The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union
“I am a littérateur,” wrote Belinsky. “I say this with a painful and yet proud and happy feeling. Russian literature is in my life and blood.” Many other Russian writers could say the same, and Solzhenitsyn above all. He belongs wholly to the committed tradition of Russian literature, which Belinsky inspired, and which regarded writing as the lifeblood of ideas, progress, social truth. Belinsky detested art with a conscious social purpose, just because it was conscious: for him good art was the natural, the inevitable, the only weapon in the struggle for truth and justice, and he revered Pushkin and Turgenev as great artists who could not help but light up the human condition and banish the repulsive gloom of tyranny, hypocrisy, and superstition.
This precious essence, far more precious than can be imagined by Americans who live under the humane and far-seeing dispensation of the Founding Fathers, is contained in such a writer as Solzhenitsyn as if in some holy vessel. As a religious man Solzhenitsyn is no doubt humble; as a writer he is sublimely conceited. Conceit rather than pride seems to be the word, for pride goes with humility, and Solzhenitsyn is still, and no doubt always will be, the fearless, intelligent, self-centered prig whom he portrayed with such endearing accuracy in “Prussian Nights,” that long rambling poem about himself on campaign in Germany just before his arrest in 1944, which he composed and committed to memory in one of the Gulag camps.
A fearless prig, and a prig with genius. But it is not the genius itself that produces the effect but what the possession of genius means in the context of Russian history and the Soviet state. “For a country to have a great writer is like having another government.” Imagine that comment being made with reference to America, or England, or even France. But Solzhenitsyn, though he does not say so, was only echoing another radical, Vladimir Korolenko, who at the beginning of this century said: “My country is not Russia, my country is Russian literature.” Solzhenitsyn might say, “My country is not the Soviet Union: I am Russian literature.” The Oak and the Calf reminds us again and again of the conviction the author holds that no communist, no citizen even who collaborates with the Soviet state, has the right to call himself a Russian. “Russia,” he once wrote, “is to the Soviet Union as a man is to the disease afflicting him. We do not confuse a man with his illness: we do not refer to him by the name of that illness or curse him for it.”
And so the Russian calf butts the Soviet oak. Bodalsya telenok s Dubom—the calf butted the oak—comes out of that great stock of Russian proverbs which have always had a strong attraction for Solzhenitsyn. Here he gives us a few more, such as “If trouble comes, make use of it too,” and we might remember that the last line of one of Pasternak’s most moving poems is the peasant saying: “It is harder to live your life than to cross a field.” Like all his predecessors in the nineteenth century Solzhenitsyn has a deep feeling for the virtues and the sanity of the Russian peasant, and two men of that peasant stock were saviors to him as a writer. Khrushchev cared nothing for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or for its author, but he saw how it could be made use of in the cautious attempt to demythologize Stalin. Moreover its hero was a peasant, and that he did approve of, being one himself. It is curious how Russian accounts of convict life—Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, and the story that rocketed Solzhenitsyn to fame—all specifically decline the documentary approach and opt for the distancing process of art, the art conferred by a narrator who is a stranger to the author, a different sort of man.
Solzhenitsyn’s real savior and the most important figure in this book was Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir. This magazine, heir of the old “thick” magazines of the nineteenth century, had become the nearest thing in the Soviet Union to an organ of the intelligentsia, that vanishing class of open-minded, intellectually voracious persons which had been built up so painstakingly in the nineteenth century and virtually destroyed by the red reaction of the 1920s. Everything in Novy Mir had to be passed by the censorship of course, and its editorial board was well supplied with Agitprop stooges, but its editor was a man who understood and worshipped good literature and, as Solzhenitsyn tells us, prospected for real writers with the unremitting zeal of a prospector hunting gold. What makes The Oak and the Calf fascinating reading, even for those who have little interest in the arcane gossip and the endless infighting that characterize the literary power struggle in the Soviet Union, is the spellbinding narrative power with which the author tells the story of his relations with Tvardovsky and the magazine.
Tvardovsky owed everything to the regime. As he said plaintively to the author in the many Dostoevsky-style dialogues between them—“Where should I have been without it?” He loved not the power it had brought him—he was no good at power and felt sick on the tightrope every such apparatchik has to walk—but the trappings of Soviet success: the car, the dacha, the dark suit, even the pleasures of bullying those below him and placating those above. He drank a very great deal even by Russian standards—he was referred to once as “a distillery in trousers”—but drink did not spoil his nose for good literature or his ability to fight for its survival, to intrigue on its behalf. Solzhenitsyn was as energetic an intriguer on his own behalf: he had to be, his genius on its own would not have got him anywhere. And with the luck essential to a good conspirator and commander (he talks of moving his proliferating manuscripts westward “like divisions or army corps”) he succeeded in landing the “lightened” version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich on the desk of Anna Berzer, a devoted work horse of the magazine.
