The Oak and the Calf

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Front cover of the Harper Colophon English translation

The Oak and the Calf, subtitled Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union, is a memoir by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about his attempts to have his work published in his own country. The book was begun in April 1967 when Solzhenitsyn was 49 years old, but supplements were added by the author in 1971, 1973, and 1974. The book was first published in Russian in 1975[1] under the title Бодался теленок с дубом (lit. "A Calf was Head-butting an Oak tree", which has a distinctly humorous ring in Russian). It has been translated into English by Harry Willetts.[2]

A second, considerably expanded edition of the Russian text was produced in 1996, by the Moscow publishing house Soglasie. The additional material includes details of people who helped Solzhenitsyn in his literary tasks before his exile. The writer called these previously anonymous helpers Nevidimki (the invisible ones).[3] These chapters have been published in English translation in a separate book called Invisible Allies.[4]

In this autobiography, Solzhenitsyn gives a detailed account of the publication history of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and his often complex relationship with his patron Aleksandr Tvardovsky.[5] Solzhentisyn's failed attempts to publish his other early novels—Cancer Ward and The First Circle-his reactions to the political storm caused by his winning the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature and his subsequent exile from the Soviet Union, are described in detail.

Although one of Solzhentisyn's more accessible books, the critical reception was mixed. Much was known (outside the Soviet Union) about the author's struggles before the publication of this memoir,[6][7] and the accuracy of Solzhentisyn's account has been questioned.[8] However, this book remains an essential source on the life and times of the author.


Solzhentisyn was born in 1918 in Kislovodsk, after his father had died.[9] In 1921, his mother to Rostov-on-Don (Ростов-на-Дону, Rostov-na-Donu).[10] and Solzhentisyn joined her there in 1926. [11] He attended school and studied physics and mathematics at Rostov State University.[12] At the same time he studied literature and history by correspondence courses run by the Moscow University Institute of Philosophy. He began to write at this time and spent the first three months of 1937 intensively studying in the Rostov libraries, [13]

During the World War II, Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Army,[14] and was involved in major action at the front, and was twice decorated. In 1945, he was arrested for writing criticisms about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin in letters to a friend. He was sentenced to eight years in the Gulag. He was released in 1953 [15] and pardoned in 1957.

He moved to Ryazan, near Moscow, to work as a mathematics teacher.[16] He wrote his early novels and novellas during these years. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle were based on is time in the Gulag. Others, including Matryona's Place and Cancer Ward, were based on his experiences in exile in rural Russia and Tashkent, between 1953 and 1957.[17]

In 1961, he sent to Alexander Tvardovsky, a poet and the chief editor of the Novy Mir (Новый Мир - "New World") literary magazine, the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev the leader of the Soviet Union.[18] Following Khrushchev's fall from power, the political climate in the Soviet Union hardened and the semi-liberal reforms he introduced were reverted by Leonid Brezhnev.[19]

Three more novellas by Solzhenitsyn were published in 1963—but these would be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until 1990. The Oak and the Calf is Solzhenitsyn's memoir of the time from the publication of One Day to his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974.


  1. ^ Солженицын, Александр Исаевич, Бодался телёнок с дубом. Очерки литературной жизни, YMCA-PRESS, Paris, 1975
  2. ^ Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf—Sketches of literary life in the Soviet Union, Translated from Russian by Harry Willets, Harper Colophon Books, 1981, ISBN 0-06-090869-6
  3. ^ Klimoff A., (editor) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—A critical companion, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1997, p. 120, ISBN 0-8101-1214-0
  4. ^ Solzhenitsyn A., Invisible Allies, translated from Russian by Alexis Klimoff and Michael Nicholson, The Harvill Press, London, 1997, ISBN 1-86046-259-6
  5. ^ Willets' translation pp.48–49.
  6. ^ Labedz, L., (editor), Solzhentisyn: A Documentary record Penguin Books, 1970, ISBN 0-14-003395-5
  7. ^ Björkegren, H. Biography of Aleksandr SolzhenitsynAidan Ellis, England, 1972, ISBN 0-85628-005-4
  8. ^ Scammell, M., Solzhenitisyn: A Biography,Paladin Books, 1986, pp. 926–930, ISBN 0-586-08538-6
  9. ^ Sammell p.25
  10. ^ Scammell p.47
  11. ^ Scammell p. 62
  12. ^ Scammell p 85
  13. ^ Scammell p. 84
  14. ^ Scammell, p. 119.
  15. ^ Scammell p.312–313 His sentence officially ended on 9 February 1953
  16. ^ Scammell p. 372
  17. ^ Scammell Chapter 21
  18. ^ Scammell Chapter 23
  19. ^ Scammell p. 636 and 639