Making history

Neal Ascherson

  • The Oak and the Calf by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
    Collins Harvill, 568 pp, £8.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 06 014014 3

‘I was beginning to see revealed the higher and hidden meaning of that suffering for which I had been unable to find a justification …’ (1967). ‘It makes me happier, more secure, to think that I do not have to plan and manage everything for myself, that I am only a sword made sharp to strike the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them. Grant, O Lord, that I may not break as I strike! Let me not fall from Thy hand!’ (1973).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn subtitles his book ‘Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union’, and we feel the secondary, invisible inverted commas he claps around ‘sketches’ (read: ‘monumental memoirs’), ‘literary life’ (read: ‘mud-writhings of the literary gendarmerie and its victims’), and ‘Soviet Union’ (read: ‘The Realm of Satan’). At times he is plainly the attacking calf – or the sword in the hand of vengeful Jehovah. But often the actors exchange parts: then it is Solzhenitsyn who becomes the deep-rooted immovable tree, anchored on subterranean centuries of Russian faith and Russian endurance under persecution, his trunk steel-barked by his own years of suffering as a zek (labour-camp veteran) – and it’s the Soviet state which from time to time has to stop butting him, back off, and nurse its sore head.

This is especially striking at the beginning of these sketches. Solzhenitsyn, released from the camps and cured of cancer, wants nothing more than to be left alone to write. He is unknown, a schoolmaster in the provincial town of Ryazan who at nights and weekends fills page after page – line crammed to line, on both sides of the leaf-thin paper – with his minute ‘onion-seed’ handwriting. He burns his rough copies for safety, and hides the final manuscripts in buried bottles. Once, in the camps, he could write only in his head, committing hundreds of lines to memory as he trudged or laboured. By comparison, this is pampering. Solzhenitsyn has no further ambition; he wishes only that the state should leave him in peace, and he wants to have nothing to do with any ‘literary world’ whose members, he assumes, have taken a ‘solemn pledge to abstain from the truth’. He has two other beliefs. One is that out there in the cosmic darkness of this Russian universe, there are other intelligent beings: ‘dozens of stubborn, self-contained individuals like me – each of us writing, with honour and conscience as his guides, all that he knew about our age ...’ The other belief is that their work will only appear long after they are all dead, hidden by friends and descendants in jam-jars, sewn into book covers, preserved in slits and slots of furniture until the great dawn of freedom.

This is a long way from the sword of the Lord, or the cleansing of the Temple in the author’s own times. Until the mid-Sixties at least – A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was published in 1962, when Khrushchev needed ammunition against Stalinist rivals – Solzhenitsyn had not dreamed that literature might cause ‘an upheaval in our society’. He trusted, rather, that when the distant day of liberty came, such books from beyond the grave would at least explain to ‘perplexed and troubled minds’ how history could not have been otherwise and how the roots of evil stretched back to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Gradually, he came to adjust these beliefs. He decided that, after all, his books could tear a breach in the walls of silence, bringing the truth about the past to the Russian people and dealing the system a wound which could never be healed. He found that there were, after all, only a very few ‘stubborn, self-centred individuals’ engaged on the same task. Unwillingly, he acknowledged that even in the world of those who were published, there were a few writers who managed to tell some of the truth and to produce work of value. Even the Writers’ Union was not quite the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ he had supposed. Bearded, gruff and deeply suspicious, he began to appear in Moscow. Ivan Denisovitch was published by the review Novy Mir, then enjoying its magnificent and brief flowering. Solzhenitsyn found himself sitting at the editorial table of Novy Mir, arguing his way through the fog of cigarette smoke, tea steam and alcohol fumes which thickens the atmosphere of Moscow journalism, embarking on his extraordinary, stormy friendship with the magazine’s great editor AleksanderTvardovsky. He accepted membership of the Union, ‘lustfully’ flinging himself on all the restricted books available only to Union members and plundering them for his research for The Gulag Archipelago.

Tvardovsky’s complex, great-hearted personality baffled Solzhenitsyn’s instinct to divide mankind into sheep and goats. Their encounter is like the relationship of Livingstone and Sechele, one of the most memorable meetings of unlike minds. This is the most touching and interesting part of the memoirs.

The moral absolutist found that, for once, a final judgment eluded him. He loved the man: at his best a splendid poet, generous and spontaneous, with all the solidity – as Solzhenitsyn put it to himself – of his peasant forebears. For Solzhenitsyn’s sake, Tvardovsky took risks which cost him honours and position, lost him his precious access to the men at the top, and eventually contributed to his forced resignation and the ruin of the magazine which he loved as much as his own life. Indeed, Tvardovsky began to die when he was deposed, and Solzhenitsyn, typically, was in no doubt that his cancer sprang from despair: another murder to the account of those who ruled Russia. And yet Tvardovsky stood for a policy of compromise and half-measures which was all that the old zek instinctively detested. He wanted the novelist to play his game, to attend congresses on behalf of ‘Soviet literature’: above all, to be prudent and keep silent rather than endanger his position and that of the magazine by breaking the rules in ways which the literary bureaucracy could not overlook. Worse, for Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky still clung to a ‘revisionist’s’ faith in the Revolution. Things were bad, but there was always hope that the pure Leninist flame could be nursed up again, that the Party could reform itself from within.