She contrived as it were to toss it over the heads of the intervening “drones and deadheads of Agitprop” so that it landed on the editor’s desk. “This is about the experiences of a peasant in the camps.” That decided Tvardovsky to read it. Wild excitement. Ever since he had learned verses of Nekrasov as a barefoot boy, writes Solzhenitsyn, “Russian literature alone had sustained him,” and here was a real morsel, and a morsel that promised an endless feast. He came to love Solzhenitsyn as he loved his own paper; glory for the one would mean glory for the other, even though he, a man without true friends, could never really relax with his new author, alternately patronized and pleaded with him, ordered him to wear the proper uniform of a successful Soviet author instead of going around with his shirt hanging out. Khrushchev’s support sent Tvardovsky into ecstasies (‘What a warm-hearted and clever man he is!—how lucky we are to have such a man over us!”) and he recounted eagerly the enthusiasm of the people “up there,” even coming to believe (though Solzhenitsyn does not) that Khrushchev and he had discussed together the complete removal of the censorship from serious works of art and literature.
But the usual farce and tragedy attend progress toward socialism’s yawning heights. Ivan Denisovich finally appeared at the time of the Cuba crisis. Khrushchev’s days were numbered. The Stalinists were getting seriously alarmed. And some odd tricks were used to discredit the giddy success of Novy Mir‘s new baby. The editor of Izvestia, Khrushchev’s son-in-law Adzhubei, trying to seize the initiative from Tvardovsky, harangued his editorial staff on their incompetence in not “opening up” this important theme. Someone helpfully recalled that a story about the camps had come in a while back and of course had been instantly suppressed. The wastepaper baskets were feverishly searched: no go; but the author’s name had been filed (for reasons that might at another time have boded ill for him) and so G. Shelest found himself bemusedly dictating his tale long distance from some far provincial backwater to an eager Izvestia subeditor. It was shoved in the holiday issue without any comment, “as though stories about camp life had been appearing in newspapers for forty years and were boringly familiar to everyone.” There is something in this of all newspaper life, anywhere.
“In our country abuse and praise alike are always carried to extremes.” Solzhenitsyn was determined not to be seduced by praise into appearing to give any kind of aid and comfort to the regime, and this could easily have happened. Instead, as he now thinks, he made the opposite mistake, “completely failing to understand my new position and my new possibilities.” He refused every interview, thus missing, as he afterward felt, the chance of saying what he liked. He turned down the most tempting offers from other publishing houses—Soviet editors compete with each other much more fiercely than their Western counterparts—and thus threw away the chance of getting his great accumulation of other material into print when the atmosphere was still cautiously liberal and he was riding the crest.
Besides, he owed his loyalty to Tvardovsky, who was passionately anxious to retain him in his bosom. And Solzhenitsyn never attempts to disguise the naïve streak in himself, the conviction that the walls of Jericho will fall flat if he blows his trumpet loud enough, that the oak tree will be pushed over by the calf. Years later, when he was rearrested and about to be deported from the country, he was convinced that he was going to be able to confront the Soviet leadership and harangue them on their misdemeanors. As he paced his cell in Lefortovo prison,
I was mentally in conversation with the Politburo. Something told me that given two or three hours, I could budge them, shake their certainty. There would have been no getting through to the fanatics in Lenin’s Politburo, or the sheep in Stalin’s. But these people I (foolishly?) thought could be reached. Why, even Khrush had shown some signs of understanding.
It is magnificent but it is not politics. Yet that word “foolishly,” and its question mark too, are not inserted for nothing. There are two Solzhenitsyns, one the believer, the sublime prig, the only man in step; the other, the novelist who watches himself as acutely as he does other people, who looks into himself and them with the penetrating eye of a Tolstoy, but also with the same worldly understanding, the same charity. Certainly, without drawing any other comparisons, one can see repeated in Solzhenitsyn the same Tolstoyan dualism between novelist and prophetic sage. And Tolstoy as a novelist saw himself as clearly as he saw other people.
