August 12, 2022
Ampersand Issue 9: Thinking With Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn About Loving One’s Country
Editor's Note: Dr. David Deavel, Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, joined us this past November for a talk as part of our “Thinking with the Saints” series, in which we look to Christians from the past to help us address pressing questions in the present. Dr. Deavel considered how the Russian writer and Soviet-era dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn can help us think about what it means to love one’s country well. Solzhenitsyn rejected what he saw as a false dichotomy of, on the one hand, completely rejecting love for one’s homeland and, on the other hand, turning that love into a kind of national idolatry. Our hope is that these reflections might offer you productive ways of engaging challenging conversations related to national belonging and politics. - Andrew Hansen, Program Director
The world of today looks askance at the idea of love of country. Nations, we are told, are dangerous. Better to love something bigger. Perhaps the world itself? One nearby college has a center for global citizenship. How can we be so narrow as to think only on the lines of a nation, which is but a part of the globe and of the human race?
The great Russian writer, Soviet-era dissident, and then exile Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) disagreed with this way of thinking. Though he ended up a global traveler and thought the human race united at a spiritual level, he never thought in terms of global citizenship or a global society. Citizenship, after all, comes from the word “city.” It demands a smaller unit of humanity than the world, governable with an eye to the consent of those governed, a particular people who live closely together, share a life, and create a particular and potentially beautiful political culture. Though his life ended before the theme of diversity attained its current central status, Solzhenitsyn believed the true diversity of nations was beautiful. In his Nobel Lecture, he wrote that literature’s task is not merely transmission of personal experience but also the experience of countries and peoples so that all could learn from their own and other people’s pasts. To say this assumes the reality of particular peoples and nations. “It has lately been fashionable to speak of the leveling of nations,” he wrote:
- . . . of the disappearance of individual peoples in the melting pot of modern civilization. I disagree, but a discussion of this problem would be a theme in itself. It is here appropriate to say only that the disappearance of nations would impoverish us not less than if all men should become alike, with one personality and one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its generalized personalities; the least among them has its own unique coloration and harbors within itself a unique facet of God’s design.1
Solzhenitsyn rejoiced in the fact that there are different nations, and in the ways that this diversity of nations would enrich them all. “How great is the diversity of the earth,” he exulted, “and how many unknown, unseen possibilities it offers us! There is so much to think about for a Russia of the future—if we are only given the chance to think.” 2
The anti-nation (or global or cosmopolitan) vision is often a secular one in which world government is an obvious and possible good that can, taking cues from economists, sociologists, corporate executives, and assorted experts, teach the world (as the old advertisement says) to sing in perfect harmony. Solzhenitsyn was skeptical. In his Nobel Lecture, he observed that the great hopes for the United Nations had not been fulfilled. “It is not a United Nations Organization but a United Governments Organization, where governments freely elected are equated with regimes imposed by force or with those that have gained control by an armed seizure of power.” Because of this imbalance, “the UN jealously guards the freedom of certain peoples and completely neglects the freedom of others.” And of the famous UN Declaration on Human Rights, what he calls “its best document in the twenty-five years of its existence,” he notes that “the UN has not taken the trouble to make [it] mandatory for its member governments, a condition of membership, and has thereby abandoned little people to the mercy of governments they did not elect.” 3
Not every globalist vision is a secular one like those often heard at Davos or Aspen. Christians often hold it from a spiritual viewpoint. Some hold that the Body of Christ, the locus of human unity, in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek,” is a body that doesn’t care about Ugandan, Scottish, or Malaysian either. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, who early on had admired Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom, grew worried that Solzhenitsyn had an “idolizing obsession with Russia.” He worried that those concerned with their people’s “national existence” wouldn’t be able to think about anything above their own nation. For himself, “Russia could disappear and die, and nothing would change in my fundamental vision of the world.”4 Solzhenitsyn called this position an “excessive Orthodoxy which, under the pretext of universalism, renders one indifferent to the national existence of one’s own people.”5
Solzhenitsyn held that God himself is not indifferent to our nations, giving us a natural—in the best sense, that it rightly arises in ordinary human beings—love for our countries.
