The Oak and the Calf Essay - Critical Essays

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Since the book is a memoir, it provides many insights into Solzhenitsyn’s mind, personality, and character. Nevertheless, he does not discuss in any systematic way his own creations; he does not tell his readers about the authors who have influenced him, nor does he discuss his style, his methods of work, or artistic problems that he has had to solve. Literary scholars seeking aid for their research into Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre will perhaps find this book disappointing. Moreover, except for a few comments deprecating the West as a place with nothing to teach Russia (it is quite the other way round—sooner or later it is Russia that will do the teaching, a sentiment that shows Solzhenitsyn to be firmly in the mainstream of nineteenth century Slavophilism), there is no systematic exposition of Solzhenitsyn’s political views. One would have to go to his other writings to study what have been termed his “authoritarian-nationalistic” ideas.

A reader will quickly learn, however, that there is no doubt in Solzhenitsyn’s mind as to his role in the world: He was sent by God to battle the forces of evil. For example, he describes his struggle with cancer and how the doctors told him that he had only three weeks to live—this after having only recently emerged from his long imprisonment in Stalin’s labor camps. While in the camps he had composed and committed to memory many thousands of lines. So that future generations of Russians would know what had happened to their country under the Communists, he wanted to get these lines onto paper. Yet how could he do it in three weeks? Clearly he did not die—which he describes as a “divine miracle.” As a leading authority comments, it is difficult in the mid-twentieth century, in this age of unbelief, to portray oneself convincingly to one’s fellowman as God’s sword. Nevertheless, no one can doubt that Solzhenitsyn is utterly sincere in his belief in his own mission. Given the enormity of the obstacles he has overcome—the years as a slave laborer, serious disease, and endless harassment from the Soviet system—one can understand his dedication to his divine mission.

In addition to being criticized for his perhaps exaggerated sense of the importance of his role in human affairs, Solzhenitsyn has been taken to task for his portrayal of many of his fellow Russians. Large parts of the book are devoted to descriptions of Tvardovsky, long the editor of Novy mir, a “liberal” journal in the Soviet literary scene. It was Tvardovsky who made possible Solzhenitsyn’s literary career by persuading Khrushchev to allow Novy mir to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn has much that is laudatory to say about Tvardovsky, but he also portrays his erstwhile mentor as an alcoholic, a tyrant over his staff, and a bureaucrat who enjoyed and insisted upon the privileges of Soviet officialdom. His treatment of Tvardovsky has evoked replies from Tvardovsky’s daughter and other figures in a position to know that Solzhenitsyn’s account was perhaps less than fair. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn gives a condescending portrait of Andrey Sakharov, a central figure for a quarter of a century in the Russian dissident movement. He also portrays his first wife in a most unchivalrous fashion. Other former friends who came to disagree with Solzhenitsyn are described as mendacious figures.

Indeed, the book has stimulated a spate of counterblasts from people, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, who believe themselves badly used by the great writer. There can be little doubt that Solzhenitsyn belongs to the type of self-righteous prophet who can brook no disagreement, who sees an honest difference of opinion as an immoral act. One must...

(The entire section is 1528 words.)