For two months already there had been an invitation waiting for me from the Canton of Appenzell to attend the ceremony of their cantonal elections, and the editor-in-chief of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Fred Luchsinger, had urged that this was something I absolutely must not miss, and now he drove [my wife] Alya and me there. My departure for Canada was planned for Monday, and the elections being on Sunday, I could still make the ceremony. Appenzell is a small mountain canton in eastern Switzerland; in fact, there are two Appenzells—two half-cantons—a Catholic and a Protestant one, that had separated from one another. We had been invited to the Catholic one. On the way there, as we passed the people walking toward the town hall (in Appenzell one goes to elections on foot—not doing so is considered inappropriate), it was impossible not to notice that the men were all carrying swords, a sign of the right to vote, which women and the young do not have. People were arriving from all directions, also walking over the meadows (the law in Appenzell states that prior to Election Day you can walk over a meadow, but afterward the grass must be allowed to grow untrampled). Many of the young men and women were wearing an earring in one ear.
The Catholic Mass was drawing to a close, the church crowded to overflowing, and around the altar hung the ornate flags of the different communes of Appenzell. From the windows of the brightly painted chalets along the main street long banners with strange designs, symbols, and images of animals were draped. Those who were invited into the town hall first put down their arms there, and then placed their black cloaks over them. Then six standard-bearers in traditional uniform carried their banner to the head of the procession, accompanied by young pages, also in uniform. The officials and the guests of honor marched in procession, one slow step at a time, along the street lined by townspeople, while groups of onlookers were leaning out of all the windows. I was met by everyone with the greatest enthusiasm, as if I was their own countryman who was returning home famous, whereas I would have thought that in this distant canton they would never have even heard of me. (They welcomed me not only as a writer, but as a champion fighting against evil, which the chief magistrate of the canton, the Landammann, also said in his speech.)
A provisional wooden platform had been set up on the square for all the officials, a dozen or so, who lined up on it and stood there throughout the entire ceremony in their black cloaks, their heads bare. The town square was filled with a dense crowd of stimmberechtigte Männer—men with the right to vote—they too with swords at their sides, their heads bare, some gray, some reddish, some white; but they were all wearing everyday clothes. The women had gathered somewhere beyond the edges of the crowd or were standing on balconies and at windows. Young people were sitting as best they could on the slanted roofs, while a photographer was picturesquely straddling a roof’s gable. The chief magistrate of the canton, Landammann Raymond Broger, with grayish fuzz on his head, his face intelligent and energetic, gave a speech that filled me with wonder. If only Europe could lend its ears to its half-canton Appenzell! If only the rulers of the big nations could adopt such ideas!
For more than half a millennium, the Landammann said, our community has not significantly changed the forms by which it has governed itself. We are led by our conviction that there is no such thing as “general freedom,” but only various individual freedoms, each associated with our obligations and self-restraint. On an almost daily basis, the violence of our times proves to us that the guaranteed freedom of person or state is impossible without discipline and honesty, and it is precisely on such grounds that our community has managed to perpetuate its incredible vitality through the centuries. Our community never gave itself over to the folly of total freedom, and never made a pact with inhumanity with the view of making the state almighty. There cannot be a rational functioning state without a dash of aristocratic and even monarchic elements. It goes without saying that in a democracy the ultimate judgment in all important issues falls to the people, but a people cannot be present on a daily basis to run the state. And the government must not rush to cater to the changeable popular vote just so that its rulers will be re-elected, nor must it give misleading speeches to sway the voters, but must move against the current. In deed and in truth the government’s task is to act the way a reasonable majority of the people would act if they knew everything in all its details, which is becoming increasingly impossible under the growing civic overload. It therefore remains for us to elect the best possible individuals to guide and govern us, and to give them all necessary confidence. Democracy without mettle, democracy that seeks to grant rights to each and every individual, degenerates into a democracy of servility. The soundness of a system of government does not depend on the perfection of the articles of a constitution, but on the ability of leaders to bear its burdens. We sell democracy short if we elect weak individuals to its government. It is in fact the democratic system, more than any other, that requires a strong hand able to steer the state along a clear course. The crises that society is currently facing were not triggered by the people, but by their governments.
