In his struggle with the Soviets, he had the last laugh

Imagine a weak little calf butting his head against a huge, immovable oak tree, naïvely thinking he could knock it down. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn's memoirs titled "The Oak and the Calf," the Soviet regime was the oak, Solzhenitsyn was the calf, and the book describes their battle to the death. The Soviet Union came crashing down in 1991, with the Red flag lowered from the Kremlin's ramparts for the last time on Dec. 25 of that year. The surviving combatant, subject to the fate of all flesh, finally succumbed, too -- on Aug. 3, 2008. After a day at his desk doing what he did every day for years and years, he felt sick as evening fell, gave final instructions to his wife and a son about the disposition of his writings, and slipped away before midnight. Thus ended one of the most sensational and consequential lives of the era.

One of the exaggerations that many cultural sophisticates hold about Solzhenitsyn is that he was a dour Jeremiah figure hurling thunderous judgments at a wayward world. He did some of that; his courage earned him the right. "No one can bar the road to truth," he declaimed in 1967, as his combat with brute force raged, "and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death." Dedication to a mission in life moved him beyond the potentially hedonistic platitude that "you have only one life" to the counter-principle that "you have only one conscience, too," as Innokenty Volodin puts it in "The First Circle." But see in "Invisible Allies" his boyish fun in the high-stakes game of outfoxing the plodding secret police as he and his helpers keep the manuscripts of "The Gulag Archipelago" away from the Unsleeping Eye. And don't miss the wry irony of Solzhenitsyn as silly calf. The self-deprecation masks a little joke: The calf will win.

Solzhenitsyn has described himself as "an unshakable optimist." On a dark day when one of his helpers had been arrested and interrogated and ended up dead (who knows how?), he could "raise a defiant battle cry: Victory is ours! With God's aid we shall yet prevail!" Virtually every one of Solzhenitsyn's works, of whatever type or length, ends on the note of hope. This is not an accident or affectation; it is a revelation of character and statement of faith. In seeing him as he isn't, we err.

What could his mortal foe do about Solzhenitsyn's great weapon, "The Gulag Archipelago," first published in the 1970s? Solzhenitsyn was "sure" that "Gulag" "was destined to affect the course of history," and early reviews reinforced his optimism. A German newspaper editorialized, "The time may come when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system from the appearance of Gulag." Diplomat George Kennan said that this "greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime" would stick in "the craw of the Soviet propaganda machine . . . with increasing discomfort, until it has done its work."


(With dates of U.S. publication)

• One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev miscalculated when he approved the appearance of this novella in the literary journal Novy Mir. He saw this story, set in the prison camp at Ekibastuz, where Solzhenitsyn was held for a while, as useful in his de-Stalinization campaign. In fact, the work was not only anti-Stalinist but anti-Soviet.

• The First Circle (1968) is a novel grounded in autobiography and set in December 1949 in a prison research institute on the outskirts of Moscow. It was there that Solzhenitsyn came to reject Marxism-Leninism. His intellectual odyssey is traced through his fictional alter ego, Gleb Nerzhin.

• Cancer Ward (1968) is based on Solzhenitsyn's own bout with cancer, diagnosed as terminal when he was 34. The novel is set in a clinic in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he went for treatment, but its focus is more moral than medical.

• The Gulag Archipelago (1973, 1975, 1978). This seven-part nonfiction work, published in three volumes, traces the history of the Soviet concentration-camp system from its 1918 beginnings to 1956, when Solzhenitsyn was released from its grip. He makes his case against the system that produced this massive instrument of arbitrary punishment as only an artist could. Arguably, no literary work of this era -- perhaps any era -- has had such a profound impact on the world history of its own time.

• The Oak and the Calf (1979). These memoirs are the author's account of his struggles with the Soviet regime through the 1960s and into the 1970s -- the period when people around the world kept abreast of his courageous defiance of the repressive state. The narrative has all the tension and verve of a good novel, and numerous critics say it rivals his novels in its literary attainment. One part was withheld until after the Soviet Union collapsed, because it included the names of many of the helpers who handled his literary texts; it appeared in English as a separate book, Invisible Allies (1995).

