A profile in courage

With the passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn yesterday the world lost not only a political hero and Nobel laureate but also an enduring piece of its moral conscience.

Surely Solzhenitsyn will go down in history (and rightfully so) as a hero who was willing to stand up to a repressive Soviet government and then pay for his courage. He will also be remembered as the man who exposed the Soviet gulag system to the rest of the world.

But hopefully his readers in the West will not forget that he also had harsh words for us. After leaving the Soviet Union in 1974 and settling in the United States Solzhenitsyn did not settle into comfortable academic exile – although certainly he could have.

Instead, he looked his host country in the face and said that he had no choice but to critique its lack of courage. The 1978 commencement address he gave at Harvard was one such occasion when he declined to flatter us and instead spoke the words he believed we needed to hear.

He lost some supporters in some quarters when he did so but in others he garnered fresh admiration.

We all prefer to be praised but it requires a more courageous spirit of friendship to speak the truth (as the speaker sees it – right or wrong) instead. In that sense, all the world lost a great friend yesterday with the passing of Solzhenitsyn.

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