Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

To lovers of literature, writers’ memoirs are almost always interesting to read for the insights they give into the authors’ minds and characters. Because of the intensely personal nature of The Oak and the Calf, and because of the extraordinary experiences which fate has packed into Solzhenitsyn’s life, his memoirs are of unusual interest. As a work of art, The Oak and the Calf is far superior to Konstantin Paustovsky’s Povest o zhizni (1946-1964; The Story of a Life, 1964-1974), another Soviet literary memoir generally available in the West, one that seems bland and of limited interest in comparison to Solzhenitsyn’s. Solzhenitsyn’s work is more readily comparable to Ilya Ehrenburg’s various volumes of reminiscences, for both give vivid portrayals of the Soviet Union’s cultural life. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn’s work is more focused, both in time and subject, and ultimately more revealing of Soviet realities.

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The importance of The Oak and the Calf may be judged from the great critical attention accorded it when it came out. Leading newspapers and journals in the Western world devoted lengthy reviews to the work. While reviewers were sometimes disconcerted by Solzhenitsyn’s notion of himself as a “second government,” with the right to critique not only his own but all the rest of the governments in the world, they praised the brilliance of his memoir. The Oak and the Calf certainly takes a central place in the great Russian author’s re-creation of Russia in the years before the Revolution and in the Soviet period, which he has done in his novels and in his literary-historical work, Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956; Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovanniia (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978).

Some Westerners may become weary of reading the hundreds of pages of details of Solzhenitsyn’s literary life. Most will also on occasion be affronted by some of Solzhenitsyn’s more bizarre judgments, such as that Soviet atrocities have been “immeasurably greater” than those of Adolf Hitler. Yet Solzhenitsyn did not write the book primarily for Westerners. He wrote it so that Russians of the future would know what happened to their motherland in the twentieth century. Certainly one of the most lasting contributions of the book, ensuring that it will be read for generations to come, is its proof that one person can stand up to a totalitarian system and win a victory for decent values. As a chronicle of Soviet life, the book is one of the great works of the late twentieth century.

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