I heard him speak 33 years ago, but I still remember his riveting voice and presence. My memory of the great Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday in Moscow, is aided by something I wrote about the powerful address I heard him deliver.
The article in which I quote him appeared in the December 1993 issue of Blueprint for Social Justice published by Loyola University-New Orleans under the title Human Rights: Ten Objections Answered. The first of those ten objections was this one: “To raise human rights issues internationally is to meddle in the internal affairs of other sovereign countries.”
I began my answer with Solzhenitsyn and his answer:
I have never heard a more devastating rebuttal to this objection than the one given before 2,000 guests in the Washington-Hilton ballroom in Washington, D.C., the evening of June 30, 1975. The speaker was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago and himself a former stonecutter in the Soviet Union’s Gulag.
The AFL-CIO sponsored Solzhenitsyn’s address at a time when the Carter Administration deemed it highly impolitic for the nation’s capitol to host a large public forum for such a vigorous critic of the Soviet Union. Senior government officials were conspicuously absent, but a few lesser lights from the State Department like myself, in response to a printed invitation from the AFL-CIO, attended without asking for permission.
Although Solzhenitsyn spoke in Russian, he did so with such feeling that his charisma carried over into the English translation. No part of his message evoked warmer applause than this one: “On our crowded planet there are no longer any internal affairs. The Communist leaders say, ‘Don’t interfere in our internal affairs. Let us strangle our citizens in peace and quiet.” But I tell you: Interfere as much as you can. We beg you to come and interfere.”
I went on to develop my own answer, applying it to similar objections then made by the People’s Republic of China. Among other things, I wrote: “China is sovereign, but so is the United States. There is nothing in divine or human law saying that the United States must permit the products of forced labor – which can range from socks to Diesel engines – to enter the U.S. from China. The United States can exercise its sovereign right to prevent such imports.”
To this day, the U.S. government has not been effective in preventing such imports from Communist China.