Solzhenitsyn’s political shrewdness comes out in his superb portrait of Lenin in the short novel Lenin in Zurich, to my mind one of the best things he has done. This really is Lenin, the conspirator, the cynic, the man of genial intelligence and inflexible will power. And as a portrait in a novel it convinces where Solzhenitsyn’s own dogmatic assertions about the nature of the Soviet state do not. Solzhenitsyn has deeply irritated some of the best among his own countrymen, and liberals in the West as well, by deriding the notion that communism can ever conceivably develop, modify itself, acquire a human face. It is, he says, utterly unredeemable. And that is a theological concept, meaningless to politicians and liberals alike. But novels know nothing of theology, and the portrait of Lenin before he came to power shows why this view of the matter could be, and probably is, empirically true.
History does not offer many examples of the kind of organization which Lenin perfected, and which was thus able to survive him. But if Robespierre had not fallen no one believes that terror would have ceased to be the instrument of government, that things under such a man would have tended to “get better.” No one assumes the Mafia improves with time, civilizes itself and liberalizes itself as it acquires more experience. Communism may not be damned theologically, as Solzhenitsyn would have us suppose, but it may well be irreversibly condemned by the logic of its own political techniques.
All this is implicit in the long and extremely detailed account of the author’s relations with Tvardovsky. The editor was a committed man, who had put all his spiritual and creative capital into the system. Fundamentally it was antipathetic to him, but it had given him riches and a job he loved, had praised his poetry and sold it in huge editions. Solzhenitsyn praises the poetry too, rightly observing that the narrative poem about a Soviet soldier, Vasily Tyorkin, is the only work of its kind about the war which does not tell lies, which stops short of the poshlost and the mechanical patriotism that are the hallmarks of the vast Soviet war-book industry. It appeared when the war was still in progress and the gunners of Solzhenitsyn’s own battery enjoyed having it read to them, together with War and Peace. That is praise indeed. But for all his real creative achievement as a poet, and the sterling work he had done at Novy Mir, Tvardovsky was a wretchedly unhappy man. It is a tribute to Solzhenitsyn’s skill as a novelist that we believe this, not because he says so but because it seems to emerge as the truth of the portrait, just as truth emerges in the portrait of Lenin.
Indeed the division of a soul appears, ironically, in two different forms. Tvardovsky could not reconcile the demands of God and mammon, his poetic soul and love of literature, and the demands of his robot masters. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, appears to have no difficulty at all in reconciling the Pyotr Verkhovensky side of himself—the charming ruthless extremist, sacrificing everything, wife and children too if need be, to his books and their survival, pouring out with joyful ebullience the details of his successes, his immense and legendary reputation in the underworld of samizdat—with the novelist who, wryly and humanely, observes, judges, and understands. But there is no justice about such things, as he himself would probably be the first to admit. Tvardovsky died of his contradictions, virtually died of a broken heart when he was eased out of the editorship in 1970 after the final defeat of the liberalizing policy of Novy Mir. Solzhenitsyn goes on from strength to strength, and “when trouble comes, makes use of it, too.”
Perhaps that toughness is something he acquired as a zek, in years of prison camps. One of the most touching scenes in the book is the account of Tvardovsky’s stay with the Solzhenitsyns at their humble flat in Ryazan, so that he could read The First Circle well away from the office. He was genuinely delighted to be asked and even enjoyed being an ordinary citizen, buying tickets and food like everyone else instead of in the special shops and agencies, keeping off the bottle for a couple of days while he devoured the manuscript and then letting go on the vodka and cognac while he asked his host endless questions about prison, what it was like, what they did to you, and finally lamenting that he had never experienced it, but perhaps he would one day. It is not only in the West that some people feel they lead, as it were, sheltered lives.
Of course Tvardovsky emerges as by far the more sympathetic character. We can all side with weakness, with Ismene rather than Antigone, even when weakness and accommodation is on the side of the big battalions. Solzhenitsyn chides his friend and guardian angel for not doing more, but such a man, in such a situation, most certainly did all he could. It was not his fault that the Lenin prize he strove to get for Solzhenitsyn was awarded to some party non-entity, or even that the entire staff of Novy Mir was compelled to vote “unanimously” in favor of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Such things were simply the facts of life in the place he had to live it: courage comes in various kinds and Tvardovsky had as much of it in his own way as his friend and critic.
Moreover it is by no means clear that his policies and aims have been totally defeated. As Geoffrey Hosking points out in Soviet Fiction Since Ivan Denisovich, there are writers published today, and not in samizdat, who are good in any case, writers such as Maximov, Voinovich, and Trifonov. Unless you think that the art of the possible is always a vile and degrading compromise, the policies of Novy Mir must be seen to have achieved some kind of success. On the literary front at least, Soviet “normality” has been marginally modified.
