On 2nd March the world was somewhat surprised to learn that Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was named as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize. One leading commentator of our times called the announcement ‘a brave decision’.
Journalists of the hard news, however, were quick to understand that Mr. Solzhenitsyn had indeed been a pioneer in religious thought. In his writings he brought the world with him on his spiritual pilgrimage through ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, ‘Cancer Ward’ and ‘Gulag Archipelago’.
Let me first read to you the official citation given by the panel of judges with their wide experience and different viewpoints from varied religions and nationalities. ‘Solzhenitsyn is a living symbol of the continuing vitality of the orthodox tradition of spirituality. His achievements have been made possible by a profound Christian faith. His writings have expressed a spiritual dimension long since neglected by many novelists, and his courage is in the tradition of the Fathers.’ Further to this, he is described by the Templeton Foundation itself as ‘a pioneer in the renaissance of religion in atheist nations’.
Both the above are true but neither of these nor any words of mine can fully testify about him. Who is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? What has he done?
He was born on the 11th of December 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia. He is married to Natalya Svetlova, was educated at Rostov University and also took a correspondence course in literature at Moscow University.
Now let’s look at his career. After leaving University he joined the Russian army in 1941 and attended artillery school from where he was commissioned in 1942. He then served at the front as Commander of an Artillery Battery and was twice decorated for bravery.
After having served so well, in 1945 whilst still on active duty in the front line he was arrested and sent to a forced labour camp for criticizing Stalinist policies and later exiled to Siberia. He contracted a cancer which was considered both inoperable and incurable and was hospitalised. In the deepest degradation and misery as described in his book ‘Cancer Ward’ he was virtually given no hope of life. Massive experiments were therefore carried out on him by constant and heavy doses of irradiation and injections, then suddenly he was cured. But was it these treatments that cured the huge inoperable tumour in his neck, that tumour that was pronounced incurable to cease its malignant growth? Or could it not have been his own clarity of vision, his absolute conviction of God being omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, an eternal, all loving and all merciful Father to all His children that kept him alive?
Whatever it was, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s achievement had been made possible by a profound Christian faith. Millions of his fellow prisoners despaired in the Gulag Archipelago. Many of them died. Solzhenitsyn found spiritual resources to continue to live. Finally his captors could not afford the price of making him a martyr and they sent him into exile, where his work and his leadership continues. He first went to Switzerland and then to the United States where he now resides.
But soon after he arrived there he proved that he was not content to sit back and enjoy for the first time in so many years, the peace, security and freedom he had so bravely won. He felt he still had to speak up about life around him as he saw it; just as in the East he had spoken against totalitarianism so in the West he has not hesitated to pillory the trend towards material values rather than spiritual. He exposed the abuse of the plenty that was everywhere and the lack of consideration or even compassion for the millions of people of so many countries undergoing starvation, suffering and persecution. His religion was the positive one of our Lord Jesus Christ not only by setting an example to others by loving God above all things but that of loving his neighbour as himself. This latter is often more difficult than the former but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did both, by his writings and by his example.
These are the reasons for his nomination, for this award, which clearly illustrates the very idea of the Templeton Prize. Inaugurated in 1972 and first presented in 1973 to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The Templeton Prize is offered to those whose life and work has helped to stimulate the knowledge and love of God. The Templeton Prize serves to highlight original and fruitful spiritual projects; to act as a catalyst in the quest for deeper under- standing and pioneering breakthroughs in religious knowledge.
I will end on a personal note. When I was first asked to give this address, I felt I should decline, for who was I to pay tribute to such a great and world famous man who I had never met, many of whose books I had not even read. But I was encouraged to do this by my wife and two daughters who, more than anyone else made me realize to what a great extent Solzhenitsyn had influenced the actual lives of young people all over the world.
Sir, in making the nomination of you to the international panel of judges, Professor Niels Nielsen of Rice University in Houston, Texas said ʻI believe that when the history of our era is written, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will remain one of the greatest luminaries of our time.’
Sir, it is your own spiritual life which gives you universal outreach, for not only do you know the high price of liberty, but how much personal freedom and religious freedom require each other. You have kept both literature and the human spirit alive when others have faltered. In dire circumstances, in incredible hardships, you have exemplified the freedom of the Christian man.
It is these various strands that continually relate to each other that you have, Sir, in your life and writings constantly emphasized are the basic fabric of life.
I count it a signal honour to preside at this ceremony here today, and on behalf of all of us who are here, I have the privilege and pleasure of calling you to speak to us and to the world — Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.