In 1964, Tvardovsky went down to Ryazan, staying in the novelist’s house and reading the manuscript of The First Circle. He was overwhelmed; the teetotal Solzhenitsyn had to lubricate him with vodka after vodka until Tvardovsky became incoherent, a swaying monster clad only in his underpants who invited his host to shout camp commands at him and make him feel what it was like to be a zek. Yet the next day he was hopefully practising the argument that ‘the novel’s standpoint is that of the Party – it contains no condemnation of the October Revolution.’ When the émigré magazine Grani cabled that it was about to publish Cancer Ward without permission in April 1968, Tvardovsky exploded with honest Bolshevik fury and ordered Solzhenitsyn to forbid the publication: ‘Otherwise, Aleksandr Isayevich, we shall no longer be your comrades!’

Inevitably, they drifted apart. From 1963 onwards, the political climate grew rapidly colder. Tvardovsky’s hope that he could publish The First Circle and Cancer Ward in Novy Mir was revealed as a fantasy. Solzhenitsyn began to go over to the offensive, attacking the whole literary regime in public lectures and passing on his manuscripts to the typewriters of samizdat, or to couriers bound for the West. He was expelled from the Union in October 1969. In Tvardovsky, instinctive horror at what his friend was doing slowly gave way to sympathy and then to reluctant approval. When Solzhenitsyn published his shattering Open Letter to the Union secretariat, jeering at the concept of class struggle and calling the USSR a ‘grievously sick society’, Tvardovsky threw the office chairs about, bellowing: ‘Traitor! He’s finished us!’ And yet by the end of his life, Tvardovsky had grown to see the necessity of samizdat.

With the collapse of Tvardovsky’s Novy Mir, Solzhenitsyn’s struggle began its final phase. He hid manuscripts and archives, organised a few reliable contacts and friends, and set about fulfilling his grand programme. The three first novels were out, feeding into the Soviet Union’s bloodstream by samizdat or through foreign broadcasts. Now Gulag must be completed and smuggled abroad, and, beyond that, time must be won for what he regarded as the biggest enterprise of all: the multi-volume novel of the Russian Revolution which he still referred to as R.17. The reminiscences become a devious tale of his duel with the KGB: caches of papers found and seized, others safely retrieved; slanders in the press refuted by open letters; over-eager sympathisers rebuked for copying and distributing secret manuscripts; interviews given to foreign journalists; confrontations with his ex-wife, whom he accuses of working for the KGB. These ‘sketches’ illustrate the distance Solzhenitsyn kept from the ‘democratic movement’ of dissidents in the late Sixties and early Seventies. A few, like Lev Kopelev and Shafarevich, were genuine friends. Sakharov was for a time a close comrade-in-arms, although Solzhenitsyn thought him a bit soft and deluded, spreading his indignation too thin. The sword of God, of course, had a duty to husband his energies, and Solzhenitsyn is very candid about this. He had second thoughts about protesting against the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Stalin’s crimes had been infinitely worse: ‘to cry out now would be to deny the whole history of our country, to help in prettifying it’ (a remark so unreasonable and cockeyed that it’s fair to suspect other, suppressed motives: probably old-fashioned Russian patriotism at a moment when his nation, not just his state, was being heaped with such abuse). When the novelist Maksimov was thrown out of the Writers’ Union, in 1973, he asked Solzhenitsyn in bewilderment why he had made no protest. ‘I did not defend him for the same reason that I had not defended all the others: licensing myself to work on the history of the Revolution, I had absolved myself of all other duties ... [An artist] does not want to overheat himself with ephemeral concerns and boil dry.’ The Jewish emigration campaigners are mentioned once, as a cause which Sakharov should not have adopted. The Medvedev brothers get a murderous footnote, accusing them of in effect contributing to KGB disinformation.

Solzhenitsyn was finally thrown out of Russia in February 1974. For 11 years, the authorities had avoided the decision to shut him up in any final way. They had expelled him from the Union, stolen many of his papers, mounted ludicrous campaigns of telephone abuse and newspaper slander, threatened his friends, searched his houses and bugged his communications, but left him still able to write. In particular, as they soon discovered, he was writing – in The Gulag Archipelago – the most damaging single book about the Soviet Union ever to be published. And yet they let him do it. He was too famous to touch, and the Soviet Union did not want to upset the Americans while the détente treaties were still under negotiation.

The irony is obvious. Solzhenitsyn loathes détente and yet it was precisely that closer relationship between East and West which enabled him to fulfil his mission. And he believes that it was fulfilled: he made not just a dent but a hole in the system. ‘The Soviet regime could certainly have been breached only by literature ... neither a military coup nor a political organisation nor a picket line of strikers can knock it over or run it through. Only the solitary writer would be able to do this. And the Russian younger generation would move on into the breach.’

Solzhenitsyn’s approach reminds one of that Greek epigram Isaiah Berlin used to apply to the two strains of Russian political writing in the last century: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.’ Solzhenitsyn was the hedgehog of his times: obsessional, intemperate, often cruelly unfair to great-hearted foxes like Tvardovsky who made his victories possible. These memoirs cannot compare, for humanity and brilliance, with those of Herzen, or of Nadezhda Mandelstam. They are the recriminations of an angry prophet who can write (about his first public speech attacking the KGB) that ‘this was perhaps the first time ... that I felt myself, saw myself, making history.’