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For a brief period in the 1960’s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was favorably viewed by the Soviet regime, because Odin den Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) was one of Nikita Khrushchev’s weapons in the de-Stalinization campaign. Described by Izvestia as a “true helper of the Party,” Solzhenitsyn came close to winning the Lenin Prize in literature in 1964.

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With Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, however, the de-Stalinization process was cut short. Conflict between the Soviet regime and Solzhenitsyn was inevitable, given the great disparity between their values. One of Solzhenitsyn’s central beliefs is that Marxism is an “un-Russian wind from the West”; hence, the Communist regime is in every way inimical to the Russian people. Moreover, Solzhenitsyn is a fervent Christian, which places him in head-on conflict with the country’s leaders. Given Solzhenitsyn’s determination to speak his piece, to stand up for what he considered morally right, regardless of consequences, there was bound to be open war between author and state. In Joseph Stalin’s time, the state would have silenced the author at once. By the 1960’s, however, the regime, while certainly not respecting the rule of law as Westerners know it, no longer behaved like the totalitarian state of Stalin’s era. The author’s fame at home and abroad would have made the reincarceration of Solzhenitsyn a political embarrassment for the Soviet government. In short, the redoubtable Solzhenitsyn was able for several years to stand up defiantly to the dreaded Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB), before his involuntary exile in 1974.

The Oak and the Calf is Solzhenitsyn’s account of his long battle with the Soviet regime. (The title comes from the Russian proverb about the calf butting the oak— similar to the English-language “knocking your head against a stone wall”—with the calf of the book, Solzhenitsyn, having rather more success than the original calf of the proverb.) Written with a powerful eloquence, the book recounts the travails of an artist struggling to create his works in the face of difficulties quite unimaginable to a citizen of a free country. Minions of the Communist Party, memorably portrayed as ignorant dullards, try to halt Solzhenitsyn’s work. Yet the words flow out to the world, both in the author’s native country through the medium of samizdat (an acronym meaning “Self-Publishing Company,” a takeoff on Gosizdat, or State Publishing Company, the official publishing house of the regime) and abroad, through the smuggling of Solzhenitsyn’s works over the borders. Most of the book is devoted to the war between the author and his would-be masters, but there are some personal asides and some memorable portraits of important literary figures, especially of Aleksandr T. Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy mir.

The book is divided into five parts. The first recounts the story of the acceptance and publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, of the efforts to publish other works, and of the gradual estrangement of Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet regime. The next four parts are called “supplements” by Solzhenitsyn; they are divided chronologically (from 1967 to 1974) and cover the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet state’s steadily growing harassment of the author, culminating in the revocation of his citizenship and his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974. The last part of the book is an appendix of interesting and valuable primary source material, illustrating the themes of the book.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51

Bayley, John. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXVII (June 26, 1980), p. 3.

Blake, Patricia. Review in Time. CXV (June 9, 1980), p. 80.

Cohen, S. F. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXV (May 4, 1980), p. 1.

Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, 1984.

Steiner, George. “Excommunication” in The New Yorker. LVI (August 25, 1980), pp. 94-100.

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