In a culture where nearly everyone is oppressed these days, and they’re quick to shout it out on social media, television or in the news, I’ve been particularly inspired of late by reading writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s literary biography “The Oak and The Calf: Sketches Of Literary Life In The Soviet Union.” After that, I’ve re-calibrated what I consider oppression – especially for a creative artist.
Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist, philosopher, historian, short story writer and political prisoner who lived from 1918 to 2008. He was an outspoken critic of communism (at the height of it’s power) and through his fearless writing and eventual speaking helped raise global awareness of human rights abuses, the Gulag concentration camp system, and political repression in the Soviet Union.
He was originally arrested after writing critical comments in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich. Arrested and then exiled to a Soviet Gulag (a series of work camps) he experienced nearly every brutality you could imagine.
But he never stopped writing.
He would write on scraps of paper or anything else he could find. When he couldn’t find paper, he literally committed thousands of lines to memory, just waiting for the opportunity to get it down.
He eventually struggled with malignant cancer and was told it was terminal. During that battle he converted from atheism to Christianity and the cancer eventually went into remission. But through that experience he learned the purpose for his life.
Even after his release from the gulag, he was still forced to hide his writing in what he called “hidey holes” throughout his small house. And his secret life as a writer took it’s toll on his marriage. As he wrote, he would destroy all his notes, rough drafts, outlines, and older versions, to keep what he had to hide to a minimum. Fortunately, as he said: A soldier can squat on the ground and fall asleep immediately, a dog in freezing weather is as snug in his shaggy coat as I would be by a stove, and I was equipped by nature to write anywhere.
He was constantly under surveillance by the KGB, his mail screened, and his movements tracked. But in spite of all the obstacles, he never gave up, and after years of negotiations with publishers and soviet politicians, his work finally started reaching the public in Russia and eventually beyond. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
I could go on and on, but needless to say, whenever I’m discouraged in my work, I pick up one of his books again and his life inspires me to continue. They’re not easy reads, but what he went through to bring them to us was remarkable, and it will change your perspective on “oppression” forever.