The soundness of a system of government does not depend on the perfection of the articles of a constitution, but on the ability of leaders to bear its burdens.
This was no ordinary April, meanwhile, but the April of 1975, a dangerous moment for the West (though the West was barely aware of it), the United States having fled Indochina. Only ten days before the election at Appenzell the naive Western press had reported: “The people of Phnom Penh have welcomed the Khmer Rouge with joy.”
Therefore, on this April day it was a great surprise to hear on this sunny town square—in such a remote corner of the world, and yet at the very center of Europe—a warning of the extent to which the general danger had increased in the past year, to hear how horrifying America’s behavior was in abandoning its Indochinese allies, and how horrifying was the fate of the South Vietnamese people who were fleeing their Communist “liberators” in droves. In the face of this tragedy, the Landammann continued, we ask ourselves with great concern whether America will remain loyal to its alliance with Europe, a Europe unable to fend off Soviet aggression on its own but expecting American support as if it were guaranteed. Particularly throughout the Vietnam War, anti-Americanism has grown in Europe; consequently, we must assume that in the future America will not come to the defense of any state that does not strive to protect itself. Europe must prove without delay that it is prepared to make great sacrifices and come together in an effective way.
The Landammann then criticized Switzerland for considering exorbitant its military spending that was 1.7 percent of the national budget, after which he spoke about the economy and how Switzerland was no longer a fairytale country.
After this speech and more words of welcome to his guests, the Landammann took off the large metal chain he was wearing on his chest, a symbol of his power, and gave it to the man standing next to him on the platform along with some sort of baton, and quickly left the podium. That was that. He had served out his term.
Another official, however, stepped up to where he had just been standing, and proposed that Broger be reelected for another term as Landammann. The official called for a vote, and the entire crowd of men assembled on the town square raised their hands in a single motion. The vote was not counted, the result being clear enough: Broger had been re-elected. (Here I had to suppress a chuckle: ha, democracy, just like back home.)
Broger returned to where he had been standing only moments before, and, raising his hand, repeated in a loud voice the oath read out by the speaker. He then put the chain on again and read out the oath for the assembled crowd to repeat, which the crowd did, the people swearing to the people!
The Landammann then began to proclaim the names of the members of his cabinet, at each name asking the crowd if there were any objections; there were none, though he seemed to be allowing only a second or two for anyone to object. I kept chuckling to myself: again just like back home. But I was quickly disabused. The first important law that the Landammann tried to introduce was the raising of taxes: the canton, he said, was struggling to meet its financial commitments. A rumble went through the crowd, the men conferring with one another. A speaker came up to the platform and spoke against the proposed law for five minutes. Then the Minister of Finance attempted to argue for the law, but the crowd again rumbled, voicing that it did not want to hear him out but wanted to vote. The Landammann called for a raising of hands: All those in favor?—only a few hands were raised. All those opposed?—there was a forest of hands. Hands had shot up with such energy that it was as if the crowd was flapping its wings, the vote having the force of conviction that does not exist in secret ballots. (Not to mention that there were daggers and swords hanging from every man’s belt, though this was indiscernible in the crowd.)
The Landammann was quite downcast, and using, from what I could tell, his right of office, argued against the result and demanded a second vote. The crowd listened to him respectfully, but then voted as crushingly as before: taxes were not to be raised!
It was the voice of the people. The issue had been decided conclusively—without newspaper articles, television commentators, or Senate committees; this in ten minutes and for the whole year ahead.
