Solzhenitsyn in Appenzell

July 27, 2022

The following is an excerpt from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s memoir “Between Two Millstones.” It has been such a delight to me, and I have returned to it so many time over the years, I thought it should be shared with the membership. Enjoy Solzhenitsyn’s keen observations of fundamental democracy in one of Switzerland’s smallest cantons. — tcl

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.

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 10 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.

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 10 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.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the author of “The Gulag Archipelago” and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 4.


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