For five years I lived in southern Kazakstan, walking some of the same places where Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived during his days of exile in the Soviet Gulag Archipelago. The Soviets had a decisive way of dealing with dissidents, they either killed them or locked them up and threw away the key. Having grown up in the height of the Cold War, I well remember the threat of the Soviet Union. Once I got to Kazakstan in 1993 to work with a non-profit environmental company, I could see the threat had not been imaginary. Soviet era factories and massive housing complexes came equipped with gas masks, cave-like underground bomb shelters and training on how to survive nuclear fallout. The Soviets had a policy of calculated loss. In the event of a nuclear exchange with the United States, they hoped to save a percentage of their population that enabled them to recover while permanently crippling the U.S. Thus while most Americans simply hoped a Soviet-initiated Armageddon would never materialize, the Soviet communists saw it as a real possibility and planned to win it.
While the Soviet’s were constructing means to beat the West, they were also building the Gulag Archipelago, so called because it was very much like a group of island prisons scattered all over Siberia and the Central Asian steppe. The prisons were separated from one another by hundreds and thousands of miles usually placed in desolate and remote landscape making it nearly impossible for an escaped prisoner to find help. The remoteness of the chain of Gulags worked on the minds of the prisoners, creating hopelessness and despair. On one occasion Solzhenitsyn escaped into the dark, endless steppe with little hope of survival. As he wandered he saw a nomadic tent, but the local Asian sheepherder had little sympathy for the pale Russian troublemaker, whose presence in his tent could draw undesired attention. Solzhenitsyn was in and out of the Gulag before he finally made his way to America and then after the fall of the Soviet Union, returned to his homeland.
In recent days it seems an increasing number of writers are bemoaning the decline of America, pointing to any number of factors like a shift away from international leadership, the social state of the lower, middle and upper classes, and the quality of education. I think America could decline, and arguably, in certain areas, we have seen decline. But I think many critics are looking in fundamentally wrong places to measure what makes America great. Consider one man, Abraham Lincoln. If economics, pedigree, and education make one great, Lincoln started out as an utter failure. He was born on the Ohio River frontier, more a child of people like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett than the product of the European establishment. He was home-schooled, mentored in law by a fatherly patron, trekked widely through the American Frontier, and persevered peacefully through a number of political defeats before winning in the democratic process.
When the country faced its darkest night, both in the question of what to do about slavery and how to stop millions of Americans from brutally killing one another, in a number of unforgettable speeches he gave the resounding answer, “This is your freedom.” The slaves would be free and after a devastating civil war the South would be free. The United States of America would be free.
In 2011, some editorial writers want to highlight anxiety about America’s future: what about China passing the U.S. as an economic power, what about the Muslim world, what about other economic-military blocks. But this rather misses the point of what ultimately makes America unique. It’s not the power of the dollar, nor the power of our battleships and missiles. America is great because it is the oldest constitutional democracy in the world. It is great because it is free.
But freedom can be squandered or lost. All the freaedoms Americans have which are guaranteed in the constitution–to speak up, to assemble, to worship, to bear arms, to vote, to move about, to criticize government, to be the “of, by and for” of government, come with a price. It is the price of thinking, debating, and exercising the freedoms. As long as Americans stay free, they will stay great in the world, an example to the suffering and oppressed like Alexander Solzhenitsyn or the unknown prisoner languishing today in a dirty prison somewhere in the world. This is your freedom, what will you do with it?