The government now put forward a second proposal: the raising of unemployment benefits. The crowd shouted: “They should go work!” From the platform: “They can’t find work!” The crowd: “They should keep looking!” There was no debate. The vote was again a crushing “no.” The overwhelming majority was so unmistakable that there was no count of hands, the voters not even raising them long enough to be counted, though probably there never is a count, as the outcome is always clear enough to the eye.
So no, this was definitely not the least bit like back home.
There was then a third proposal put forward by the government: to admit as residents of the canton individuals, mainly Italians, who had lived in Appenzell for a number of years. There were about ten candidates. There was a separate vote for each one, and all of them, from what I could tell, were rejected as not sufficiently deserving, not accepted.
So no, this was definitely not the least bit like back home. Having unanimously re-elected their beloved Landammann, entrusting him with the formation of the kind of government he wanted, they immediately rejected all his major proposals. And now he is to govern! I had never seen or heard of such a democracy, and was filled with respect (especially after Landammann Broger’s speech). This is the kind of democracy we could do with. (Were not perhaps our medieval town assemblies—the veche—very much like these?)
The Swiss Confederation, established in 1291, is in fact now the oldest democracy in the world. It did not spring from the ideas of the Enlightenment, but directly from the ancient forms of communal life. The rich, industrial, crowded cantons, however, have lost all this, conforming to Europe for many years now (and have adopted everything European from miniskirts to sexual poses plastiques). But in Appenzell, on the other hand, much has been kept as of old.
How great is the diversity of the Earth, and how many unknown, unseen possibilities it offers us! There is so much for us to think about for a Russia of the future—if we are only given the chance to think.
The following morning I flew to Canada, in a mood both anxious and excited. On the one hand, I was leaving with the idea of never returning (taking with me many personal things and some of my manuscripts), of finding a home in the harsh Canadian wilds, withdrawing entirely, turning away from the world that was tearing at me, and doing nothing but write and write. I no longer wanted to go somewhere to a house in the country to get away for just a week, but wanted to stay in my own home without interruptions. I was already fifty-six years old, but the main thrust of my work on The Red Wheel still lay ahead of me. I had to be careful that my life, with its intensity and all its outward successes, did not suddenly find itself having failed in its main task.
On the other hand, these were the fiery days of Vietnam’s capitulation, and neither America nor Europe seemed to realize how much the foundations of their future were shaken in those days. The Landammann of Appenzell had, to the extent that he could, spoken courageously and openly to the continent of Europe, but who would hear him? I had spent a frenzied year in Europe, unable to strike root anywhere, unable to settle down, always on the move—and what was it that I had actually said beyond publishing Archipelago? Of course, it was more than enough for those who could understand, but were there really that many people in Europe who dared understand? And when I had been in France—did I manage to say all that much? My true duty is to my work, and it is in no way an attempt to shield myself when I state that I am not a politician: I do not want to be dragged into never-ending political debates, into a series of issues that to me are redundant—what I want is to choose my issues and when I will discuss them. My temperament leads me not to remain aloof, to hide in the wilderness, but on the contrary to enter the densest crowd and shout with the loudest voice.
In the next few hours this contradiction was resolved as follows: flying across the ocean, permanently as I thought, I wrote during the seven-hour flight a first draft and then a fair copy of my article “The Third World War?”
How could one fail to see? First Eastern Europe had been given to Communism on a silver platter, now East Asia, and no one was stopping Communism from advancing into the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Fearing a new great war, one can easily hand over the entire planet. How difficult it is, when living in prosperity, to be resolute and make sacrifices!
Aware as I was of the unreliability of the Canadian postal service that was forever on strike, I gave my letter containing the article to the Swiss steward for him to take back to Switzerland that same day.
And there already, beneath the wings, lay America.
1 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. These pages, written in 1978 and published here for the first time in English, describe Solzhenitsyn’s visit to the Swiss half-canton of Appenzell in April 1975, on the eve of his first departure for North America. They are excerpted from his forthcoming memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978, translated by Peter Constantine, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press, © 2018 by University of Notre Dame.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 4
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