- Love for one’s people is as natural as love for one’s family. No one can be faulted for this love, only respected. After all, no matter how much the modern world whirls and jerks about, we still aim to keep intact our family, and we hold it in special regard, suffused with sympathy. A nation is a family, too, except an order of magnitude higher in numbers. It is bound by unique internal ties: a common language, a common cultural tradition, a shared historical memory, and a shared set of problems to resolve in the future. Why, then, should the self-preservation of a people be held a sin?6
In the same essay, he says elsewhere that “[p]atriotism is an organic, natural feeling” that “requires no justification or theoretical basis, while all types of prefixes that have been attached to patriotism display either an ignorance of it or an intentional desire to mock it.”7
As Solzhenitsyn observed, dismissals of patriotism can be purely class-based. But sometimes, as in Schmemann’s case, they are motivated by the fear that passionate love of a nation will inevitably lead to putting love of country over moral principles. Solzhenitsyn’s patriotism has nothing to do with this attitude, often called “jingoism” but which he calls “almost. . .a cousin of ‘fascism.’” He defined “patriotism” as “an integral and persistent feeling of love for one’s homeland, with a willingness to make sacrifices for her to share her troubles, but not to serve her unquestioningly, not to support her unjust claims, rather to frankly assess her faults, her transgressions, and to repent for these.”8
Loving a country involves sharing in its shame, in some sense in its guilt (Swiss scholar Georges Nivat rightly called Solzhenitsyn’s an “anguished love of country”), and acting to help one’s own nation repent from its collective wickedness. It does not mean, as Solzhenitsyn said, that we ought “to scrape all the guilt from mother earth and load it onto ourselves.”9 As Daniel J. Mahoney put it, Solzhenitsyn “insisted that contrition should not be confused with masochistic self-hatred.”10
Such self-hatred does not allow for true repentance, which is a turning away from evil. Nations, like people, change over time. The “character of a people,” Solzhenitsyn says, “is not fixed eternally. It shifts over centuries, sometimes over just decades, depending on the environment and landscape that fills the soul, on the events that occur with a people, on the spirit of the age—especially during a time of sharp changes.”11 Its character, its consciousness can be changed by individuals acting for and on behalf of the nation. In thinking about Russia’s post-Communist fate, he observed that the “spiritual life” of the nation was the key, its “level of internal development, not external.”12
Though advocating a market economy, Solzhenitsyn would never say, “It’s the economy, stupid”—in American fashion. “If we are truly to free ourselves from the notion that circumstance and setting determine our consciousness—a primitive, materialistic worldview in which we were raised for decades—we must first understand and accept that our, our children’s, our people’s future depends first and foremost on our consciousness, our spirit, and not on the economy.” Solzhenitsyn recommended the attitude of the early American founders: “constant religious responsibility.”13
Religious responsibility spurs true love of country in act. It prods true patriots to translate their love into private initiatives, public legislation, and institutions. Solzhenitsyn emphasized national leadership but also families and neighborhoods building up their own resources. He wanted both strong national governments and strong regional and local governments, vigorous capital cities and vigorous cities far from the capital. He wanted renewal. Love of country was conservative in one sense—it had to do with a past for which one could give thanks and traditions that could be shared—but it was not a conservatism of the status quo. A country must develop to conserve what is good in it.
Solzhenitsyn’s love of country, we might say, is spontaneous, natural, and even passionate. Yet it is also realistic, historically informed, and thus sometimes anguished. Finally, however, it is hopeful and active because it understands a people’s character is not fixed for good or evil. Like every human heart, it is divided down the middle between good and evil. Will it beautify or mar the face that God has given to it? This is up to the people in the country who, in God’s providence, work for the good of the people among whom and the place in which they dwell.
Header image: Solzhenitsyn speaking to the press after being deported to West Germany in 1974.
1 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978 (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 112.
2 “Nobel Address” in Edward E. Ericson and Daniel J. Mahoney, eds., The Solzhenitsyn Reader (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), 523.
3 Schmemann’s response and Solzhenitsyn’s reply cited in Daniel J. Mahoney, The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth About a Misunderstood Thinker and Writer (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014), 19.
6 Russia in Collapse (selections) in Ericson and Mahoney, eds. The Solzhenitsyn Reader, 475.
7 Ibid., 479.
8 Ibid., 473.
9 “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations,” in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, 545.
10 Mahoney, The Other Solzhenitsyn, 20.
11 Russia in Collapse in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, 475-76.
12 Ibid., 483.
13 Harvard Address in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, 573.
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