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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1528

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 submit, or face the withering fire of Solzhenitsyn’s great satirical powers. Consequently, those parts of the memoir dealing with people who have parted company with Solzhenitsyn—or have been cast aside by him— must be read with caution.

The memoir is without question of great value in its portrayal of the chicaneries of Soviet officialdom and of its ultimately unsuccessful battle to halt Solzhenitsyn’s exposure of its criminality. Solzhenitsyn has indeed attained his life’s aim: In his books published openly in the West and circulated secretly but widely in his own country, he has revealed for future generations the utter failure of the Communist regime to create a healthy society, one that would, as Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin expected, bring general happiness to mankind. Instead, what has been created is a society replete with hypocrisy because of the vast gap between goals and reality. Instead of enjoying an economy of abundance, the Soviet people live in poverty. Instead of a society of equals, a “New Class” has come into being, composed of Party members, bureaucrats, industrial leaders, and other privileged groups, who have access to special stores, medical care, and other amenities of life unknown to ordinary Soviet citizens. Instead of the unleashing of human powers in the socialist era that was predicted by Marx, creative people in Soviet society live under the rule of philistines—except for those few like Solzhenitsyn, who by a combination of his own genius and some good luck managed to hold his own against officialdom for two decades, until his expulsion from the country.

All these shortcomings are part of the gigantic structure of immorality erected by Soviet leaders since 1917, in Solzhenitsyn’s worldview. To Solzhenitsyn, it is no accident that the regime is immoral, because its central premise is the denial of the existence of God. In Solzhenitsyn’s mind, it is part of the genius of the Russian people to have had Christianity at its core through the centuries. Thus, any regime that turns its back on Christianity has turned its back on its own people. Small wonder that a titanic struggle erupted between regime and author.

Solzhenitsyn describes the struggle in matchless prose, both in Russian and in English, for the book was put into English by an excellent translator, Harry Willetts. Future generations, upon reading The Oak and the Calf, will find risible the Soviet regime’s claims to be “mankind’s hope” and “the beacon of the toilers of the world.” The timeserving officials are excoriated in unforgettable terms. One hapless nonentity, whose name and writings are totally forgettable, is quoted by Solzhenitsyn as complaining in a supercilious way that Solzhenitsyn sees “only the dark side” while he (the complainer) in his writing has always written “only about joyful things.” Such is the “Socialist Realism” which the Party requires and which has put Russian literature in fetters. The picture of Soviet officialdom that emerges from Solzhenitsyn’s pages is that of men with banal minds who prefer their creature comforts to truth and who will be scorned by Russians of a future age.

The reader marvels at the depths to which Solzhenitsyn’s tormentors descended. For a long period, they mounted a systematic campaign of slander, with statements that Solzhenitsyn “deserved” his labor-camp sentence by having become a “traitor.” It was even stated that he had worked for the Gestapo. (Solzhenitsyn in fact was sentenced to a labor camp for having mildly criticized Stalin’s military leadership in a personal letter.) At one point the KGB started rumors that Solzhenitsyn’s real name was “Solzhenitser,” that is, that he was Jewish. Given the fact that the press is wholly in government hands, Solzhenitsyn had no effective way to rebut the government’s campaign. He issued counterstatements through samizdat, but it reached only relatively small numbers.

As is natural, most of the memoir is devoted to Solzhenitsyn’s own affairs, but he finds time too for remembering the other writers who struggled against the system. He tells of many writers who “have been subjected during their lifetime to abuse and slander in the press and from the platform without being afforded the physical possibility of replying.” Many were subjected to violence and personal persecution. Moreover, no one will ever know the names of those who perished in the camps before their talents could blossom. It is a heartbreaking picture.

After the many pages recounting his persecution at the hands of the Soviet regime, it is refreshing to read Solzhenitsyn’s credo, which would sound like a set of cliches if uttered by a writer in a free country but which must inspire the true artists of Solzhenitsyn’s homeland:I believe that it is the task of literature to tell people truthfully how things are and what awaits them. . . . In general, the task of the writer cannot be reduced to defense or criticism of this or that mode of distributing the social product, or to defense or criticism of one or another form of government. The tasks of the writer are connected with more general and durable questions, such as the secrets of the human heart and conscience, the confrontation between life and death, the triumph over spiritual sorrow, the laws of humanity over the ages, laws that were born in the depths of time immemorial and will cease to exist only when the sun ceases to shine.

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