THE OAK AND THE CALF by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn THE MORTAL DANGER by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Back in the U.S.S.A.
THE OAK AND THE CALF by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn THE MORTAL DANGER by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
For Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn some of the Western response to his latest writing must have stirred icy memories. Greeted with adulation when he arrived in the West in 1974, in the past few months leading magazines, including Harper’s and The New York Review of Books, have described him as unprincipled and dangerous. To Solzhenitsyn it must all have seemed like an American remake of his final 12 years in the U.S.S.R.: from caviar to cavils and condemnation.
Those 12 years are brilliantly recreated in Solzhenitsyn’s memoir The Oak and the Calf When a bellicose Khrushchev decided to launch his attack on the horrors of Stalin at the 1961 22nd Congress, the ex-zek (camp prisoner) Solzhenitsyn saw a chance to publish his writings officially. A friend took his manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich down to the offices of the literary magazine Novy Mir. Writes Solzhenitsyn: “I did not go . . . myself: my legs simply would not carry me, since I foresaw no success.” He was wrong in the short run, if right in the long term, and so began his years of parrying with the authorities. The Oak and the Calf captures every nuance of the times: the worry, the waiting, the deceptions, the endless ideological litcrit sessions in the teacup and cigarette-smoke litter of the Novy Mir offices. With his spare and simple prose, with just the occasional metaphor to drive a point unforgettably home, Sol-
zhenitsyn draws his reader into an alien world.
For a moment he was a hero; Khrushchev gave his blessing to the publication of One Day in 1962. But Solzhenitsyn’s position became precarious as the brief thaw of the Khrushchev period turned increasingly chill. When the KGB discovered his hidden draft of The Gulag Archipelago, a full-scale campaign of vilification began. By the time of his arrest and deportation in 1974, Solzhenitsyn was a lonely figure in his homeland. He was handed flowers when he arrived in the West. Standing dazed at the door of the Aeroflot plane which brought him from Moscow to Frankfurt-am-Main, Solzhenitsyn hesitated a moment before stepping onto the tarmac. Later he would explain that he was expecting to be shuffled off to his execution, perhaps in the nearest Soviet embassy. Wearing the ill-fitting clothes that the KGB had hurriedly dressed him in, he stood at the airport looking like a peasant all dressed up for a city funeral. When the Western press implored him for interviews, he begged off: “I have given enough in my own country. There I spoke. Here I remain silent.”
From his new home in Vermont, where the snow and desolation reminded him, he said, of his beloved Russia, he continued to write—parts two and three of The Gulag Archipelago as well as novels. Then the silence was over. His eye had adjusted to his new homeland and his moral vision was turned upon the West. In 1978 he gave a major speech on the state of Western democracy at Harvard. In 1980 he outlined what he believed to be America’s misconceptions about Russia in the journal Foreign Affairs (that essay now revised and expanded in book form as The Mortal Danger). Reaction was mixed: cautious approval and intem-
perate disapproval. Criticism started to focus not on the validity of his ideas but on the character of the man himself. The terms in which the questions he raised were discussed, consciously or not, led to strange distortions of his thought. The New Yorker magazine was not at all untypical when it wrote— as though the two were mutually exclusive—“We find that primarily he [Solzhenitsyn] is the champion not of freedom but of spiritual well-being.” The New Yorker continued: “... Mr. Solzhenitsyn arrives to inform us that freedom leaves the spirit hungry ....”
What went wrong? How had the man who was hailed by Newsweek in 1974 “as the personification of a humanistic tradition” come to be viewed as the enemy of democracy? The attacks revealed both confusion about the message of Solzhenitsyn’s work and an acute discomfort that the motes being pointed out were in Western eyes.
Perhaps the reaction was not so surprising considering Solzhenitsyn’s unerring aim. In his 1978 Harvard speech he raised the kind of fundamental questions that most intellectuals discuss, if at all, in the privacy of their own cocktail parties. They included the trivializing of freedom —into a cheap circus of ideological trendiness, pornography and moral relativism; the cowardice
and mediocrity of Western intellectuals and politicians; and the dreadful spiritual bankruptcy of Western humanism. The response to these issues was, as Solzhenitsyn reports in The Mortal Danger, to call him “a fanatic, a man possessed, a mind split apart, a cynic, a vindictive warmonger.” Some of the liberal press depicted him as some sort of reactionary theocrat, a Russian Ayatollah Khomeini. The final insult came with the attribution of authoritarianism as a cure for democracy’s excesses to Solzhenitsyn when it was his liberal accusers who had come up with that “cure.” Solzhenitsyn had merely diagnosed the disease.
His answer to Western detractors comes now in The Mortal Danger. But more important than the defence of his earlier ideas is the book’s exposition of what Solzhenitsyn sees as the West’smistaken and dangerous confusion of the country called Russia and the Soviet system. To believe, Solzhenitsyn says, that applied Marxism is a peculiarly Russian phenomenon rooted in some messianic and autocratic tradition peculiar to Russia is to mistake the patient for the illness. He warns that this belief will only make the West defenceless against their own forms of this illness, such as Eurocommunism. The enemy of human dignity, freedom, the spiritual and even material well-being
of mankind is, as he points out, not Russian or even Soviet communism alone. It is communism—whatever language it speaks and with whatever operhs and trade contracts it woos intellectuals and businessmen.
Still, his greatness lies beyond his political thought, though it requires a detour from ideological considerations to see the essential Solzhenitsyn. That figure is possessed indeed—an author bent over his manuscripts with a discipline and zeal that almost passes human understanding. “I am in a race with time,” he says. “The volume of work I have planned barely fits into my life expectancy.” He is, above all, a great writer. As a stylist he is in the Tolstoyan tradition of direct simplicity: his writing touches the core in the plainest language. Curiously, the importance of what he says often makes us forget how well he says it. As Solzhenitsyn himself writes: “The laws of poetry command us to rise above our anger and try to see the present in the light of eternity.” And while aiming at eternity is task enough for most writers, Solzhenitsyn has also had to worry about the physical survival of his manuscripts through the day-to-day present.
The very power of his writing presented problems. Well-wishers would pass on manuscripts to friends, make a copy of his unpublished work for themselves—all adding to the danger of discovery by the KGB. Solzhenitsyn squirrelled his writings in book covers, in walls and in the ground under the protective shadow of the Russian birches. He learned to lie about the existence of new books even to literary supporters in case a well-meaning editor gave him away. But it is Solzhenitsyn’s fate that the very lengths to which he went to avoid confiscation of his manuscripts or their mutilation by the “small corrections” the authorities requested have been turned against him. Writing in the May, 1980, Harper's, sovietologist George Feifer accuses Solzhenitsyn of disloyalty to those editors who were torn between the party line and their appreciation of Solzhenitsyn’s talent. In
a peculiarly torturous bit of reasoning, Feifer equates the lies Solzhenitsyn used to protect his work with the ideological lies and hypocrisy against which he fought. Writes Feifer disapprovingly: “Despite the disloyalty required, despite the contraventions of his own sermons, Solzhenitsyn’s task was to get Solzhenitsyn published.”
Fortunate that he was successful. Had he not been, it is quite likely that even today the reality and scope of the Gulag would not be believed. Solzhenitsyn’s enduring contribution to Western civilization is to remind us that great literature is more than entertainment, more than a product. It is the essence of being human. In the beginning there was the Word, and if in our age it still cuts through the cacophony of noise, it is due to the power of Solzhenitsyn’s voice.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.