The Oak and the Calf

The Oak and the Calf is Solzhenitsyn’s account of the predicament of a writer dedicated to telling the truth while harried by a totalitarian regime based on the ideological lie.  Beyond fulfilling the informative purpose of memoirs, he shapes the sensational material of his most dramatic years into a work of art.  Solzhenitsyn is the weak little calf of the title, butting its head against the immovable oak of state power—futilely, it would seem.  But Solzhenitsyn, a self-styled “unshakable optimist,” believed that in the end truth is stronger than falsehood.  The Soviet Union did in fact collapse, and the calf’s nudging helped.

Solzhenitsyn broke through the censors’ filter with the appearance in 1962 of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but soon thereafter he found his publishing window shut and official harassment of him increasing. So in 1967, he began keeping a record of his conflict with the authorities.  As he surmised, they were keeping a record, too, which became public in 1995 under the title The Solzhenitsyn Files.  The first installment of Oak, covering the events from 1961 on, ran to four chapters, of which “The Writer Underground” is the first.  He added supplements in 1967, 1971, 1973, and 1974, then published the resulting “agglomeration of lean-tos and annexes” in 1975.  Once the Soviet Union expired, Solzhenitsyn published Invisible Allies, which he had long withheld to protect helpers of his that it identified by name.  In the Russian edition, this work is now folded into Oak as the fifth and final supplement.  To Oak are appended eighty pages of invaluable documents.

Solzhenitsyn demonstrates a military strategist’s boldness and cunning as he plays a life-or-death high-stakes game with monolithic state power.  When he outfoxes the authorities, as he often does, he shows a boyish delight in winning against great odds.  With equal candor he unsparingly chronicles his blunders.  He remains amazingly productive throughout stress-filled years.  A sense of invulnerability stemming from repeatedly outmaneuvering his foes cracks when the KGB finally moves in to arrest and deport him, and in this memorably narrated climactic episode, he admits to being “in a state of witless shock.”  But he quickly regains his emotional equilibrium, judges the calf’s exertions to have been “worthwhile,” and contentedly concludes, “I praised God for what I had been able to achieve.”

-- by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader

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