More ironically, the decline and death of Tvardovsky make Solzhenitsyn’s memoir, which has been hovering unapologetically on the verge of tedium, now become positively boring. The points are made obsessively, the feats of Jack the Giant-killer mount up to more and more legendary proportions; and of course the stifled yawn the Western reader cannot help indulging would be taken as one more proof of how unfeeling, corrupt, and incapable of salvation he has become. But the novelist is always alive, never taking himself quite seriously, and the detailed account of his final expulsion is a masterpiece of humor. This, too, is its only retrospective element: the rest was written at top speed more or less at the time it was taking place, while Solzhenitsyn was violently reacting to an article in Stern which asserted that August 1914 was an allegorical and not a historical novel—a decidedly stupid criticism—and while The Oak and the Calf itself was being circulated around Moscow and multiplying in samizdat. So the somewhat gimcrack air, as of things and persons and thoughts disturbed and couchés provisoirement, is itself a proper part of the effect this memoir creates. Solzhenitsyn’s regular novels and povesti, whatever the difficulties of their conception and birth, are more solidly fixed in art and time.
The memoir prompts us to ask: what really is Solzhenitsyn’s position, and how should we reasonably respond to him? I would reject at once the charges that he is as intolerant as his opponents, a reactionary fanatic, a dotty Ayatollah who takes more relish in lambasting the corrupt West than in denouncing the Eastern Antichrist. That is all beside the point, and some of the liberals who resent his reproaches—no one is more offended by contempt from such a source than a right-minded Western liberal—seem to do so because they are sensitive above everything to having the right position, not only to be washing their clean linen in public but to be seen to be doing it. As Irving Howe recently put it in an Open Letter to Solzhenitsyn in The New Republic: “We were opponents of every dictatorship, Hitler’s and Stalin’s, as later of Pinochet’s and Castro’s.” Yes they were, and all honor to them, but that does not alter the fact that their decision to be against them was a matter of intellectual and emotional propriety; it could not involve the whole man, and for a Russian like Solzhenitsyn the whole man must be involved.
It’s unfair, but there is a gap, and an unbridgeable one, between the bien pensant and the soldier at the front, the believer who has witnessed in the arena. Maybe Solzhenitsyn has been too eager for martyrdom, and to tell us all about it, but that does not make him any less of a great man, a man entitled to utter what Howe calls “coarse jeremiads” against the Western world whenever he feels like it.
Understandable too, though definitely misleading, is his insistence that Russia is a blameless victim, a captive maiden kidnapped by the Soviet Union. To imagine her free and mistress of her destiny he would have to go a long way back, to a time before the rulers of Moscow learned to behave like the Mongols of whom they were the vassals. This is historical commonplace. But there is some sense, even so, in which he is right even here, for the attachment to an idea of Russia, her faith and literature, overrides historical consideration. “If England was what England seems,” as Kipling put it.
There is a moving moment in The Oak and the Calf when a friend who has also been in trouble says to the author that “life would be impossible anywhere but in Russia.” Solzhenitsyn feels this too, however much Russia may have become the Soviet Union, which is why he carries his idea of her about with him. Pushkin and Tolstoy did the same. “Of course I despise my country from head to foot,” wrote Pushkin in a letter, “but it makes me furious when a foreigner shares my feeling.” Tolstoy was even more shamelessly and magnificently illogical, remarking that he could feel really free in Russia because he hadn’t made the laws, much freer than the English and Americans felt in their own countries, where because they had made them they had to support them.
More important, the uneasiness which Solzhenitsyn stirs up in the liberal bosom is a very fundamental one indeed, and it is central to the whole function and nature of religion. The open society takes it for granted that religion is a voluntary affair, that one can take it or leave it, as one can anything else in the society, from education to cosmetics. To Solzhenitsyn this view of the matter is profoundly shocking, as shocking as a comparable nineteenth-century attitude was to Kierkegaard. Events today merely underline the lesson that real religion, and real morality too, as opposed to the negative virtues which even a free society cannot do without, are intimate not with freedom but with authority and power. Perhaps Solzhenitsyn is hoping one day to return in triumph to Moscow as Khomeini returned to Iran. The idea is not wholly chimerical. “Why,” inquired Herzen with grave irony, in his memoirs From the Other Shore, “is belief in God and the Kingdom of Heaven silly, whereas belief in earthly Utopias is not silly?” Communist theology has not yet found an answer to that question.