recover from the 70 years of communism, the state, the people are deeply scarred.


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  4. He’s describing the internet at its worst.

    Yes. But, under the dross, the internet is also a modern wonder of the world…

    I came across John Anderson’s “conversations” podcasts earlier this week and I listened to two episodes – conversations with Niall Ferguson and with Frank Furedi.

    These are indicative of all we have lost – wide ranging, informed, detailed, analytic, intelligent…but, above all, neither sycophantic nor combative – and deeply informative.

    I recommend both these episodes to you all – this really is journalism at its best.

    In an earlier life, when I taught systems analysis/requirements engineering, the hardest thing to teach was “elicitation”…trying to grasp the client’s problem – not the brief (which almost guarantees eventual dissatisfaction), but the transformed situation which would actually make the client content. It’s so hard to do this, in fact, that most courses don’t even try beyond “interview planning”, and simply focus on the technical modelling (of whatever information the analyst has somehow managed to glean).

    As an aside, you can see the obvious parallels with climate science and WUFLU-epidemiology.

    Back to the point, acquiring an understanding and ensuring that you and the client actually “grok the fullness” (thanks Robert Heinlein) and have a true meeting of minds – is an art, not a science. I used to use early Michael Parkinson interviews to illustrate the goal – the planning is so good that the interview seems unscripted, conversational; the balance between giving the interviewee the opportunity to express him/herself and explore the world unrestrained, free form while still ensuring the conversation remains within the domain of interest; allowing drift but, from time to time (at the opportune moment) sharpening the focus, drilling right down…and then returning to the free-flow.

    It isn’t easy to do this – you have to have both great skill and preparation to make your skill and prep disappear from view – but when you get it right, you really do extract, explore, co-analyse.

    John Anderson does it as well as Parkie used to – but in a scientific/political/journalistic context. So, I recommend it to you.

    The thing is, the Internet is a thing of wonder – debased through the sewers that are Twitter and others, but nonetheless a thing of wonder.


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  5. Interesting. The best gulag book I read is titled, in English translation, “A world apart”, written in 40s
    ot the last century, autobiographical, by Georg (Jerzy) Herling.
    One thing in the book teased me is the observational advice of the author, how rulers would be loved by general populace – turn people into slaves and then start giving them a small bit of rights/allowances.
    It has rung the bell recently
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  6. “The thing is, the Internet is a thing of wonder – debased through the sewers that are Twitter and others, but nonetheless a thing of wonder.”

    The initial promise of the internet was hardware and vendor agnostic communications – you were no longer requires to have the same hardware from the same vendor in order for two computers to communicate. Oh, and redundancy – it would reconfigure itself to “avoid” failures where it could.
    As it expanded, the second promise was peer-to-peer communications – each computer connected can talk to any other that is also connected, without any reliance on some “central server”.

    As social media and search engines became more and more used, the decentralisation was reversed and the associated power accumulated to a handful of companies. The next generation of distributed systems may reverse that centralisation, but the issue with getting them accepted is the entrenched nature of the “majors” – we may need to “force” them to comply and give up their power. Trump’s “TRUTH Social” may very well assist with this, as almost certainly is Rumble and other such companies dedicated to freedom. We’ll see…
    In short, getting back to decentralised systems is as vital for the internet as is it to good governance.


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  7. It’s no wonder that Russia hasn’t and may never fully recover from the 70 years of communism, the state, the people are deeply scarred.

    And bear in mind that Russians are very resilient people.

    What would a couple of generations of Communism do to soft, faithless, debauched Westerners?


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  8. @ Roger:

    “What would a couple of generations of Communism do to soft, faithless, debauched Westerners?”

    More of what it has already done in the last few decades?


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  9. More of what it has already done in the last few decades?

    We’ve seen nothing yet.

    The first thing real Communists would do is eliminate all the idealists.

    They tend to make trouble when the real nature of Communism is exposed.


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  10. there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society

    Well, duuuuhhhh – in the west criminals are indulged, whereas in soviet russia they would have been incarcerated without trial or simply shot out of hand.


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  11. More commonly referred to as “useful idiots”.

    No shortage of them.

    Every KGB unit operating in 3rd world countries in the 1960s compiled a list of useful idiots to be assassinated in the event of a Communist revolution – outspoken Leftist journalists and labour organisers featured strongly.


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  12. Largely correct, but he probably didnt see that a lot of the privately held media would be effectively brought by government providing a massive stream of advertising/nudge/propaganda to crowd out actual capitalist advertising and effectively buy their compliance.

    The local radio station has in excess of 1/2 its advertising minutes taken up with government/quango/”charity” ads.


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  13. “It’s no wonder that Russia hasn’t and may never fully recover from the 70 years of communism, the state, the people are deeply scarred.”
    Marxist Leninism was the “go” for the crims at the top wanted it that way and after perestroika those crims simply changed their Marxist hats for capitalistic ones and continued on as before except on a larger scale by appropriating large companies and even a whole division of Aeroflot and all it’s equipment in Siberia as just one example, the lower strata of society stole everything not nailed down, and the middle class of professionals continued on as usual and kept the country ticking over as best they could as they do in any country. Street gunfights, car bombs, and other interesting mayhem has stopped and even this old bloke who agreed with the above in parenthesis for he lived there for many years, is surprised at the way the country has prospered and gone ahead in leaps and bounds under Putin, a bloke largely unloved by many Russians. The imposition of sanctions by the West simply forced Russia to get back into manufacturing it’s own goods once again instead of importing stuff including the usual junk from China, and that is helping drive the economy. Our grandkids still living there enjoy a far better education than do our grandkids we brought to Australia with us, and didn’t have to be partially home schooled as we did with the imports. Ask any expat Russian here about their take on this covid fiasco and our Premiers to get the reply of “Stalin would approve.”
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  14. this will only get worse, since the big tech giants are now also acting as media even though they argue they are not publishers they certainly act like it when they curate and edit/censor information

    so many people I know just swallow it all up

    so many are anti murdoch for no other reason than other media, envious media, misinformation

    they cannot understand that murdoch media is popular because it doesn’t scold quite as much and is slightly more readable than the alternatives.

    the reaction though of the left, as always, is to completely silence anything they find disagreeable and claim it is for the good of “free speech”

    that reaction is getting worse and worse and imagine if Labor gets into government again, there will be more media witch hunts focused on murdoch (I’m looking at you kevni and turnbullshyte)


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  15. Largely correct, but he probably didnt see that a lot of the privately held media would be effectively brought by government providing a massive stream of advertising/nudge/propaganda to crowd out actual capitalist advertising and effectively buy their compliance.

    Solzhenitsyn may not have had a problem with that in principle; he was not, after all, a Western liberal but a Russian patriot with authoritarian leanings who regarded capitalism as decadent.


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  16. “… even though they argue they are not publishers they certainly act like it…”

    Farcechook is now arguing in court that their outsourced “fact checkers” are, in actual fact, providing Farcechook with opinions only, not facts.

    I wonder how that will wash through the system…


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  17. “I wonder how that will wash through the system…”

    Just to be clear: if they are privileging one opinion over another, can they be a “neutral” platform and so keep their S230 protections?


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  18. Apparently when he went to the US some conservative intellectuals came to see him as an old fashioned slavophile, not a liberal at all. Anyway, One Day in the Life is essential reading.


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