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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.