• The Red Wheel. Solzhenitsyn considered this 5,000-page work, intermingling fiction and history, to be his magnum opus, believing that the story of Russia in the 20th century holds paradigmatic lessons for the world. Only two of its four installments have appeared in English: August 1914 (1989) describes the manifold weaknesses of the czarist regime, which left it unprepared for World War I. November 1916 (1999) tells of a time when carefully considered action needed to be taken on behalf of the nation but was not.

--Edward E. Ericson Jr.

Solzhenitsyn, for his part, instructed us early in the book that if all we expected from it was a political exposé, we should "slam its covers shut right now." It is more than a history of Lenin's concentration-camp system; it is a literary investigation, the work of an artist. An "ordinary brave man" could decide "not to participate in lies, not to support false actions." But "it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie! For in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph!" Solzhenitsyn was not the first witness to speak truthfully about the gulag. But because he was an artist, he was the first one able to make us all hear it and believe it. There is no answering "the many-throated groan, the dying whisper of millions" that he transmitted.

The Soviet establishment proved supremely vulnerable when no one, not even the leaders, any longer believed in the ideological myth. The New Soviet Man never got created. The classless society never materialized. Government was certainly not withering away. Democratic centralism was all centralism. The dictatorship of the proletariat was all dictatorship. What the Soviet system produced, after three generations of trying, was a self-perpetuating, sclerotic regime hanging onto power for power's and comfort's sake. No one will die for that. Solzhenitsyn, more than anyone else, delegitimized the Soviet experiment at home and discredited it abroad. It helped to have people pushing against the tottering tower from the outside, but external pressures are of less consequence than demolition charges ignited from the inside.

What could the guardians of "the lie" do with this truth-telling renegade? They could kick him out of their paradise. It is a real loss for a literary artist not to be surrounded by his native language. Yet, in the end, exile was a paltry, pathetic punishment for the enormity of his offense. The Soviet leaders did guess correctly that this sometimes-prickly fellow would become a burr under someone else's saddle. The West of course welcomed him like a conquering hero. But soon enough he alienated some; he had his cultured despisers. The impatient man's tone too readily turned stentorian, peremptory; he was inattentive to the social niceties that lubricate good relationships. Still, he was much more sinned against than sinning.

The squalls of yore are fading. Time will tell if this week's evenhanded obituaries signal merely momentary respect for the newly dead or augur better days ahead for Solzhenitsyn's reputation.

In his struggle with the Soviets, Solzhenitsyn had the last laugh. He had predicted through all his 20 years in exile that he would return to Russia in the flesh. He set three requirements for his return: that his citizenship be restored, that the charge of treason be dropped, and that all his works be published at home. In other words, the Soviet Union would have to collapse first. All of this happened just as he predicted, and he moved back to Russia in 1994. Such prescience is rare.

When Solzhenitsyn landed in the West back in 1974, Harrison Salisbury mused: "Against a powerful state stands a single man. . . . The odds against Solzhenitsyn seem tremendous. Yet I know of no Russian writer who would not trade his soul for Solzhenitsyn's mantle, who does not know that one hundred years from now all the world . . . will bow to his name when most others have been forgotten." Two-thirds of a century remain before the running time for this prediction is up. Meanwhile, one should not bet against Solzhenitsyn, the man who had been so right so often about so much.

Oh, that winning side he was on? It was not the West over the East but humanity over anti-humanity.

Mr. Ericson is professor emeritus of English at Calvin College. Among his works on Solzhenitsyn are the abridgment of "The Gulag Archipelago" (1985, 2007); "The Solzhenitsyn Reader," co-edited with Daniel J. Mahoney (2006); and "The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn," with co-author Alexis Klimoff (just now reaching bookstores).

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