Consider Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s account of his experience in The Oak and the Calf, published in 1975, a year after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. When you open it, you expect to encounter the voice of a prophet, crying in the wilderness; and you won’t be disappointed, for Solzhenitsyn casts himself as a Jeremiah. Yet he recounts much of his story in a surprising register: shrewd, precise, ironic, and sociologically rich observations of how literature functioned as a power system in a Stalinist society. We meet him first in the gulag. During eight years of labor in the prison camps, he writes about the misery around him, and he continues writing after his release while living miserably as a teacher. He writes in isolation and with total freedom, because he knows he cannot publish anything. His words will not be read until long after his death. But he must keep them secret. He memorizes them, writes them in a minute hand on thin strips of paper, and rolls the paper into cylinders, which he squeezes into a bottle and buries in the ground. As manuscript follows manuscript, he continues to hide them in the safest, most unlikely places. Then, to his amazement, Khrushchev denounces the excesses of Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, and Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, the most important review in the USSR, proclaims a readiness to publish bolder texts. Solzhenitsyn decides to take a risk. He rewrites, in milder form, the work that will eventually break through the wall of silence about the atrocities of the gulag under the title “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”; and he submits it to Novy Mir.
At this point, Solzhenitsyn’s narrative turns into a kind of sociology. He describes all the editors at the review, their rivalries, self-protective maneuvers, and struggles to stifle the bomb that he has planted in their midst. Aleksandr Dementyev, the intelligent, duplicitous agent of the Central Committee of the Party, sets traps and erects barriers during editorial conferences, but Tvardovsky is torn. As a genuine poet with roots in the peasantry, “his first loyalty was to Russian literature, with its devout belief in the moral duty of the writer.” Yet he also felt compelled by “the Party’s truth.” In the end, he prevails over his own doubts and the doubters on the staff, and he goes over the manuscript line by line with Solzhenitsyn, negotiating changes. Solzhenitsyn is willing to make them, up to a point, because he understands that the text must be modified enough to pass through the obstacle course that constitutes literary reality.
The course itself is described—leaked copies, huddled conversations in corridors of power, a reading before Khrushchev in his dacha, and approval by the Presidium (Politburo). The official censors, kept in the dark, are horrified when they see the proofs. But they praise the book when it goes to press, having been informed at the last minute that it received the approval of the Central Committee. The work creates a sensation, and it could have been followed by the other books that Solzhenitsyn has prepared; but he holds them back, unwilling to make the necessary modifications—a strategic mistake, he sees in retrospect, because the window of opportunity will close when Brezhnev succeeds Khrushchev in 1964 and a new wave of Stalinization shuts down genuine literature, driving Solzhenitsyn, now notorious, into exile. For all its vivid detail, backed up by a great deal of documentation, the story does not come across as a journalistic exposé. Nor does it invoke a Western view of freedom of speech. In a specifically Russian idiom, it proclaims a prophetic view of literature as a vehicle of truth. ...
When exiles from the Soviet system invoked “freedom” and “truth,” they were not appealing to the protection of the First Amendment or speaking as philosophers. They were using words to describe their experience of censorship as a force operating in specific circumstances, a force that determined the nature of literature in an oppressive political system. “Freedom of speech” served as a standard against which to measure the oppression. It did not apply to constraints of all kinds, although many kinds had weighed on the lives of the writers. Freedom for them was a principle made meaningful by the experience of its violation. Experiences varied, of course, and the variations make it hopeless to search for a general proposition that would encompass all of them, including some that have been studied up close, such as censorship under apartheid in South Africa. They also understood that literature in what Westerners called the “free world” suffered from constraints. Does their experience argue for a relativistic notion of freedom?