Commentary Magazine


Death of an Oak

Heroism is a horribly overused word these days. We live in an age in which politicians actually use the word “heroic” to describe the most ordinary casts of mind and behavior — loving your kids, for example, or going to your job every day. It has been the inestimable good fortune of the world’s population these past five decades to have shared the Earth with one of the greatest heroes in history, the foremost example of intellectual courage of the 20th century.

What Alexander Solzhenitsyn accomplished in his 89 years on this earth was something very particular, and it was not precisely what he wanted to accomplish. He wanted to be a great Russian novelist in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and he labored ceaselessly to achieve this aim, but it was not to be. His two greatest works, at least among the dozen or so I have read, were non-fiction. There was, of course, the towering accretion of thousands of tales of totalitarian torment called The Gulag Archipelago – a book that will be read forever. Less well known, but perhaps oddly more interesting, is his half-life autobiography, The Oak and the Calf, which is a book about temptation — the temptation to give in, to let the Soviet censor have his way here and there, to do what will make its author more comfortable even if doing so means bowdlerizing his own unmistakable vision of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist tyranny.

It is almost unimaginable that he resisted the temptation, when no one would ever have known that he had succumbed, and when the earthly reward would have been great. The man had, after all, been sent to the Gulag for writing a letter at the tail end of World War II complaining about Stalin. The letter was intercepted, he was declared an enemy of the state, and he was sent to Siberia and after serving nearly a decade, was sentenced to internal exile. He suddenly found a moment of freedom when the magazine Novy Mir was permitted to publish his chilling short novel about the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and then, as quickly as it was granted, it was snuffed out again.

The Oak and the Calf is in large measure the account of the relationship between Solzhenitsyn and his name editor, the poet Alexander Tvardovsky — a beautifully observed description of the man who would not give in and his effect on the man who would and did. Though he is usually thought of as some kind of angry Prophet raining down fire and brimstone on the unbelievers, Solzhenitsyn shows great compassion for the accommodationist Tvardovsky, who made the decisions he had to make; he was a perfectly fine man who tried to do some good when he could.

It was Solzhenitsyn who was the impossible pain in the ass, because he could not bring himself to make those accommodations; he knew his path was one only a very few could possibly follow, because it required that one’s soul be made of oak, and humans with that kind of solidity come along a few times a century.

Solzhenitsyn had a weakness for grand theory, especially about Russia and the Russian soul, and it was this that caused him time and again to dip his toe in some brackish waters. There will be more to say in coming days about his view of the Jews and their role in Russian history. In the hours immediately marking his passing, let us just say this about Alexander Solzhenitsyn: He stood athwart the greatest evil the world has ever known, and, by the grace of God, he outlived that evil, by 16 years.